The Southeast Asian Frontiers Workshop Series #1: Highlands (18-20 August 2022)

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The Southeast Asian Frontier Workshop is looking to hold cutting-edge conversations about the process of frontierization that has occurred or is currently occurring in Southeast Asian regions. The workshop intends to establish a network of Southeast Asianists with an academic interest in the region’s borders while stimulating fruitful academic conversation and output around Southeast Asian frontiers. Joining is open to participants from all humanities, social science, and environmental studies disciplines. This workshop will be divided into several parts, with each part covering a different geographic region. We’ll begin the first series in the highlands of Southeast Asia.

Keynote Speaker:

Tania Murray Li
(University of Toronto)

Two Capitalisms, Two Commodity Frontiers: A View from Indonesia

There are two different kinds of commodity frontiers and two different capitalist relationship configurations in Indonesia. One is the corporately occupied commodities border, which is home to extensive concessions like mines and plantations. Although it is not characterized by “free” markets or competition, this arrangement is frequently referred to as capitalist. Instead, it relies on state-provided subsidies, coerced labor, and forced land seizures. Monopoly agreements shield inefficiency, serving objectives like national prestige and getting access to illegal rent streams that are only tangentially related to production or profit. Small-scale farmers make up the majority of the second configuration, and when capitalist relations do arise, they typically follow the standard textbook pattern: producers pay market prices for land, labor, and credit; and they are governed by the imperative of market competition. Ineffective producers fail, and there are no bailouts or subsidies. For 300 years, Indonesia’s small-scale farmers have been extremely effective exporters of coffee, cocoa, and rubber. If a corporate-friendly dictatorship did not repress them, they would currently also control the supply of palm oil. In addition to normalizing the marginalization of the highly productive, small-scale capitalists who receive no support or recognition despite being by far the most dynamic actors on commodity frontiers, calling the corporate variant of capitalism capitalist obscures its dependence on state support and subsidies.




Michael Eilenberg
(Aarhus University)

Smoke, Fire and Crisis on the Indonesian Forest Frontier

Since the 1970s, Indonesia has experienced widespread forest and land fires, but in the past 20 years, the intensity of these fires, particularly on the outer islands, and their effects on neighboring nations due to cross-border haze have drawn significant media attention and led to new political engagements on a national and international level. The Indonesian government has implemented strict measures as a direct result, forbidding farmers from utilizing land and forests for agricultural purposes. Large-scale forest and land fires have complicated causes that involve a variety of people and organizations, from small-scale swidden farmers to massive plantation corporations. However, small-scale subsistence farmers and their traditional practices of swidden agriculture are targeted as among the principal offenders of forest and land fires. Subsistence agriculture is directly linked to deforestation once more. I will talk about the “business of fire” and how burning land and forests is a part of a wider scheme to seize land and turn it into an investment for massive plantation expansion.



Timo Maran
(Tartu University)

Towards A Semiotics of Ecocultures: Semiotic Ground and Ecosemiosphere


From a semiotic perspective, the Anthropocene is characterized by a massive increase in abstract symbols that lack any connection to biological or material processes. This growth of symbols is anti-ecological, because the production and maintenance of the various media and artifacts that embody the symbols requires large amounts of matter and energy.Since symbols are based on human customs, they also cannot respond directly to changes in environmental and ecological processes (described by David Low as dissent in 2009). Eduardo Kohn and Andrew Whitehouse proposed the concept of semiotic ground to denote the semiotic basis of the ecosystem. It may be argued that iconic and indexical signs are a common semiotic ground for both human and non-human species, and that this ground is also connected to the patterns of the material world. In the biological world, organisms need things around them in order to survive. In icons and indexes, there is a connection between objects and interpretations.This relationship between the material and semiotic realms is important. Highlands are particularly rich environments with a variety of constraints, patterns, and resources. In ecocultures we should find ways to ground the culture, that is, to restore the connection between the human symbolic sphere and ecosystems that are predominantly iconic and indexical.Semiosphere could be reinterpreted here as ecosemiosphere – a semiotic system encompassing all species and their environments, alongside the multiple semiotic relationships (including humans with their culture) they have in the given ecosystem and also matter

SEAF Workshop Series #1: Highlands have excitedly accepted 36 panelists who will be presenting in 9 panels. Our panel themes are:

  • Highlands and development
  • Highlands and religious change
  • Natural hazards and social resilience in highlands
  • Conservation and environmentalism in highlands
  • Scientific practices in highlands
  • Political economic change in highlands
  • Governing Southeast Asian highlands
  • Representation of highlands and highlanders

The workshop is funded by:

Logo of The Regional Science Association International
Logo of Universitas Islam Indonesia

Supported by:

Workshop Convenors:

  • Muzayin Nazaruddin (Department of Communication Universitas Islam Indonesia – Department of Semiotics Tartu University),
  • Luthfi Adam (Research Fellow at Monash Indonesia & Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard University),
  • Sindhunata Hargyono (Dept. of Anthropology, Northwestern University)Sari Damar Ratri (Dept. of Anthropology, Northwestern University),
  • Sari Damar Ratri (Dept. of Anthropology, Northwestern University),
  • M. Fathi Rayyani (Center for Ecology and Ethnobotany, BRIN)