Enclosing Ethnic Minorities and Forests in the Golden Economic Quadrangle


  • Janet C. Sturgeon,

    1. Is  an associate professor  at the Geography  Department, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6, Canada (e-mail: sturgeon@sfu.ca). Her research focuses on landscape and livelihood transformations for minorities in Southwest China and Laos. She has edited a section on cross-border dynamics for minorities in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma for the SingaporeJournal of Tropical Geography.
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  • Nicholas K. Menzies,

    1. Is executive director at UCLA's Asia Institute. Since 1974, much of his work in China has focused on poverty, natural resources and rural communities. His publications include the Forestry section of Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China and studies of community-based resource management systems.
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  • Yayoi Fujita Lagerqvist,

    1. Is research fellow and lecturer at the School of Geosciences, the University of Sydney. She has over a decade of research experience working in mainland Southeast Asia, particularly in Laos, focusing on natural resources and rural livelihoods.
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  • David Thomas,

    1. Was for many years head of the Chiang Mai office of the World Agroforestry Centre. Much of his research and policy support work has focused on land use and watershed policies in montane mainland Southeast Asia.
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  • Benchaphun Ekasingh,

    1. Is head of the Agricultural Productivity Improvement Research Centre, Faculty of Agriculture, Chiang Mai University. She is an agricultural economist with a strong interest in development policy. Much of her work has focused on Thailand and neighbouring countries in mainland Southeast Asia.
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  • Louis Lebel,

    1. Is the founding director of the Unit for Social and Environmental Research (USER) at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University. Research interests include development studies, natural resource management, global environmental change, public health and governance.
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  • Khamla Phanvilay,

    1. Is dean of the Faculty of Forestry, National University of Laos. He has nearly three decades of teaching and research experience specializing in watershed and forest management policies in Laos.
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  • Sithong Thongmanivong

    1. Is director of the Research Center for Natural Resource Management and Climate Change, housed in Faculty of Forestry, National University of Laos. He has more than two decades of teaching experience in remote sensing, and research experience focusing on land and forest cover change in Laos.
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Research for this article was supported by National Science Foundation Grant #HDS0434043, ‘Understanding Dynamic Resource Management Systems and Land Cover Transitions in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia’. The authors would like to thank the journal's referees for helpful comments.


Ethnic minority farmers in the infamous Golden Triangle were first incorporated into the nation states of China, Laos and Thailand, and later into the economic region called the Golden Economic Quadrangle. This article traces policies in each country for minorities, development and the environment, followed by an analysis of agrarian transitions under economic regionalization. Using the framework of powers of exclusion and racialization, our findings show the changes for ethnic minorities who, with the exception of those in the lowlands, face environmental enclosures that dispossess them from lands on which livelihoods are based. Ideological legacies from the Golden Triangle, including ‘backward’ minorities, the fight against drugs, and threats to national security, continue to inform policies and development projects. While some farmers have become entrepreneurs planting cash crops, most face increasing marginalization under deepening regional capitalism.