Where the Streets Are Paved with Prawns

Crop Booms and Migration in Southeast Asia

Author: Derek Hall


As the proportion of the gross domestic product of Southeast Asian countries accounted for by agriculture continues its long-term decline, it is natural in studying regional migration flows to emphasize the ways people are moving away from farming. Across the region, however, millions of people continue to migrate both within and across international borders to take part in agricultural production. Many of them are moving to grow "boom crops" like cocoa, coffee, oil palm, rubber, and shrimp, all of which have seen rapid expansion over the last two decades. In this article, the author provides a comparative survey of the links between crop booms and migration in Southeast Asia, arguing that this migration has taken three main forms: relatively autonomous and "spontaneous" migration by households or individuals looking to set up as boom crop – growing smallholders; a "transmigration" model in which parastatal agencies or private corporations with state support help migrants to relocate so that they can take part in organized farming schemes with at least some smallholder component; and migration for the purpose of working as waged laborers for plantations or richer smallholders growing boom crops. The importance of these types of migration has varied across crops. In the conclusion, the author makes several points about the politics of migration and crop booms.

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December 2011
© 2007 ILO/Crozet M.