The emergence of social and environmental movements against plantation forestry in Southeast Asia positions rural development against local displacement and environmental degradation. Multi-scaled NGO networks have been active in promoting the notion that rural people in Southeast Asia uniformly oppose plantation development. There are potential pitfalls in this heightened attention to resistance however, as it has often lapsed into essentialist notions of timeless indigenous agricultural practices, and unproblematic local allegiances to common property and conservation. An exclusive emphasis on resistance also offers little understanding of widespread smallholder participation in plantation production across the region. A useful method of approaching the complexity of local responses to plantation development is through the history of legal and informal resource tenure, within an analysis of rural political-economic restructuring. Drawing on research in Thailand and Sarawak, I suggest that a more nuanced appreciation of both the structural constraints and deployments of agency which characterise the enrolment of rural people into plantation commodity networks, opens up new spaces for analysis and political action, which supports a geographically embedded view of relations of power, rural livelihoods and environmental politics.
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