Spicy (Dis)connections: Routes, Values and Imaginaries
Time & LocationSession 11
Fri 13:30–15:00 Room 1.201
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- Cassia Distinctions: The Making of an Indigenous Spice in Northern Vietnam Annuska Derks University of Zurich
In upland northern Vietnam ethnic minority farmers are cultivating what some global retailers refer to as the ‘champagne of cinnamon’. However, a closer examination reveals that this spice is not ‘true cinnamon’ but cassia, with the exact species remaining uncertain. Drawing on commodity chain literature and debates over the creation of value and quality, we investigate the making of ‘Vietnamese cinnamon’ as it moves from the hills in northern Vietnam to soup bowls in Vietnam and supermarket shelves in northern America and explore how different actors define ‘Vietnamese cinnamon’ and infuse it with specific, also contradictory values. Based on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork over a four-year period, we reveal how this globally traded spice is cultivated and integrated into complex commodity chains, how the creation of value occurs along these chains, and the various ways in which different actors, from botanists and ethnic minority farmers to state agencies and NGOs to global retailers, highlight or contest the uniqueness of this particular spice.
- Nature’s Gift or Unstable Commodity? Dealing with Marginality in the Vietnamese Star Anise Commodity Chain Matthew Parsfield University of Zurich
A situation of multiple marginality is presented in the commodity chain of Vietnamese star anise along the Vietnamese border with China. A globally marginal commodity is cultivated and traded by ethnic minority people whose economic and social position is marginal, vis-à-vis the multi-ethnic Vietnamese nation and the Chinese-dominated market for their produce. However, this marginality has positive as well as negative effects, with some aspects of this marginality being utilised so as to contribute to the value of the commodity and the livelihoods of those who depend on it. The ambiguous role of marginality is traced through the tension of star anise’s dual status as both “nature’s gift” and an “unstable commodity”. The commodity’s fluctuating yields and prices are attributed by some to geographical marginality and low-tech production methods, while upland cultivators and traders prize the naturalness of a crop that is relatively easy to produce and whose underdeveloped market affords them certain trading advantages or niches. Ethnographic material is presented from fieldwork in Lang Son province in upland Vietnam which depicts daily engagement with marginality through what the author posits as a “strategic border identity” of actors who cope with and exploit their marginal economic, social, and geographical status.
- Rolling the Dice with Spice: How Ethnic Minority Cardamom Farmers are Gambling Against the Odds Patrick Slack McGill University
This paper examines the climatic and state-imposed vulnerability that ethnic minority households cultivating black cardamom in upland Vietnam face and the variety of ways that households are forced to gamble with their livelihoods. This paper provides a nuanced case study of cardamom cultivator livelihoods; those who comprise the first node in black cardamom commodity chains originating from Vietnam.
The ethnic minority farmers who comprise this first node are having to find sources of cash more than ever before due to the increased state push for market integration, especially state programmes encouraging farmers to rely on hybrid rice and corn seeds which must be bought yearly, along with agrochemical inputs. Many upland minority households have turned to cultivating and trading black cardamom to supply the much-needed cash their lives increasingly require. Unlike many crops, cardamom requires consistent closed-canopy forest cover to thrive, serving as a unique opportunity for both income generation and forest conservation. This enthusiasm for cultivating black cardamom and the environmental requirement for closed- canopy forest appears to be having intriguing impacts on land-use and land-cover change (LULCC) in the northern Vietnamese borderlands in addition to other government forestry initiatives and community-level forest protection.
Although there is much potential for cardamom as a sustainable livelihood strategy, government interventions and extreme weather events are leaving households extremely vulnerable and susceptible to risk. In this paper I will explore the numerous shocks that black cardamom cultivators face in a northern district of Lao Cai province, putting livelihood and food security at stake.
- Spice Trade Struggles: Ethnic Minority Farmers and Cardamom Cultivation Complexities in Upland Vietnam Sarah Turner McGill University
Across the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands, rural livelihoods and social relations are in a state of flux. While some upland societies have been cautious about altering long-standing practices that have suited them for generations, others have embraced new prospects offered by agrarian transformations, far-reaching commodity markets, market liberalization, and new infrastructure and communications technology. The dilemmas created by this merging of customary and modern principles and practices are especially palpable in the case of the commoditization of upland non-timber forest products such as black cardamom (Amomum aromaticum).
Demand for this high-value spice has risen steadily over the last three decades, and many ethnic minority farmers have seized the opportunity to cultivate cardamom under the forest canopy. In Vietnam, black cardamom is transported to the lowlands by way of intermediaries, or, more frequently, is exported to China along complex commodity chains that also incorporate cardamom grown in Yunnan’s borderlands. Trade occurs via webs of social relationships, uneven power structures, and differing economic returns among actors who compete to access key resources along the way.
This paper investigates the power relations among the different actors involved in these commodity chains, with a focus on Hmong and Yao cultivators and the concerns they face regarding the commoditization of this crop in the Vietnam borderlands. An increase in extreme weather events and a lack of control over market processes mean that cultivators are sometimes abandoning cardamom cultivation when they perceive the risks too great or the returns on their labour too low. Ethnic minority cultivators are savvy when it comes to making a living and do not unduly endanger their culture or identity. This paper examines to what degree they are willing to seize these new borderland trade opportunities, as well as the limits of their engagement.
Throughout its long history, the spice trade has shaped land, politics, and society, while capturing imaginations across the globe. Spices played an important role in European explorations and colonization of Southeast Asia from the 16th century onwards, and the spice trade has been argued to be one of the oldest links between the East and the West, connecting Asia with the Mediterranean through the precious fragrances of cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, pepper, cloves and more. While spices have since lost their status as symbol of luxury, their flavors, fragrances, colors, and medicinal benefits continue to sell globally, while providing important livelihood opportunities for cultivators. This panel focuses on the contemporary routes, values, and imaginaries of spices in and from contemporary Southeast Asia, while also highlighting the diverse connections and disconnections within spice networks. We ask: What can the spice trade tell us about connections between lowland and highland Southeast Asia, neighboring countries, and producers and consumers more generally? How do expanding global markets for spices, (changing) consumer desires, and the international political economy influence producer livelihoods and lifeworlds? What roles do origins, uses, and botanical taxonomies play in assessments of quality and imaginaries of geography? And how do state policies, development interventions, but also forces of nature, such as extreme weather events, impact spice options and benefits? By exploring these questions, the panel members seek to explore the (in)distinctiveness of particular spices on the global market and the various ways in which spices (dis)connect people from different parts of the world.