Matrix Podcast: Interview with Youjin Chung

Professor Youjin Chung

In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Professor Michael Watts interviews Youjin Chung, Assistant Professor of Sustainability and Equity, with a joint appointment in the Energy and Resources Group and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Professor Chung’s work encompasses the political economy of development, feminist political ecology, critical agrarian and food studies, and African studies. She draws on ethnographic, historical, and participatory visual methods to examine the relationship between gender, intersectionality, development, and socio-ecological change in Sub Saharan Africa with a focus on Tanzania. She is interested in understanding how agrarian landscapes, livelihoods, and lifestyles articulate with capitalist forces, and how these processes of uneven encounter reshape the identities and subjectivities of rural women and men, as well as their relationships with the state, society, and the environment.

As she explains on her website, “What animates these research interests is the broader question of how public policies and capitalist processes that aim to achieve various sustainability goals often end up reinforcing pre-existing social inequalities, or marginalizing the very groups they intend to serve.”

She is currently working on a book manuscript, Sweet Deal, Bitter Landscape, which examines the gendered processes and outcomes of a stalled large-scale agricultural land deal in coastal Tanzania. Her second project, tentatively titled Flesh and Blood, investigates the role of gender, race, and species in the making of the “livestock revolution” in Tanzania and the wider region.

Previously, Dr. Chung was Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. She received her PhD and MSc in Development Sociology from Cornell University, and an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge, Jesus College. She completed a Dual BA in International Studies, and Journalism and Communication at Korea University.

Listen to the episode below, or on Apple Podcasts.


Podcast Transcript



Woman’s Voice: Welcome to the Matrix Podcast presented by Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. In this episode, Professor Michael Watts interviews Youjin Chung, assistant professor in the UC Berkeley department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Professor Chung has a joint appointment in the division of society and environment in the Energy and Resources Group. Professor Chung is currently working on a book manuscript, Sweet Deal, Bitter Landscape, which examines the gendered processes, and outcomes of a stalled large scale agricultural land deal in Tanzania.

Michael Watts: Hello, everyone and welcome to Social Science Matrix Podcasts. These podcasts are an opportunity to showcase some of the social science research that’s being conducted on the Berkeley campus. And we typically talk to postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and UC Berkeley faculty about their new research about forthcoming books or books recently published.

And I’m delighted today to be able to welcome Professor Youjin Chung to our discussions. Youjin is a relatively recent arrival here on the Berkeley campus. She came, unfortunately for her, in the midst of COVID, which, of course, as for everyone is compromised just about everything that we do. But we’re delighted to have her here today to talk to us.

Youjin is of Korean extraction, as we say. She did her completed her undergraduate education in Korea before coming to or transferring, excuse me, to Cambridge University where she completed a master’s degree in development studies and then on to Cornell University where she completed her PhD in 2018 in development sociology.

Youjin was appointed at Clark University after graduation and came to Berkeley in the Energy and Resources Group and the Environmental Sciences Policy Management School in 2020.

And she’s a scholar of Africa as we’ll see and is just completing now a book length manuscript, which is emerged from her doctoral work entitled Sweet Deal, Bitter Landscape, Gender Politics of Liminality in Tanzania. And we’ll be talking about that today. Youjin, welcome. And thank you so much for generating a little time to talk to me today.

Youjin Chung: Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Watts: So Youjin, if you have no objection, I thought I would begin with a little discussion about your own background and formation. You were born and raised in Korea. And I think it’s fair to say as a I’m a scholar of Africa too we share these interests, I don’t think there are a large number of Korean scholars of Africa who certainly write in English.

So let me start with your own formation particularly at university and how is it– how it was that you came to have a set of interests in Africa, in agriculture, in land issues, in gender theory, your areas of expertise.

Chung: Sure, long story, but I can say start from– yeah, I was born and raised in Korea. And at the age of 10 my family moved to the US. And so we lived in Virginia for a little over five years and then I ended up moving back to Korea to complete high school and then to attend college where I double majored in international studies and journalism.

