Fragrant Frontier - Transcript

Fragrant Frontier- Global Spice Entanglements from the Sino-Vietnamese Uplands



This is the Nordic Asia Podcast.


Julia Heinle

Welcome to the Nordic Asia podcast. Our collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Julia Heinle. I'm the publishing assistant at NIAS Press and a masters student of political science at the University of Copenhagen. Today, I have the pleasure to talk to Annuska Derks and Jean-François Rousseau who, together with Sarah Turner, are the editors of our recent News-Press book "Fragrant Frontier Global Spice Entanglements from the Sino-Vietnamese Uplands" that came out in May 2022 and is available worldwide. Annuska Derks is an associate professor and departamentental co-director at the University of Zurich. She's a social anthropologist interested in social transformation processes in Southeast Asia, in particular in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Her research focuses on migration, labor, gender, as well as the social lives of things and interrogates discourses of development and innovation. Jean Francois Rousseau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. He is a development geographer with research focusing on the relationships between agrarian change, infrastructure development, especially hydropower dams and sand mining and ethnic minority livelihood diversification in southwest China. Welcome Annuska and Jean-Francois, It's a pleasure to have you here today.


Thanks for having us.


Julia Heinle

Now to kick things off, your book focuses on three spices, star anise, cardamom and cinnamon, and looks at their commodity chains and entanglements in the Sino-Vietnamese uplands. Why did you settle with these three spices and that region? Whomever would like to go first can start and.


Annuska Derks

Should I start? Yes. So why don't we settle on these three spices, cardamon, cinnamon and star anise? First of all, because these are three spices that are grown in Northern Vietnam and across the border in China. They are grown mostly by ethnic minority people. And look at the Vietnamese side by the Hmong in Lào Cai cultivating cardamom, the Yao in Yen Bai cultivating mostly cassias, or cinammon as it is also called and Nung and Tay in Lang Son Province mostly grow star anise. And these are important spices for a part of their livelihoods, but also in other ways are important. I mean if I look at Vietnam more general, in order to make the broth pho, you need these three spices. So they come together in the soup. And the cultivating and the trade of these finds have grown rapidly during the past decades. Even though these three spices have very different positions on the global market. I don't know Jean Francois if you want to maybe add something to that.


Jean-François Rousseau 


Well, I would add that there were first practical reasons. As is often the case for many research. Both Sara Turner, who's editing the book with us, Annuska and myself or people that we work with, had been already doing research in plantations of either Cassia, Black cardamom or star anise. So we already own some a expertise on these and different crops and adding to what Annuska just said I think that these three commodities in their own ways have also been very important to market cycles and what we discuss as boom and bust cycles or patterns in their own way. As we explained, cardamom was exposed to extreme weather events. Star anise has boom in the onset of the avian and swine flu, as it used to be utilized for the manufacturing of some anti-retroviral drug. And cinnamon growers, at least on the Chinese side, have also cope with little inappropriate agrarian training involving that they actually lost the plantations that they were entitled to grow by the government. So there is also this connection between the three crops where plantations and markets have expanded very rapidly and in some instances all face also very important hurdles and circumstances that we probe in the book.


Julia Heinle

Very interesting, as you mentioned they are tied to your research, but how did it unfold in the end that there is actually a book that we can see now that we can hold in our hands and trace your insights in that.


Jean-François Rousseau 

Well, I can maybe go first here. First, we have to acknowledge that our first editor Sarah Turner was a key connection between the different work that has been going on, either on both side of the Sino- Vietnamese border. So Sarah has actively taken the lead in that regard. This book also stems from a conference Annuska, Sarah and myself attended at the European Association of Agricultural Economist in spring 2019, which looks like a world ago as of today. But still, that panel, I think this is what really convinced us that we had accumulated and amassed, and our collaborators quite a fair amount of empirical material that we were in the process of organizing and that there was probably definitely enough material for a relevant book. We have altogether a collection of eight chapters that involve both emergent as well as established scholars, both from the West and from the countries of focus. I'd like to take a few seconds just to name the individuals that were involved in the drafting of the different chapters, namely between us three, Patrick Slack, Ngo Thuy Hanh, Xu Yiqiang, Jennifer Langill, Zuo Zhenting, Michelle Kee, Celia Zuberec, Sango Mohanty. And as we're making acknowledgement, it was great working with the people at NIAS Press and specifically Gerald Jackson has been pleasure to work with. Great editor, funny editor as well. We've also had editing assistance from Monica Janowski and Don Wagner. Maybe also thanks to both Jonathan Rigg and Janet Sturgeon kindly wrote Blurb on the back cover of the book.


