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Greed in a “Tribal” Economy? Acquisitiveness and Reciprocity in Lisu Society

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Abstract

Comparing the Lisu economy of the late 1960s to that of the early 1990s highlights not only the transformations in village economic adaptations, but also the cultural politics of incorporation into the Thai state. The earlier Lisu economy relied on income from opium to make up for shortfalls in rice production and household acquisitiveness made reciprocity with other households possible. In the 1990s, villagers scrambled to find economic strategies to adapt to life in the post-opium economy. In the previous economy, there were checks on overproduction to ensure relatively equal wealth among households in an egalitarian political system. The post-opium economy included new forms of commodified agriculture such as cattle herding, contractual planting of cash crops, buying of land, and investment in trucks and motorbikes to transport produce to market, as well as participation in wage labor in urban lowland markets. Survival required capital accumulation. Is acquisitiveness greed? Not in a reciprocity economy with inherent limits to accumulation of wealth, where the standards were set by the poor families in the village. But in today's economy, acquisitiveness for accumulation and investment rather than reciprocity has given rise to accusations of stinginess among villagers and greed by Thai officials.

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