And I think several life experiences and memories that I had as a child made me want to study something of global international and nature. At one point I had this vague dream in my mind that I wanted to be an international correspondent and a journalist. And my dad would always go on to talk about Connie Chung on CNN. And there was some a pipe dream I guess on his part.

But in retrospect, I think my perspectives on the global were really informed by my childhood experiences, as I said. One of them was really my earliest memory that I had of my grandmother was learning how to count in Japanese. And so my grandparents, they lived under Japanese occupation, which lasted between 1910 and 1945.

And during which time, especially during the late colonial period teaching learning and speaking in Korean was prohibited in a campaign of cultural assimilation, it’s something that I took for granted as a child, but that kept haunting me later in life. It’s made me wonder what it means to be displaced from your own mother tongue, your cultural practices, and what it means to be a postcolonial subject.

And I think another formative event was when my family moved to the US in the summer of 1997 at the outset of the Asian financial crisis. And that was just six months after the nation had joined the OECD, the so-called rich man’s nation, the rich man’s club in 1996.

And it was a period when the International Monetary Fund, the IMF became a household name for everyone when thousands of people lost their jobs and when people participated in this nationwide gold collecting campaign to raise foreign currency to pay off the IMF debt.

A lot of these structural dynamics and why this all happened was, of course, lost on me as a child, but glimpses of what I saw on television, like the Korean cable TV that my parents watched in the US, stuck with me for a long time.

And so I read International studies, decided to study that because I thought it was interesting. And I wanted to learn more about these dynamics. And I enjoyed my professors. I loved the curriculum to some extent. But I felt limited in the sense that I was taking a lot of classes in international economics, commerce, finance with a lot of heavy emphasis on regions like East Asia, European Union, North America. And that’s not what I had in mind initially when I enrolled.

Watts: Can I ask you? Is Africa or the study of Africa institutionalized in Korean universities in the same way that we have centers of African studies on the Berkeley campus? I mean, was it easy to even discover or find classes on Africa when you were an undergraduate?

Chung: No, absolutely not. I mean, there is– I think, I believe there’s one university it’s like a foreign language university that they teach like languages, but not so much about the politics and history. And so in my third year, I applied to study abroad in London at the School of Oriental African Studies and that really changed the way I looked at the world.

And I spent hours in the SOAS library. I took courses in African studies, development studies, started learning Swahili for the first time. These are fields as I said they’re practically nonexistent in Korea. And this has much to do with the varying histories and geographies of imperialism and colonialism, the origin of area studies.

And at SOAS I remember feeling super intrigued by comparative politics in Africa, the colonial and postcolonial history in Tanzania in particular where following independence from Britain the state embraced socialism. Around the same time the postcolonial Korea was under authoritarian military rule. I thought those comparisons is uneven and combined development was super fascinating.

And fast forward, after graduating from college I went into volunteer in Tanzania in Southwest Zanzibar through the Korea international volunteer organization where I worked with local villagers among other things on their farms, mostly with women where I really learned for the first time what it meant to live on and with the land and the soil. I’ve never had that experience growing up in the city in urban areas.

And I think I after that experience I thought I needed to reflect on what I just did, what I observed. And that’s when I decided to go on to pursue my master’s in development studies at Cambridge. And I also wanted to get a more deeper historical and theoretical grounding on development, and especially agriculture and rural development from a more interdisciplinary perspective.

And at Cambridge I took courses for the first time in anthropology geography. These are also disciplines that are not very much available in Korea. And I think when I was an undergraduate there was only one University that offered degrees in anthropology, for instance. So these are really new for me. And I think at Cambridge I was introduced to political ecology for the first time and again, fields that I had no prior exposure to.

