Tania Li: anthropology is a combat sport

In Montpellier for ten months as part of the Mak'It programprogram, anthropologist Tania Li from the University of Toronto puts her work on social and environmental justice in Indonesia into perspective with that of her French colleagues from the SENS laboratory in Africa and Central America.

Tania Li has a long research career behind her, but her motivation remains intact. The University of Toronto anthropologist is delighted to have been able to devote time in 2023 to popularizing her work. Several mainstream articles written under the guidance of a journalist friend, in which the Indonesia specialist does not hesitate to point out the impunity of large-scale palm oil plantations, with the complicity of part of the government. " I'm an established researcher, I can afford to do this," she says, satisfied.

To tell us about her scientific output, the researcher highlights three major books in her bibliography. Her latest book, " Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia's Oil Palm Zone ", focuses on the lives of Indonesians living in large-scale industrial plantation areas. Over the past 25 years, the Indonesian state has granted concessions to palm oil companies for almost a third of the country's agricultural land. " Together with Indonesian colleagues and numerous students, we have carried out extensive ethnographic work to understand life in these areas," explains Tania Li. A life " under the occupation of large private plantations ", where rights, political practices and the environment are dominated by their presence. "The authorities' collaboration with the private companies is explicit, with dedicated teams of facilitators ," stresses the researcher, for example.

Development criticism

His previous works have also focused on rural Indonesia. "Anthropology is such an investment in culture, language, local networks... that when you start your fieldwork somewhere, you stay there." Born in Singapore, "family circumstances" brought her back there to do her thesis in the early 1980s, when she was a student at Cambridge University. She then turned to the Indonesian countryside as soon as she completed her post-doctorate in 1989, to fill a gap: "Scientific and media attention is mainly focused on the urban population. Yet between 1990 and 2020, the rural population of Southeast Asia increased by 30 million!

His seminal work "The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics", published in 2007, is a critical study of development. Spanning 200 years, the anthropologist explores development policies from colonial times to the present day. "I'm interested in this normalization of intervention in people's lives, from diagnosing their problems to finding solutions. His work has been well received by international development organizations. " It also questions local NGOs: what is it about their methods that differentiates them from other solution prescribers?

A symposium in April 2024

With the publication in 2014 of his book "Land's End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier", his critical thinking then focused on the presupposition that small farmers would be reluctant to enter market agriculture. " The lack of understanding of economic dynamics is once again marked by the colonial heritage: faced with miserly purchase prices from the Dutch occupiers, the passive resistance of peasants who do not deliver the expected products is translated by some as a lack of entrepreneurial sense and by others as a refusal of capitalism", the researcher analyzes. In her work as an anthropologist, she follows the paths of farmers who start growing cocoa. What strikes her to this day is that, while these farmers are willing to choose a cash crop, they don't anticipate the violent social differentiation that goes with it: "some will win and some will lose!"

In Montpellier for ten months on a grant from the French institutes for advanced study (FIAS) in collaboration with Mak'It, Tania Li is working on a new project with the SENS laboratory on social and environmental justice claims in the South. "These concepts of social and environmental justice are based on theories that are supposedly universal. However, what is perceived as an injustice, the possible recourse to the law, the responses of governments - all this obviously depends on the context", explains the anthropologist, who is delighted to be bringing together three fields in Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America. This "magnificent project" will be the subject of a symposium to be held in Montpellier from April 24 to 26, 2024.