Julia Heinle

Mm hmm. In what way would you describe, you said you had a lot of material. What specifically? In what way? It adds sort of to the field of research or the field of anthropology in general.


Annuska Derks

guess it's not just anthropology. I mean, we have geographers and we have actually people of different backgrounds, and maybe that's one of the strengths of the book as well that we have contributors from different backgrounds at different stages of their careers and, and working on spaces in Vietnam And China. Thus allowing us also to trace space change across the board and even beyond what we call the Fragrant Frontier. And I think what is special, it's a book about spices and spices are fascinating, fascinating substances, and they're very important because they flavor our food. They are used in medicine, cosmetics and in other consumer goods, but they stand for so much more. They bestow magical qualities, they have been sources of wealth and catalyst for discovery, they connect different regions of the world. All of their origins are very often mystified and there is quite some research on spices and spice trades. But a lot of this is historical research, and it's not so much on the contemporary trade or contemporary change. And basically, we all have spices in our kitchen cabinets, but we know quite little about where these come from and the lives and livelihoods of those who are cultivating the spices. That is what this book seeks to address. And as we noted before, this growing spices in the Fragrant Frontier has a long history, as during the past decade, there has been intensification of spice production and also in connection to global markets.


Jean-François Rousseau 

Pretty much all of the chapters are pretty grounded in to empirical data that the collaborators have ammased in the field. I think that these are important in demonstrating how ethnic minority livelihoods have been proactive and have been adapting or negotiating with market and market upheavals and state projects for them to grow specific crops in specific areas and certain times and then the opposite to stop growing or to stop expanding. And I think that the book overcomes how the growers are first way more knowledgeable about their circumstances, where they grow their crops, where the actual agrarian circumstances where they evolve, and that they've also been way more proactive in playing the market than official state discourses in either Vietnam or China want to portray. The official state discourses in these settings tends to depict ethnic minorities as not well equipped to address these market circumstances as actors that should be following the predicaments from the state for their own good. What we demonstrate is that in some cases they did actually follow this predicaments, but in other instances they didn't. As often than not, their decisions end up being the good ones, as soon as their livelihoods are concerned.


Julia Heinle

Their livelihoods obviously differ very much, but can it be generalised in what way their livelihoods are influenced or impacted by the spice trade throughout the time One thing, but the book shows those that the cultivations of spices has provided ethnic minority farmers with the opportunity also to earn cash, and they need this cash also for agricultural inputs, for small things or upgrading for houses. So there is definitely something that they have been able to market on, basically, as Jean-Francois was just saying. On the other hand, that's also what we show very well. And the farmers are very much dependent on various factors that they cannot control. And these relate to the volatility of markets that affect prices. And it was most obvious in the case of star anise, for example, Jean-Francois also mentioned it already. For star anise contains these elements of shikimic acid, which is a principal component for the production of Tamiflu, this anti - influenza drug and with the avian flu and later the swine flu epidemics in the mid 2000 was high demand for this track and also for this element obviously. Farmers would fetch high prices, but it is very short-lived. By now these components, shikimic acid is produced by a chemical synthesis and it shows already how what happens in the pharma labs in this case in Switzerland affects prices and also livelihoods of the minority farmers in Upland, Vietnam and China. So these are factors that they cannot control. And another thing, is of course these extreme weather events that have had a major impact in particular on the cultivation of cardamom.


Jean-François Rousseau 

Just expanding a little bit more on this side, is that what we have uncovered, working with peasants whose plantation were were devastated, literally devastated by extreme weather events in the Highland Forest, mainly from the mid 2010 onwards, is that we came up with conclusions that were kind of counterintuitive, where cardamom has been booming in southwest China for a few decades, and this is one of the commodities that has allowed some individuals who embarked the cardamom bandwagon in due time to get pretty rich. Black cardamom has become one of the very lucrative opportunities or important opportunities for making important financial income in that specific area. And as a result, those who had the social and financial capital to start expanding their cardamom plantations at the onset of the cardamom boom of have emerged as financial elites within the villages. And what we have also uncovered is that obviously these individual were among those whose livelihoods were more centered on black cardamom. And obviously these are also individuals who faced very important hurdles overnight because their main livelihood contributing activity overnight has crumbled. And one of the characteristics of the products or communities that we address in the book, is that these tend to yield spices period, that ranges between a few years after the crops are being planted up to almost a decade. So there has been tremendous challenges for the cardamom growers to realign their livelihoods in a context where cardamom cultivation is increasingly risky as these extreme weather events have become more and more frequent. And where there has dimension of a gamble. Because if you are to make an agrarian decision that will potentially allow you to recover your livelihood in a few years times in a context where the conditions have been degrading over these last few years, these individuals whose livelihoods were more central in that regard, were facing greater challenges than those who potentially have made less financial income from cardamom, but who still had maintained a more diverse livelihood portfolio in that regard.


