The rapid expansion of oil palm cultivation in Sarawak, Malaysia, over the past 30 years has entailed a radical transformation of the agricultural economy from one based almost entirely on semi-commercial smallholdings to one dominated by large-scale, private estates. This paper contends that the dominant role of private estates has been driven not primarily by technical or market imperatives but by the exercise of state power to maximise opportunities for surplus extraction and political patronage. The result has been an internal or domestic land grab involving (a) the large-scale and irreversible conversion of environmentally valuable forestlands (including tropical peatlands) to an extensive oil palm monoculture and (b) the concentration of property rights to vast areas of both state and customary land in the hands of a small number of state-backed corporate actors and their patrons in the political-bureaucratic elite. The mechanisms by which this transformation of land use and property relations has been brought about include the four “powers of exclusion” identified by Hall et al. (2011) – regulation, the market, force, and legitimation. However, a Polanyi-like countermovement has challenged the powers employed by state and private actors and is slowly establishing a legal bulwark against unjust expropriation and land concentration, based mainly on judicial interpretations of customary land tenure.
Cramb, R. LDPI Working Paper 50. A Malaysian Land Grab? The Political Economy of Large-scale Oil Palm Development in Sarawak. The Land Deal Politics Initiative, (2013) 45 pp.