This post is part of New Mandala’s series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies. These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field. The eleventh in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with Professor Janet Sturgeon from the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Sturgeon, thank you for agreeing to take part in the New Mandala interview series. It is a pleasure to have you involved. For a bit of background: your online profile at Simon Fraser University notes that your interest in upland farmers was first ignited by 5 years living in Nepal. It might be helpful if you told us what you were doing there?

Professor Janet Sturgeon: I lived in Kathmandu from 1978 to 1983 and learned to speak Nepali in the first few months. I was affiliated with the American English Language Institute (ELI), where our students were university-age Nepalis. From 1982 to 1983 I was the director of ELI, one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had. During school breaks I made long treks to various parts of Nepal, where I often stayed with upland farmers and learned about their mountain lives.

Nicholas Farrelly: How would you compare the conditions of upland farming (and life) in Nepal with those that you have researched in Southeast Asia? Is there any comparison?

Professor Sturgeon: I wasn’t doing research at that time, but in general upland farmers were regarded as poor and backward. Only a few people then, such as Piers Blaikie and John Cool, did careful research on farmers’ knowledge and practices, showing that farmers devised sophisticated responses to frequent land slides and deforestation. What strikes me now is that the Nepal government in those days didn’t feature ethnic groups in the hills as major tourist attractions. Nepal might have changed since my day, but in the early 1980s minority villages were not turned into human zoos. By contrast, Thailand has long heavily advertised its “hill tribes” as exotic others to bring in tourists. At the same time, hill peoples have been considered “not Thai,” and until recently not included as citizens of Thailand. In China, minority nationality peoples, in the socialist rubric, have been citizens since the 1950s, but they have also been used as targets for “ethnic tourism” in projects where they have to wear their “traditional dress” and live in “traditional houses.”

Nicholas Farrelly: Furthermore, since you last lived in Nepal the country has been beset by a number of crises, and has suffered the brunt of a significant Maoist rebellion. Are there any elements of this recent history that could provide lessons for the governments of the countries you now study in depth – Thailand and China?

Professor Sturgeon: A colleague who studies Nepal informed me that a survey of Maoist rebels showed that a large proportion were from lower caste and untouchable groups. This finding suggests that historically-oppressed groups may eventually organize and fight back. The governments of Thailand and China might learn (though I doubt it) that categorizations of certain peoples as backward and inferior can lead to backlashes, particularly in a world with proliferating means of rapid communication and NGOs supporting disadvantaged groups. I doubt that the Thai and Chinese governments will question these categorizations because rankings and stereotypes of various groups have become entirely naturalized in both Thailand and China.

Nicholas Farrelly: As a Professor in the Geography Department at Simon Fraser University you teach courses on Social Geography, Human Ecology, and Society and Environment in China. The scope of each of these courses sounds huge! I imagine that many New Mandala readers will be interested to hear how you balance your specific research in the borderlands of Southeast Asia with these more general courses. Would you like to teach a more focused class on the borderlands? Is there demand for such a course at SFU?

Professor Sturgeon: That’s a good question. When I first taught Social Geography at SFU, it was a real challenge. I had never taken such a course: social geography is not taught in the United States. The course focuses on how society and space shape each other at different scales. Now the course has turned into one of my favourites. I also now use what I’ve learned from that course in my own research. Human Ecology, as I teach it, looks at various theories about the relations between society and environment. I point out to students how they can see these theories at work in news articles, government projects, and even feature films. I teach political ecology in this course and recently added one of my articles to the reading list. Society and Environment in China is my specialty course for seniors. I run it like a seminar and make the students do most of the work! One problem I face now is that the literature on China’s environment suggests impending doom. It’s hard to get my students to challenge that perspective and to appreciate that China is also a dynamic and engaging place to visit and do research. I think I will need to focus more on the “Society” part of the course title in the future.

I would love to teach a course on the borderlands, possibly at the graduate level. I keep assembling readings for such a course. Maybe you are giving me the push I need to offer it at SFU. If advertised to anthropology and development studies students as well as geographers, I think I could draw many students.

Nicholas Farrelly: Let’s now turn to your more specific research interests in Southeast Asia. Many of our readers will already know that you have undertaken extensive research in both southwestern China (Yunnan) and northern Thailand (Chiang Rai province). Can you, perhaps, say something about your experiences of field work in the two areas? Is one easier than the other? What were the major challenges that you faced?

Professor Sturgeon: I’ve always wanted someone to ask that question! There are two aspects that I’d like to cover. The first has to do with the culture of doing research in China and Thailand. The second relates to villagers’ experience with foreign researchers.

In China I was based at the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), which has institutional links to numerous research institutes and universities as well as to the Tropical Botanic Garden in Xishuangbanna (Sipsongpanna), where I did my field research. In China, once you are hosted by one institution, you have access to all that institution’s connections (guanxi in Chinese). My host at KIB went with me to Akha villages when I was looking for a suitable research site. When I went off on my own, he called people to arrange transportation and to set up interviews in government offices. In Xishuangbanna, people at the Tropical Botanic Garden offered advice, relevant articles, and sometimes free transportation, just because they were linked to KIB.