Watts: And so was your training their resolutely interdisciplinary? In a way you were– it was I take it a development studies program. So you were, as you were suggesting, drawing upon anthropology, geography, political science, et cetera, et cetera in the way that you came to think about your experiences in Tanzania.

Chung: Yeah, it was really interdisciplinary. I mean, there were a set of courses we all had to take, development econ, sociology, political science courses, but we could take electives. And I gravitated towards the course offerings in anthropology and geography, political ecology to that–

Watts: What led you to then move back across the Atlantic to Cornell? I presume you had the opportunity of continuing in the UK and you know better than that UK has a number of absolutely world class doctoral programs in development studies at Sussex and Cambridge and Oxford and London and so on and so forth. So what brought you back this side, as we say?

Chung: I think there are a number of factors. I mean, the funding for PhD programs there weren’t as attractive and being a foreign student it was hefty sum of money. The master’s program that I was part of is only a one-year program where more or less nine months. And so I did apply to PhD programs as soon as I started not having any clue of what I wanted to study.

And there was no surprise there. I didn’t get into any programs that year. And I thought I needed some time to really think about what I really wanted to study. So after Cambridge I had an opportunity to go work at an international development NGO called ActionAid where my work revolved around research and communications at the intersections of food rights, land rights, and women’s rights.

And at around 2010, ActionAid alongside other NGOs and social movements were mobilizing and launching campaigns against what became known as a global land grab or the global land rush. And I can talk a little bit more about that later or–

Watts: Yeah, we’ll talk about that later because that’s obviously the heart of your research. But Cornell was attractive in addition to the fact that they had I take it a generous funding for you. But Cornell has a long storied history in political economy development studies and so on. Was that what in particular attracted you to that institution?

Chung: Yeah, so when I was working at ActionAid and doing supporting my colleagues with the campaign work, I did a lot of research on the side to see how academics are making sense of this phenomenon because to me– there was a lot of heavy focuses on the contemporary dynamics of global land grabbing, whereas for me thinking back to the colonial histories and neocolonial tendencies, these are all really deeply historical phenomena.

And I saw and read a lot of the works that were coming out from Cornell from my former advisors in the development sociology at Cornell. And so that intrigued me. And that’s how I applied and ended up there actually.

Watts: Well, let’s talk about land in Africa, land grabs in particular. I suspect our listening audience may not have a full grasp of the complexity of these issues. But just walk us through, if you would, why this language of land grabbing, of enclosure, some people see this in a more Marxist register of primitive accumulation, but whatever language we use, what was the nature of it?

And as you were suggesting in your work in ActionAid, why did this begin to emerge in the 2000s as an issue of some significance for both activists and for the policy world, development expertise, et cetera?

Chung: [COUGHS] Excuse me. So the phenomena of global land grabbing refers to a significant surge in land acquisitions around the world, especially in the Global South by a wide range of actors, including national governments, corporations, individual and institutional investors like pension funds, hedge funds, university endowments to produce and speculate on agriculture and various natural resource commodities.

And this phenomenon accelerated in the wake of the combined global crises in food, fuel, finance of 2007 and ’08 though it had already been underway beginning with the biofuel’s boom in the early 2000. So with the biofuel’s boom there’s quite a lot of rush to acquire land, land for large scale monoculture production of agricultural feedstocks, such as maize, sugarcane, soybean, Jatropha, the fermented sugars, and starches from which they could be converted to ethanol or fossil fuel alternatives.

And the 2008 was an important conjuncture in that the food price and the fuel prices really coincided and also was met with the subprime mortgage crisis, which later culminated into a full blown international banking and financial crisis by the late 2008-2009.

And the perfect storm of these global crises culminated in contributed to the surge in land acquisitions across borders and it was interesting in the fact that it involved actors that had previously not been part of the traditional colonial enclosures, the corporations, the transnational nature, as well as those institutional investors like the university endowments that we don’t normally associate with farmland investments.

