Lim on Hirsch and Woods and Scurrah and Dwyer, 'Turning Land into Capital: Development and Dispossession in the Mekong Region'

Philip Hirsch, Kevin Woods, Natalia Scurrah, Michael B. Dwyer, eds.
Al Lim

Philip Hirsch, Kevin Woods, Natalia Scurrah, Michael B. Dwyer, eds. Turning Land into Capital: Development and Dispossession in the Mekong Region. Culture, Place, and Nature Series. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022. Maps, charts, tables. 264 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-75045-3; $32.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-75046-0

Reviewed by Al Lim (Yale University) Published on H-Environment (March, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

At first glance at this volume’s title, the phrase “turning land into capital” seems to refer to a Lao policy (han thi din pen theun) that the socialist state has tried to promote since 2006. It seems self-explanatory; the policy precisely tries to turn land into a form of capital for national development. This volume takes up this phrase and re-presents it as a powerful synthetic lens. By interweaving analyses of land grabs from global scholarship with contextual specificities, Turning Land into Capital insists that a regional approach is necessary to unpack contemporary agrarian development and dispossession in the Mekong region.

Turning Land into Capital draws from case studies in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam to produce insightful cross-country perspectives. At this volume’s core is the idea of land capitalization, which refers to processes of land valuation where actors gain control over land for the express purpose of wealth production. This happens through the material and discursive practices involved in three interconnected dimensions of improving land, commodifying it, and making it available to financial markets. This empirically detailed book unpacks these land-based dynamics with a normative commitment, providing a framework to consider forms of justice and injustice that are produced/reproduced in these struggles over land.

The book’s first half thoroughly investigates a sequence of four themes: geopolitics, histories of war and socialism, modernization ideology, and land justice. Chapter 1 highlights land’s geopolitical dimensions in the late twentieth century through four related dimensions that affected large parts of the Mekong region: Vietnam’s Indochinese investments, Thailand’s “Battlefields to Marketplace” strategy, the role of international development finance institutions, and the expansion of Chinese capital. Chapter 2 depicts how these complex arrays of actors operate under a set of institutional legacies in the aftermath of colonialism, war, and socialism. Across the region, there are repeated instances of discrimination against upland minorities, occurring through differential arrangements of land concessions and titling. Following this, chapter 3 critically explores how modernization ideology informs a series of myths about the necessity of large-scale agricultural development. In contrast with earlier political ideologies in the 1950-60s that promoted “land to the tiller,” a counter land reform is underway where land is now being taken from the tiller for these agrarian developments. Chapter 4 then presents a framework to unpack land justice through the allocation of resources (distributional), decision-making processes (procedural), and relevant forms of social and cultural recognition amid asymmetrical power relations (recognitional).

The book’s second half follows a series of country-based studies in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Each chapter is a deep dive into the distinct national histories and contexts of land capitalization, unpacking the different types of state regimes in action and constellations of actors, such as agribusinesses, smallholder farmers, and multilateral organizations. Moreover, these actors are simultaneously embedded in enduring legacies of colonialism, Cold War politics, and neoliberal forces. One cannot fully grasp land governance in Myanmar without attention to the institutional legacies of British colonization and socialist authoritarianism, as they have immense implications for racialized differences that frame many ongoing land struggles in the country (chapter 7).

The strength of the book’s regional analysis shines through in these sections because it allows for an exploration of land governance through and beyond national borders. For example, the regional angle provides a more expansive approach to researching Thailand by tracing the paradoxical tension between having many smallholder farms in the country and Thai companies investing heavily in large-scale agricultural investments in neighboring countries (chapters 4 and 8). The regional conceptual frame provides an entry point to these other dimensions of sociospatial relations of territory, place, and networks.[1] Specifically, the constitutive roles of national territorial boundaries, strategies of place-based differentiation between upland and lowland communities, and transborder networks of capital and labor flows intersect with this volume’s expansive regional point of view. In the spirit of Thongchai Winichakul’s seminal Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (1994), alternative conceptualizations of flows and spatialities are offered through these studies of land governance, spilling beyond and reconfiguring dominant epistemologies of national borders.

As K. Sivaramakrishnan rightly points out in the foreword, this book is an important palliative to the recent ontological turn in environmental anthropology. It throws into sharp relief issues of power, inequality, and the commodification of nature that go beyond the intimacies of human-nature entanglement. Crafting a more-than-human perspective grounded in the dynamics of land capitalization and justice allows for a more robust approach to scholarship in this academic subfield and region. Moreover, the dominance of authoritarian regimes in the Mekong region makes this task even more pressing with real-time, material consequences. One can imagine building on these studies of land justice with interrelated questions of water, air, energy, or infrastructural justice, especially given the existential importance of addressing issues of climate change.

Furthermore, the volume is an outcome of collaborative scholarship engaged deeply in local and regional work. During a book launch at Chulalongkorn University in November 2022, one of the book’s editors, Philip Hirsch, mentioned that he would rather see this as a coauthored volume rather than a book of individual essays. The ten contributors, four of whom are editors, came together to discuss these topics at a 2015 conference, “Land Grabbing, Conflict and Agrarian-Environmental Transformations.” Many have also organized and participated in the Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG) project. The MRLG hosts an online forum featuring academic research on land issues with annotated write-ups and synthetic summaries, which are put together with a keen sense of possible policy reforms. They also train many scholars and practitioners in the region through the Regional Centre for Social Sciences and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University. These collaborative efforts are part of a continuous effort to spread critical social scientific skills and training to analyze these pressing issues. The book’s elegant conceptualization of regional land capitalization highlights this to good effect.

This collection is key reading for those interested in cross-scalar analyses of agrarian land dynamics and sustainable development. It is an excellent contribution toward research on land governance, Southeast Asian studies, and global agrarian studies. These elegant conceptual tools and rich empirical materials make this book a cornerstone for the next generation of regional scholars, forging paths to think with shifting patterns of household labor, with comparisons across urban-rural and national divides, and toward more just futures.


[1]. Bob Jessop, Neil Brenner, and Martin Jones, “Theorizing Sociospatial Relations,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26, no. 3 (2008): 389–401.

Citation: Al Lim. Review of Hirsch, Philip; Woods, Kevin; Scurrah, Natalia; Dwyer, Michael B., eds., Turning Land into Capital: Development and Dispossession in the Mekong Region. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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