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date: 21 June 2018

Summary and Keywords

Plantation farming emerged as a large-scale system of specialized agriculture in the tropics under European colonialism, in opposition to smallholding subsistence agriculture. Despite large-scale plantations in the tropics, smallholdings have consistently formed the backbone of rural economies, to the extent that they have become the main producers of some of the former plantation crops. In the early 21st century, oil palm has become the third most important cash crop in the world in terms of area cultivated, largely due to the expansion of this crop in Malaysia and Indonesia. Although in these countries, oil palm is primarily cultivated in large plantations, smallholders cultivate a large share of the territory devoted to this crop. This is related to the programs set up by governments of Malaysia and Indonesia during the second half of the 20th century, to provide smallholders with land plots in capital intensive large-scale oil palm schemes. Despite the relative success encountered by these programs in both countries, policymakers have continued to insist on the development of private centrally managed large-scale plantations. Yet, smallholding family farming has remained the most resilient economic activity in rural areas of the tropics. This system has proven adaptive to environmental change and, given proper access to markets and capital, particularly responsive to market signals. Today, many small-holdings are still characterized by the diversity of crops cultivated, low use of chemical inputs, reliance on family labor, and high levels of ecological knowledge. These are some of the main factors explaining why small family farms have proven more efficient than large plantations and, in the long term, more economically and ecologically resilient. Yet, large-scale land acquisitions for monocrop production remain a current issue, highlighting the paradox of the latest stage of agrarian capitalism and of its persistent built-in disregard for environmental deterioration.

Keywords: plantation, smallholders, oil palm, tropics, environment

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