Watts: And I mean, just to give us a sense of the scale of these land acquisitions in Africa, in Tanzania and what are we talking about here, and of course I take it these acquisitions are often involved acquiring, and you may want to talk about this, how they’re acquired, acquiring land from large numbers of smallholders, peasants, et cetera, et cetera, and aggregating this land. So just give us a sense of the scale and what it entailed to assemble this land.

Chung: Sure. I think the first transnational land deal that grabbed popular attention was the South Korean land deal. The South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had acquired 1.3 million hectares of land in Madagascar, that’s about one third of the nation’s arable land to grow corn, maize for export to Korea for feed, animal feed predominantly.

And I’m trying to recall. There was a World Bank report that came out in 2011 and it found that between 2008 and 2009 foreign investors had expressed interest in approximately I believe it was 56 million hectares of farmland globally of which about 70% was reportedly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa. And so that raised concerns about this new scramble for Africa and neocolonialism and those discourses to describe this phenomenon.

Watts: I’m sure this happens in a multiplicity of ways, but how is the land, first of all, actually assembled and concentrated? Is this through a market mechanism? Is this through the state exercising eminent domain? And so there’s the mechanism and whether it’s licit or illicit. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit too in relationship to that of the quite different types of actors that you had just mentioned and what role they play in that land acquisition.

Chung: Yeah, there are different types of acquisition. It could be outright purchases, it could be leases, or even pure speculation commodity futures and all that kind of stuff. But in the context where I work in Tanzania and many Sub-Saharan African countries where the state is the sole landowner or the predominant land owner, a lot of the mechanism has involved compulsory acquisitions or eminent domain that we call here in the United States.

So in Tanzania, the land is nationalized. So it’s owned by the state or vested in the president on behalf of all citizens. And it’s really an outgrowth carry over from the colonial period when land belonged to vested in the governor in the British period on behalf of so-called common benefit of the natives and that carried over to the postcolonial period.

And so to assemble land really, I mean, there are different steps that are written in the playbook the government uses, but hasn’t really been followed straightforward. I mean, for instance, in Tanzania there supposed to be this land bank that investors are supposed to go to this Tanzania investment center and the investment center will offer investors with this menu of land available in the country.

But there’s been critiques because there’s really not enough land in the bank in the first place. And based on my interviews with government officials, they say it just exists on paper because in order for us to have a land bank, we needed to have acquired it from the villagers and had to have paid compensation to them, but we don’t have the money to pay compensation to these villagers.

And so it ends up being really haphazard and ad hoc. So the land deal that I looked at in Tanzania in particular, the investor had actually gone through multiple channels, a district level, the regional level, and to the point that it went directly to the president. And the president said, hey, go to my home district. There is this land that’s sitting empty and idle. It used to be a former state cattle ranch, but it seems like it’s empty and you can use it when, in fact, there have been people living on the land for generations.

Yeah, so there is combination of licit and illicit elements. I mean, the land acquisition as it was the transfer of titles and all that is maybe considered legal, but the way the processes in which it arrived to that point is quite murky and less transparent.

Watts: And I take from your reference that the actors involved aren’t necessarily directly managing the land. I mean, if it’s a hedge fund, if it’s a sovereign wealth fund from the Middle East that is acquiring 200,000 hectares, they, I take it, may in turn lease that land or the management of the actual production, whatever that may be. We’ll get to these things in Tanzania in a second. So there intermediaries of some sort that are actually involved on the ground management and the production of these commodities for the world market?

Chung: I can say for the case that I looked, I mean, there are multiple, the institutional investors might have their own portfolio managers to do that work. But the case that I looked at was Swedish investor with family ties to major Swedish corporations like Volvo and IKEA.

And they ended up actually doing quite a lot of the legwork themselves. So they ended up creating their Tanzanian subsidiary and establishing their country offices and trying to do work in country, but also hiring a lot of consultants and contractors, engineers to do the underground work for them.