In Thailand, I was based at the Social Research Institute at Chiang Mai University (CMU). My host there made suggestions about people I might call or visit, and sometimes provided phone numbers. When I went to the field, though, I was on my own. People either helped me or not based on my own presentation of what I needed. I found that very difficult, since sometimes I had no idea why people didn’t show up as promised, or failed to respond to what seemed like a simple request. Once I had decided on a research village, my host at CMU sent a letter to the village head, asking him to facilitate my research and keep me from harm. On balance, I think the village head in Thailand probably did keep me from harm!

The research villages in China and Thailand had quite different histories with foreign researchers. In China, the Akha village had never had a foreign researcher live there before. Foreign scholars had visited but not previously been allowed to stay because of its sensitive location right on the Burma border. Villagers there responded to all my questions as if they had been waiting for someone to ask. They were thrilled that I was interested in their history and transformations in land use over time. When I was almost finished with my research, a group of older men came to say that they now understood things about their village that they had never thought about before. As I was leaving, to thank villagers for all their time spent with me, I contributed several hundred dollars to a bridge that they were building themselves.

In Thailand, by contrast, my research village had been the site of several previous anthropological and ethno-botanical studies. Villagers told me that at first these scholars had been interesting, but informants later realized the researchers contributed nothing back to the village. As a result, villagers in Thailand were wary of me at first. Once they got used to me, people opened up to my questions and in fact got interested in the project. It just took much longer than in China, but I think I got just as much information. At the end, I contributed several hundred dollars to a village fund that anyone could apply to in times of need. I would have done this anyway, but I wanted to ensure that they would be receptive to future field researchers, including myself!

Nicholas Farrelly: In your experience, what kind of language skills do you need to do good social research among the Akha?

Professor Sturgeon: As it turned out, I did all my field research in Mandarin Chinese. In both villages I had someone teaching me Akha, but the language was too difficult for me to master in a short time. I could not have interviewed villagers in Akha, although I acknowledge that it would have been better to do so. In China, I had a research assistant from KIB, an Akha who spoke fluent standard Mandarin. He was also doing his master’s research in the same village under my supervision. That arrangement worked well because we were interested in the same issues. In Thailand, I thought I could find an Akha who spoke English, but any Akha fluent in English was busy heading an NGO or development project. I finally found an ethnic Chinese man from an adjacent village who spoke fluent Akha. I was a little worried that his relationship with Akha villagers might influence their responses, since they all knew him. I decided that his knowledge of local conditions made up for any bias from previous interactions. One advantage of using Chinese for all my interviews was that I could make sure I asked questions in the same way in both places. I don’t know if they were translated in the same way, but it seemed to me at the time that using the same language helped with the comparison.

Nicholas Farrelly: Your major work on the Akha living along the China-Burma and Thai-Burma borders was published in 2005 as Border Landscapes: The Politics of Akha Land Use in China and Thailand. Concerning your Thai case-study area, you write that upon arriving at the village, “The village heads also carefully point out to me that no one here uses heroin, implying that this would be a safe place for me to live. I am intrigued with this locale an hour’s walk from the Burma border, with Taiwan-funded tea plantations, large forests, and numerous villagers who speak Chinese. There are obvious signs of wealth-people with trucks, large houses, and cell phones-as well as farmers with tiny, fragile houses and shredded clothing”. This was your first impression. Over the course of the book you provide detailed clarification of this fascinating social, economic and ecological milieu. In hindsight, do you think that your two field sites (the pseudonymous settlements of “Akhapu” in Thailand and “Mengsong” in China) worked well? Are there other villages that you hope to study in the future?

Professor Sturgeon: In hindsight, I think the two field sites worked better than I could have planned. I was able to bring my research assistant from China with me to Akhapu in Thailand for a brief visit. He confirmed that Akha in both sites spoke the same dialect of the Akha language. Additionally, as I mention in the book, I picked these villages because of their long histories in these sites, closeness to the Burma border, and fairly recent inclusion in lowland markets. All these aspects made the comparison viable. Other aspects would have been hard to predict, such as the role of “small border chiefs” in controlling resource access through cross-border connections. From more recent visits to Mengsong in China, I know that the current administrative village head is not nearly as smart as the one whose maneuvers I chronicle in the book, and that he doesn’t use his cross-border connections very effectively. That doesn’t mean that my analysis of small border chiefs is invalid, but rather that it would have been harder to see if I had done the research in the past five years.

I just visited Akhapu in Thailand for the first time in 11 years. In both Mengsong and Akhapu the landscape is now carpeted in tea. The processes leading to monoculture tea fields differed in the two sites, so maybe I can write a follow-up article comparing the villages 11 years later. I have been able to visit Akha and Dai villages in Laos and would love to do the same in Burma. Cross-border connections continue to fascinate me.