Julia Heinle

How are the governments of Vietnam and China influencing that spice trade? Can the state involvement be seen as quite intense?


Annuska Derks

So the government in states like Vietnam and China, the government is always involved. And the question is, of course, how impactful it is. I mean, there are different ways in issues of land access and there are several programs also to develop the countryside in rural Vietnam, for example, but maybe some projects or programs that are really impactful or that we describe in the book, those related in Vietnam, at least the "Greening the Barren Hills" program in the 1990. So that's a state initiated reforestation program through which farmers also in these uplands areas, received seedlings to grow trees. And again by, for example, farmers focus. They got seedlings for cinnamon trees or the farmers got orange trees. They realized soon that actually these trees make green, but they have no economic value and it's different for cinnamon, so they also change to growing cinnamon. So this is how there was a steady expansion of yields which didn't cost the trees. It shouldn't be actively promoted by the states. I'm not used to getting these cases, the geographical indication program. So that's also a program initiated by the states and supported by development organizations in order to counter price fluctuations and hopefully to protect farmers against these volatile markets. So we have, in the case of certain star names, they got a geographical indication 2000 seconds in Cassia in 2010. Now, we've seen also the tools with Skype and eBooks and problems and problems are related to the area that is basically designated for those geographical indications. And those farmers cultivating outside of designated area can actually not claim the geographical indication. But even more problematic is since we found that most farmers don't even know about this geographical indication. Also, traders don't even know it and don't see it and the benefits of it. So we have so far, I could not see how geographical indication programs facilitate really improvements to local fields. That argue that on the Chinese side, the circumstance are somewhat similar to what Ensco was just describing in many places or in many instances the state was actively involved when it came to encouraging agrarian change and driving or promoting the expansion of certain spice crops in specific area. An example is that of of cinnamon in the border area where China and Vietnam meet, where Cinnamon Plantation was actively encouraged at some point in the context of a reforestation initiative and where it was considered that cinnamon could meet both reforestation and agrarian livelihoods objectives. But oftentimes the problem is that policy does shift faster than the actual time. Coming back to the fact that these crops are perennial crops or tree crops, the policies tend to tend to shift faster than the actual time it takes to yield the results. And in that specific cinema example, the policy shift that was involved is that by the time the cinnamon trees were ready to be harvested, the forest protection policies are now taking precedence over the rural livelihoods, and the peasants were not allowed to harvest their cinnamon trees by then, and because it was done, considered that in the mama vista would potentially damage trees and post trap to the forest reforestation and greening projects. So these are circumstances that the state, many instances has been very active in driving agrarian changes that would lead to the expansion, for instance, of spice crops. But in the same time, once this policy objective had been met and once X amount of actors had been planted, oftentimes the policy would change and the peasants or the growers would not receive benefit from follow up support from the states so that they could get the most benefits at every step along the way. And still on the China side, another aspect I could raise is that, as Annuska alluded to at the beginning of this conversation, spices in some ways can be argued to remain trivial. They're important, they're fascinating. But from the state's point of view, biases occupy a small market that they have nothing to do with food security imperatives, which the Chinese government takes very seriously. And in that regard, by crops that we've been looking at are not controlled in a manner that is as strict as other oil crops or grain would be, for instance. So this does open the door for all sorts of market manipulation by important actors, also potentially to food safety thread. One story we heard from a star anise trader, is that they used to use chemicals to make their product look nicer without consideration to the actual safe of these actual products. And in that specific case, it turned out that it was not the state or the authorities that convinced the brokers to stop using these products. But actually more important, commodity chain actors who were servicing Western markets, who had more important list of regulations that they had to apply and these were convincing in making sure that these products would not be used anymore to make look star anis reader or nicer.