Watts: And is it fair to generalize and say that the commodities produced, whatever they may be, were largely for export markets or was some of this corn destined for domestic consumption?

Chung: I think it’s safe to say that most of them were targeted for export and that’s when the whole debate about food versus– food debate came on. What does it mean to produce maize on 20,000 hectares of land that used to be smallholder farmers land, but you’re actually growing food to export not to convert to ethanol than to feed the people that are food insecure? And so it caused a lot of ethical concerns.

I think it is safe to say that most of the commodities that are produced, if they are produced are often going to places like Europe, East Asia, or Middle East because initially some of the actors that were involved, including national governments that engaged in global land grabbing, were countries like South Korea and Saudi Arabia that were net food importers. When the food crisis hit, they needed to secure food for their own citizens, for their own food security. And so that had that dynamic there.

Watts: Absolutely. One last question before we move on to your work specifically. You mentioned the word speculation in regard to large scale land acquisition. Does this imply that at least some part of this story that you’ve just told us is about land becoming a type of asset class that is speculated upon without necessarily being primarily motivated exclusively as it were by a desire to enhance agricultural productivity to produce corn or produce palm oil, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera?

And I’m posing that question in part because in your own work you’ve talked a great deal about how a number of these projects is that were come to naught, they end up fizzling, or the land remains fallow, or idle, et cetera. So how do you see that, let’s call it the financialization, of agriculture around large scale land acquisition.

Chung: I think the motivations really differ depending on the actor. So for institutional investors that flew the real estate market in the Global North during the subprime mortgage crisis or the financial crisis, I think they searched for alternative places to bet their money and they invested in agricultural commodity futures farmland and to speculate on high returns from rising food and fuel prices at the time.

And it’s interesting you pose that question about speculation in relation to deals that don’t go forward. And I think that’s an interesting way to look at it because I’ve looked at it mostly in terms of these deals that have all these ambitions and all these promises, but that don’t go forward not necessarily because land became a financial asset or different kinds of asset class, but because of their historical and political and social factors that prevent deals from actually being implemented on the ground, being able to complete as it were. And I’d be happy to talk more about that too.

Watts: Absolutely. I’d like to turn to your work specifically because obviously what you’ve just said raises all manner of questions about what type of popular opposition or resistance there may be to this land acquisition, et cetera, et cetera. Now you obviously worked in Tanzania and you’ve mentioned that it was a Swedish project.

Before we get into the weeds of all of that, let me ask you a question about your field research. You lived and worked there for 18 months and you’d previously spent time in that part of the world purely at the level of the field work of what we would call methodology I suppose in social sciences.

As an Asian-Korean woman I’m sure there weren’t too many in the part of Tanzania where you worked. How were you seen, perceived? What slot, what position did you occupy? I mean, China obviously has a massive footprint currently around the world in the global South Africa in particular, especially in the types of areas that I work around oil and gas.

Were you as it were seen to be somehow part of that global Chinese presence or not? And how did you navigate whatever difficulties may or issues may have emerged in the course of your fieldwork as a Korean woman?

Chung: Yeah, I mean, the questions of this identity, power, and positionality is something that I think about often. And I think being transparent about those relations and the partiality of knowledge that is produced as a result is important and I like to talk about that.

And I reflect on these things not only in relation to field work, but just what it means to occupy– what it means to be a minority in a dominant culture and that’s what I’ve done throughout my whole life. And it’s different although in Tanzania because there’s all this postcolonial power dynamics that is involved in that.

So yeah, racially and ethnically I am and I was and I continue to be positioned in somewhat awkward hierarchy racial ordering in Tanzania. So in Swahili vocabulary, I am neither a mzungu, a White European, I am not a Hindi, I’m Indian, or Africa mwenyeji. I’m not Black African or native. I’m neither of these things.

And this is the tripartite racial order that was established under colonial rule. And as you say, there’s this new category emerging called China or Chinese. Of course, I’m not Chinese, but there are some times that I was called that, mistaken as one, especially in urban areas.