Nicholas Farrelly: One of your major scholarly arguments has concerned “landscape plasticity” in the borderlands surrounding Burma. You have written that “Another kind of threat to landscape plasticity came from Akha village heads, local chiefs with state appointment to keep order in border realms. These village heads limited landscape plasticity in two ways: (1) by using their connections on both sides of the border to set themselves up as border patrons controlling local resource access and skewing the benefits to themselves; and (2) by introducing state-sponsored simplified land-use practices in way that linked these border heads to lowland planners and sources of money. In other words, Akha village heads used the border in both senses, manipulating the border-as-line with relations across it to control resource access, and collaborating with agents to include other villagers more securely in the realm of border-as-margin of the nation-state. Through combining their use of border in both senses, village heads colluded with elite actors on both sides of the border to enhance their own roles as border guardians and to further marginalize other Akha”. Seeing these efforts to “further marginalise other Akha” must have been difficult. From your perspective, how could this situation be improved? Do you foresee the growth of Akha leaders in Thailand who have a more inclusive approach to resource distribution and access to power?

Professor Sturgeon: In China, villagers now elect the village head, a process that might lead to village leaders who are more responsive to people’s needs. In Mengsong, however, the two recent elections have been controlled by the township (lowest level of state administration), resulting in the election of the current rather inept village head. This head has more education than a handful of much smarter possible contenders. In the Chinese view, having more education gives one “more culture” than others and greater qualification for elected office. Elections are held every three years, so that a more promising candidate may be elected in the future. In Thailand, the same person is still the village head and still controls most of the land. He recently set up what he calls a tea cooperative that includes people who have planted tea on his land. My sense is that the “cooperative” is more like a public company in which people own shares, but I do think that villagers now have a more stable and secure source of income than in the past. Because of armed fighting just across the border, the village head as well as other farmers have fewer connections in Burma than before. As predicted in my book, however, the tea, which villagers have planted throughout the understory of the village forest, has caused them to take out many of the trees to ensure that tea gets enough sunlight. Farmers are perhaps better off than 11 years ago, but the forest is in worse condition.

Nicholas Farrelly: Towards the end of Border Landscapes you make a more specific, but equally interesting, point about the contrast between the two Akha areas that you studied. You write that, “In China, Akha villagers were citizens and recipients of state-allocated land and trees. Their subsistence was reasonably secure without help from the village head. The village head’s maneuverings to control access to and distribution of resources as they became commodities were fairly successful, but encountered strong, public contention from other villagers…In Thailand, by contrast, the village head long held a regional position as an accumulator of resources and dispenser of favors. His networks included former Nationalist soldiers, former drug lords, various kinds of traders, and government agents from many departments. As the only Thai citizen among a sea of hill tribe ID holders…[the village head] represented the state for all those within his bailiwick who were officially ‘not Thai'”. Do you think that Thai authorities are aware that the Akha living in China have such a different relationship with the government? Are there lessons in China’s management of the minority groups along its southwestern frontier that could be fruitfully applied in Thailand?

Professor Sturgeon: My sense is that Thai authorities have no idea that Akha in China have such a different relationship with the government. Even when I was doing my research, some Thai colleagues refused to believe that conditions could be better in China. As you no doubt know, Thais have long seen “communist China” as a threat rather than as a model that might in some ways be emulated. I think that Thai authorities could fruitfully learn that including minorities as citizens and participants in development is an effective way to diffuse possible threats and to engage minority people’s many skills.

Nicholas Farrelly: As we have now discussed at length, you have worked extensively with Akha groups in both China and Thailand. Of course, there are also relatively large Akha populations in Burma. Some estimate that there are up to 150,000 in the country. Do have any experience of Akha settlements in Burma? Do you have any comments on the different circumstances that they face?

Professor Sturgeon: I would love to do research in Burma, but I haven’t had the chance yet. Accompanied by a village official, I did visit two nearby villages in Burma while I was in Mengsong in China. It was remarkable how much poorer the villages were, and how little service they received from the government. In fact, in villages close to China, people spoke Mandarin Chinese as a second language in place of Burmese. Additionally, I attended the Hani/Akha Conference in Thailand in 1996. Akha from Burma who attended the conference mentioned how insecure their lives were, and how often they suffered violence at the hands of either government or “rebel army” soldiers.

Nicholas Farrelly: And, finally, what are the major projects that you are working on at the moment? Do you have any intention of branching away from your focus on the Akha in the borderlands?

Professor Sturgeon: My most recent research has been a group project to track landscape transformations as a result of the adoption of cash crops in Xishuangbanna, northern Laos, and northern Thailand. I’m on the China team that has focused on rubber, tea, and other crops such as bananas and grain. Since virtually all farmers in Xishuangbanna are minorities, my focus is still on non-Han people on China’s periphery. These lowland farmers planted rubber trees beginning in the mid-1980s, and in the current rubber boom, they are getting rich.

This project has also enabled me to visit Laos, and a colleague and I are writing an article on how Akha and Dai farmers in China are rapidly extending rubber to relatives and friends in Laos through share-cropping arrangements. Through this project, we have been tracking the rapid expansion of rubber in the Greater Mekong Region. The new research is so different from my experience in the uplands that I find it very exciting.

My future research interests include governance, globalization, and identity in border regions in relation to land use and livelihoods. I’m still in the same area, but my research agenda keeps evolving.

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Sturgeon, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. It has been great to have you involved with the New Mandala interview series.