International Relations/Political Science
11 September 2020

A feminist lens on land grabbing in Cambodia

A recent PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science studies the contemporary politics of land grabbing in Cambodia with a tripartite focus on gender, resistance and state formation. Drawing on fieldwork that she conducted between 2015 and 2019, Saba Joshi examines contestation against large-scale land acquisitions, gendered experiences of dispossession and resistance, and how the politics of land grabbing are refracted through processes of political transition to authoritarianism in Cambodia.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

When I joined the Institute as a doctoral student in 2014, I planned to write a doctoral thesis related to gender and rural political economy in the Global South. I knew at this stage that I would work under the supervision of Professor Elisabeth Prügl – who I also worked with for preparing my Master’s thesis in 2012 – but had not decided the geographical and substantive focus of my research. During my first year as a PhD student, I got the unique opportunity to work as a Research Assistant in a multidisciplinary academic project called DEMETER (“Droits et égalité pour une meilleure économie de la Terre”), led by Professor Prügl and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and Swiss Development Corporation under the r4d programme. The project combined a number of my research interests in gender, agriculture and political economy, while also introducing me to a new geographical and political context, Cambodia. Through my involvement in the project and following a one-month exploratory field trip to the country in 2015, I decided to draft my thesis proposal (i.e. my MPT – mémoire préliminaire de thèse) on the politics of land grabbing in Cambodia with a focus on the gendered politics of resistance against large-scale land acquisitions. 

Can you describe your thesis questions?

My thesis is comprised of four sole-authored papers each asking a distinct research question. What binds these papers is a shared focus on one or more themes at the centre of my analysis: gender, resistance and state formation. Overall, my doctoral research is interested in how land grabbing – i.e. the processes through which the Cambodian state dispossesses peasants, indigenous people and urban poor of their farmlands, communally accessed lands and homes – gives rise to distinct gendered experiences, socio-political identities, and modes of resistance against the state. I also seek to understand how Cambodia’s transition from a democratic to authoritarian form of rule has impacted both processes of dispossession and conflicts over land and natural resources in the country.

What methodology did you use to approach those questions?

I relied primarily on qualitative methods for data generation and analysis. I conducted field research over 16 months in five provinces where I spoke to dispossessed rural households, activists, local government officials, and non-governmental organisations and civil society actors. I analysed my interviews using various techniques of qualitative coding on Nvivo, an analytical software.

What are your major findings?

My doctoral research speaks to debates on resource politics in the Global South and shows how unequal gender relations – in conjunction with indigeneity and class identities – interact with processes of dispossession and resistance against large-scale land acquisitions in Cambodia. The explicit feminist lens adopted in my thesis expands the scope of mainstream scholarly discussions on land grabbing where gender has not been a major focus. For example, while scholars have asserted the importance of labour and class relations in agrarian transformation following land grabbing, in my paper “Working Wives” (which is also published in Globalizations) I argue for broadening such a focus to include feminist perspectives that highlight the unpaid care labour performed by women in households. I show how crucial this is for understanding women’s role as producers in the context of changing access to land and demonstrate the tensions between care responsibilities and “productive activities” as households become increasingly dependent on wage labour, following the loss of their farmlands to land acquisitions.

A second set of my findings contributes to our understanding of processes of political transition to authoritarian forms of rule in Cambodia. Here, I build arguments for why women are often at the centre of struggles over land in the country and how this is linked to the changing nature of the Cambodian state. I demonstrate that gendered constructions of femininity and masculinity crucially influence contemporary forms of public protest against land grabbing, and such resistance is also a site for renegotiating gender norms. Drawing on extensive interviews with women land activists, I also find that the notions of justice that underlie protests over land intersect with the gendered political economy that embeds everyday rural life in the country.

Finally, my thesis finds that dispute resolution over land grabbing in Cambodia exposes the overlapping and competing power relations between various forms of regulatory authority and actors operating at multiple scales. In the paper “Contesting Land Grabs” (also published in Third World Quarterly), I find that international dispute resolution mechanisms, which dispossessed communities in Cambodia often seek in order to bypass the flawed national judicial system, fail to overcome the problems of asymmetrical power and opacity in justice-seeking processes. I demonstrate that institutions like International Finance Corporation, which fund companies causing vast social and environmental harms to Cambodia’s indigenous peoples, remain unaccountable to land grab victims, much like the country’s authoritarian state. This lack of accountability from the state, transnational companies and international financial actors yields a landscape ripe for private exploitation and exacerbates the problems of disregard in global governance.

Are your findings relevant to other countries beside Cambodia?

Land grabbing or the dispossession of previous land users from their agricultural lands, communally accessed forests or grazing lands is a very contemporary issue in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. While today’s land grabs may be reminiscent of colonial-era “scrambles for land”, they also express distinct political and economic pressures arising from global capitalism in the 21st century. Since the global food crises in 2007–2008, researchers have noted the alarming spike in the acquisition of land for export-oriented production of food and biofuels, natural resource extraction and industrial expansion in the Global South. A decade since they made headlines, we are still trying to fully map the scale of such land acquisitions and understand their impacts on the lives of agricultural producers, indigenous peoples, pastoralists, etc., that have been, in many cases, dispossessed of their livelihoods and homes. Apart from specifically highlighting women’s experiences of dispossession and land conflict, my thesis tries to situate land grabbing in a macropolitical perspective. That is, it seeks to understand how processes of state-sanctioned dispossession are connected to changes in political systems and practices of re-territorialisation that accompany them. In this way, I try to understand how the rise of authoritarianism in some parts of the developing world may better explain the political conditions that make land grabbing possible.

What are you doing now?

I am currently a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development. I am working on a project that compares women’s mobilisations against large-scale land acquisitions across different special economic zones in India and looks at how differences in the subnational governance of land acquisitions impact women’s activism against land acquisitions. This project is funded by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation’s Early Postdoc.Mobility scheme.

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Saba Joshi defended her PhD thesis in International relations/Political Science in May 2020. Professor Ravinder Bhavnani presided the committee, which included Professor Elisabeth Prügl, thesis director, and Professor Katherine Brickell, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Joshi, Saba. “The Politics of Land Grabbing in Contemporary Cambodia: Four Essays on Gender, Resistance and State Formation.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: Cassava fields with a prayer symbol, Ratanakiri, Cambodia, 2015. Excerpt from a picture by Saba Joshi.