In the villages, people called me like Dada Korea, which means a Korean sister. But most people called me mzungu. And I would ask people and they would say it’s just a practice that is practice born out of convenience and habit. And I thought a lot about that.

And this process of racialization or racial misreading signaled to me the hegemony of this colonial racial taxonomy that continues to endure in the current moment and the power, privilege, and status that people afford my assumed discursive whiteness. So people saw me as White, by virtue of my appearance, education, mobility, various material possessions, including a car, a beat up one, and the ability to drive.

And so I think the whole process of fieldwork was as much shaped by people’s sense of confusion and curiosity towards my peculiar whiteness as it was by my own negotiations and questioning of the complex webs of these postcolonial power relations in which my research participants and I were together entangled and trying to negotiate.

Watts: Let me ask, that preexisting racial order and the fact that you did not in some sense fit particular categories or fit awkwardly, as you’ve just described it, did that translate– I mean, practically now in terms of what we do as scholars, we administer surveys, we interview people, we have focus groups, we talk to government officials. Did that work for and/or against you in some way in the course of your fieldwork?

Chung: It took a while to gain people’s trust, as it always does. And having gone multiple years every summer before I did the longer term field work certainly helped. But there were certain times when it got tricky. And so, for instance, there was a village meeting that people invited me to. It’s a public meeting. And it was a public meeting. It was of a listening session with the district land officials and whatnot.

So I was sitting in the back with the women and just chatting and waiting to see what’s going to happen. And the district authority showed up and it was like a gathering of maybe 200 something people. And the district authorities called me out and she was like, you come to the front.

And so I was made to go in front of all these people. And the authorities kept interrogating me. So who are you? Where are your papers? And of course, I had all my research from residents, from all those permits that I got in my backpack all the time and I showed them.

But they were like, oh, this is a meeting for private matters. You’re not supposed to be here. And so I was kicked out of that meeting and I was like, OK, I understand. I’m not wanted here. I’m not going to make a big trouble. I’m going to leave. And some people are really sympathetic. They were like texting, are you OK?

Whereas, some people that I haven’t met, they were concerned. They were concerned that maybe talking to this so-called White person, White woman is maybe not to my benefit. Maybe I’ll get in trouble by doing that because she was kicked out of this meeting by district authorities. And so those I think encounters made it difficult. But with those that I’ve had maintained relationships with, especially the village leaders, they were able to facilitate my meetings with other households.

But yeah, there were definitely moments of discomfort and fear of the local residents and also because there were not many, but few people were wondering what I was initially like, was she a researcher? Or is she an NGO worker? Is she a part of the company? Is she a Chinese investor? Those sorts of things. So it does tremendously shape the course of fieldwork.

Watts: I presume in particular– and we’ll get to the company and the project right now– but I presume particularly when one is studying a company, a corporate form, in this case, the problems that are in a way epistemological problems that arise by being associated with that thing that you’re studying, the presumption that you’re a worker, or you’re sympathetic to them or you’re of the same racialized category and therefore, in some sense have an affiliation with them, I presume these issues can be quite tricky when you’re particularly studying explicitly the presence and character and so on of these large scale land acquisitions.

Chung: Yeah, I think what people– I mean, I stuck around despite all that was happening. And the Swedish corporate executives never really came to Bagamoyo, the field site. And there were these project consultants that were hired in between to train people how to do non-agricultural work and there were these paramilitary forces around.

And there are multiple actors that came in and out of the field. The way they engaged with local communities is very discontinuous. But I think some people saw me as a constant. And one person said to me like these people are coming in and out. Why are you still here? And I’m like, well, I’m not one of them.

Watts: Exactly, exactly, exactly.