Julia Heinle

Mm hmm. That's very interesting. Now, zooming maybe a bit more out of the conversation. Part of your project involves visual story maps on the commodity chains and entanglements of these three spices. Can you tell us a bit more about how that came into being and maybe also what interested people then after listening to this episode can look forward to?


Jean-François Rousseau 

First, I think in order for people and listeners to be able to access this link, one of the opportunities is to actually download the Fragrant Frontier book, because this turns out to be an open access document where people can skim and go through the chapters. And maybe a good teaser to digging into the book, is to actually take a look at the story maps that were produced. These were produced as a component from a research project that our collaborator, Sara Turner. The maps were produced by Patrick Slack and Michelle Key. And basically it's a visual representation of some of the findings that our respective research on these individual crops have generated. That's produced in a very, I would argue, peeling and attracting manner that walks us through the plantations where these crops are being grown. And that also allows us to travel along some of the commodity chains that we have and more details in the chapters.


Annuska Derks

guess the idea for us was to make this research really accessible in multiple ways, as Jean-François just said. It's an open access book funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, so it can be read by anyone busy all over the world. The story maps or these very attractive visual illustrations of these commodity chains and the entanglement of these different actors in the chains. And then there is another part of what I would call this kind of multimedia approach to the research on these spices that we will soon release to very short films, one about star anise and one about cinnamon, to provide really more visual images of how the spices are grown and harvested and traded to really get a better idea of what the area looks like, what these trees look like with people involved in the cultivation and process in trading spices, what they look like together. Together also with the website that Sarah Turner has set up, it is a different way of also presenting the research that we have conducted over a decade or so.


Jean-François Rousseau 

Hopefully these individual elements will allow for readers to just look at the spice crops. I mean, we all have a spice drawer or cupboard somewhere which in my case, it's pretty messy. And to just look at these different products with a different eye, to understand that these come up with a long history of trouble, a long history of social interactions between different individuals that face different challenges in this commodity chain. So I think that these are all individual media that allow to illustrate and to dig up these stories in greater detail.


Julia Heinle

That's super exciting. I definitely make sure to post the link to the website, but also to the open access book in the show notes. So everyone will be able to have a look there. Now, unfortunately, we're also already very close to the end. So as a round up, I'd like to ask both of you whether you have any exciting upcoming projects in mind that you'd like to share with us or where would there be an opportunity for our listeners to follow your research?


Annuska Derks

So I'm working in order to check our research projects, one based on innovation in Vietnam and particular in relation to energy and another one in heritage and development in Vietnam. And I'm still working on a book, a longer process about the social life of a cooking fuel. So it's a coal based fuel that there has now been banned. And I'm looking at the trajectory, the career of this cooking fuel in Vietnam, which tells the story of the making of this cooking field and how it relates to illegal coal sourcing practices, to increasing energy needs and environmental degradation, but also the intersection of the economy and religious beliefs, gender and architecture. In a way, using one object to explore transformations and social inequalities in post reform Vietnam.


Jean-François Rousseau 

Information about myself can be found in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, and I'm currently in a transition where I'm moving between two projects, which excites me and is also freaking me out. But the upcoming research agenda, which I'm currently developing with colleagues both at the University of Ottawa and beyond, is to look at sand, which happens to be one of the most not the most intensively utilized resource over there, and one about which there is surprisingly little conceptualization as of today. So we are to build research initiatives where we want to probe mainly on the actual livelihood implications of us digging way too much sands than what rivers can naturally regenerate. Also, look at the various labor conditions alone and in districts ranges from highly mechanized exploitations in some places to very unrecognized in other areas. So we want to decipher this broad labor relations and along the sand commodity chains and also trying to figure out why there is so little governance about sand, whereas other resources and commodities are being governed by treaties or certifications and such instruments. None of this exists for sand at the moment, and we want to probe the circumstances explaining that why, even though sand is used so intensively, has been out of the governance shredder as of today.


Julia Heinle

Okay, I hear loads of potential books in the pipeline, so that's very exciting. Thank you very much, both Annuska and Jean-Francois as well for joining me today. I think this is the end for our small conversation. Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia Podcast showcasing Nordic Collaboration in Studying Asia. I'm Julia Heinle and I have been talking to Annuska Derks and Jean-Francois Rousseau who, together with Sarah Turner, are the editors of the recent NIAS press book Fragrant Frontier Global Spice Entanglements from the Sino Vietnamese Uplands. The book is available as an open access on our website and can also be ordered in our Web store. Thank you for today.


Jean-François Rousseau & Annuska Derks

Thank you. Thank you.



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