A failed market experiment and ignored livelihoods
Set in the China-Vietnam borderlands, this chapter retraces how the political reframing of vast tracts of sloping lands in China’s Yunnan province as ‘wasted’ created opportunities for jatropha plantation expansion aimed towards biodiesel production. Handai ethnic minority informants have customarily utilised these ‘wasted’ lands to achieve a range of livelihood outcomes, such as grazing cattle, non-timber forest product and fuelwood collection, and as cemeteries. Aware of the low agrarian potential from this area, Handai farmers openly doubted that commercial energy crop plantations could be successful in this setting, and rapid plantation failure proved them right. This chapter investigates the reasons why a foreseeable negative outcome did not prevent the project from being initiated, receiving generous state subsidies and credit lines, and obtaining free access to sloping lands. I find that the jatropha plantations exemplify state-backed development experiments that foster a wide range of policy objectives in the borderlands, including energy security and bringing the borderlands and their populations in the realm of the state. In addition, project failure produced few consequences for state and corporate actors. Such incentives and lack of accountability combine in driving a powerful development push in the borderlands, whereby state and corporate actors give scant attention to the prospects of jatropha plantations and to their livelihood impacts. Yet Handai informants were deprived of access to land-based livelihood benefits, as the ‘modern’ jatropha plantations established on sloping lands were rapidly abandoned, and have slowly decayed since.