"Displacement as a process"

tania murray li

Maybe displacement is really in the air, or it could be a coincidence that I just published an article with the word "displacement" in the title (Li 2017). I welcome this opportunity to put my work on displacement in rural Indonesia into conversation with these five books on cities, north and south. In my article I used the term displacement to draw attention to the long term, incremental processes that reduce rural peoples' access to land, work, and territorial control, in contrast to terms like land grab or eviction, which suggest a one-off event. My focus was on Indonesia's colonial and contemporary land frontiers where massive corporate plantations have been installed. In these areas, which historically had abundant forests and sparse population, indigenous landholders often see land as abundant. When plantation companies seek to acquire land, some landholders reject them, but some agree to sign over some of their land as they believe - and certainly they are told - that plantations will bring much needed infrastructure (especially roads), and well-paid jobs. Typically, the plantations do not evict landholders;  they leave their settlements and some farm land intact, in what is called an "enclave." Land in the enclave may be sufficient for one generation, but seldom for the next, so young families cannot establish independent farms.

Meanwhile, a plantation company that is a pioneer on a forest frontier is usually followed by more plantations, which take advantage of improved infrastructure to launch their own operations.  A generation later, all the land within 100km may be saturated by plantations, and the displacement of indigenous landholders is complete: they have little or no land to farm; they no longer have control over their territory. Hern calls this cultural genocide. To put it in Lees' terms,  they may still technically be "in place" but it is, ontologically speaking, no longer their place: it is under the rule of corporations and their allies in the state apparatus. Further, they tend to lack access to plantation jobs, a displacement which also happens slowly. Initially, plantations need workers, and a few locals are hired in roles like security guard; but locals are often unwilling to do low-level manual plantation work as they still have abundant land. Over time, as indigenous landholders living in tiny enclaves tucked within and around plantations become land-short and eventually landless, they constitute an ideal - that is highly exploitable - in situ labour reserve. By this time they really need plantation work, even the manual "coolie" work they previously spurned, but plantations are under no obligation to hire them: they can hire migrants, who are more easily disciplined, and/or hire locals on a casual basis for very low pay.  

There are intriguing resonances between this agrarian story, and the urban stories that are the focus of the books under consideration here. First, land on a forest frontier -like urban land - can be radically re-valued when new land uses are planned, and/or when new market opportunities beckon. Yet actual on-the-ground changes may happen slowly, incrementally, or be postponed or contested, adding uncertainty and threat to the mix (Hern, Weinstein). Second, as with a city (Ghertner), development in the public interest (Bhan), combined with a "high modern" aesthetic (Scott 1998)  is key to the legitimation of plantations: planners rejoice in lining up crops, worker houses, and workers in neat rows. The actual life of a plantation zone - like the actual life of a city - is far more complex than the planner's diagrams, calculations, and rule-books suggest. As in a city, terms like legal/illegal, or formal/informal, fail to capture the doubled kind of order a plantation installs - a surface order, and a shadow order that depends upon plantation infrastructure and the official rules to generate routine, but differentiated and often predatory opportunities to tap into plantation wealth. [1] A plantation's dis/order is durable (Weinstein), because almost everyone living in a plantation zone has an interest in sustaining it, and because - like a city - an established plantation will not go away. The experimentation, in this case, is all about finding creative ways to adapt to, and profit from, the overwhelming social, political, and material presence of the plantation.

In further pondering displacement, I was drawn to its liquid meaning. Water displaced from one place must go somewhere - it does not simply disappear. How far should we attempt to follow its ripples and flows?  Following through on displaced people as they creatively reconfigure their lives over time, in transformed but never inert space, is a terrain of inquiry that displacement-as-process opens up. 

[1] These are issues I discussed in my Geoforum lecture at the AAG 2017, "Infrastructural Violence and the 'Mafia System:' Inside Indonesia's Plantation Zone."


  1. Li, Tania Murray. 2017. Intergenerational displacement in Indonesia’s oil palm plantation zone. Journal of Peasant Studies 10.1080/03066150.2017.1308353.
  2. Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


Tania Murray Li is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, where she holds the Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy and Culture of Asia. She is also the director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies Her books include The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics (Duke University Press, 2007) and Transforming the Indonesian Uplands: Marginality, Power and Production (Routledge 1999). She has published widely on agrarian transitions, class formation, development, land struggles, community, and indigeneity in Asia, with a focus on Indonesia.

Tania Li’s early research in Southeast Asia concerned urban cultural politics in Singapore. Since then she has focused on culture, economy, environment, and development in Indonesia’s upland regions. She has written about the rise of Indonesia’s indigenous peoples’ movement, land reform, rural class formation, struggles over the forests and conservation, community resource management, and state-organized resettlement. Her book The Will to Improve explores a century of interventions by colonial and contemporary officials, missionaries, development experts and activists. Powers of Exclusion examines agrarian transition to see what happens to farmers’ access toland in the context of competing land uses (e.g. conservation, urban sprawl, plantation agriculture). Land’s End tracks the emergence of capitalist relations among indigenous highlanders when they enclosed their common land. Her current writing project is an ethnography provisionally titled Living with Oil Palm. It explores the forms of social, political, cultural and economic life that emerge among people in the orbit of this massively expanding plantation crop. Future work will focus on the problems faced by people who are pushed off the land in contexts where they have little or no access to waged employment.