Chung: Yeah, I think having–

Watts: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s turn to the projects. I’d like our listeners have an opportunity to hear what you did and why. So you’ve mentioned it was a Swedish project and that they did their homework as you might expect with their consultants and engineers and working with government officials and land administrators, and so on.

In one particular district, Bagamoyo, Phyllis a little bit on the details of what the project was attempting to acquire. And what it was about that project that particularly interested you. Was it the question of how land was acquired, or was it a series of questions about material and economic benefits derived from this project in these communities, or political resistance? What was the domain that particularly drew your attention?

Chung: So the project is known as the EcoEnergy Sugar Project. And in this project the Tanzanian government transferred approximately 20,400 hectares of land in the coastal district of Bagamoyo under a 99-year lease to the Swedish company who promised to mobilize over $500 million for commercial sugarcane production.

And this project was supposed to be the nation’s first sugarcane plantation to be established in the country in over 40 years. And it had envisaged to achieve so many ambitious goals.

So they were attempting to produce about 150,000 tons of sugar to resolve the national sugar deficit and 12,000 cubic meters of ethanol to address global climate change and 90,000 megawatt hours of electricity to support rural electrification. And all the while creating 20,000 new jobs, including the training of more than 2,000 local farmers as outgrower or contract farmers.

And I think what really intrigued me about this project was it was promoted as a public private partnership for development. And because it was packaged as a development project, it gained the promises of funding support from the African Development Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the Swedish International Development Agency. So it became a development project when, in fact, it was actually a private investment at a different phase to it than some of the other land deals that I’ve seen.

Watts: When did you arrive in the course of the development of this obviously large and very ambitious multi-year project?

Chung: Yeah, I forgot to mention that the project itself was initiated in 2005 and ’06. So it had been a while since the project actually came into being. But when I arrived for the first time in 2013, the project was about to start. There was quite a lot of commotion and the resettlement action plan for the African Development Bank was already published and they had this phased plan on how they’re going to remove people from the land.

But when I arrived in 2013, things seemed to move a little bit, but people were still on the land. They were very confused on when they might be moved. No one had told them when, whether they were going to be compensated, how much, in what form. And if they’re going to give it going to be given land, they don’t know where they’re going to be moved to.

And initially, I was like, OK, I want to follow these people as they’re being displaced in real time and try to understand how they’re making sense of this process, how they’re negotiating and experimenting with new land and the processes of production and social reproduction.

But when I returned the following year, people were still on the land. I thought it was, oh my gosh, people are still here. That’s amazing. They haven’t been displaced yet, but there were faced with a number of other challenges. They had not been displaced, but they have been faced with restrictions on land use.

They were told not to grow anything with permanent roots like trees or build any permanent housing when their families were expanding. There were a lot of restrictions on land use and livelihoods that people felt really constrained by. And people began to tell me that they were feeling like they were living like refugees on their land. They felt like they couldn’t build their lives either here or there know. They felt stuck.

And so I went back and I thought this project is being delayed. How do I think about this project differently? And I made that my ethnographic object. So what happens when a deal like this, a project, or investment, or whatever you want to call it, becomes stalled and delayed and is liminal for a long time, what changes does it bring about nonetheless despite its stalled nature? That’s when I reframed my project and went on to do longer term fieldwork in 2015.

Watts: Now, one of the things that you’ve written about and published about is the particular role of law as it appears as a mechanism, as a means that villagers, various types of local actors can deploy as this process that you’ve just been describing slowly begins to roll out and there are constraints on what people can and cannot do, et cetera, et cetera.

And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why you gravitated to law and the ways in which legality and the judicial domain played a significant and role in the story that you tell.

Chung: Sure, the pieces about lawfare that I called, so I was trying to understand how people are responding to and resisting their predicament whether the land deal itself or the condition of liminality produced by this stalled land deal and, what are the gender dynamics in shaping people’s reactions?

And when I got there in 2013, there was already a lawsuit that was lodged by three male elders from one of the communities within the investment concession. And at first blush I felt, wow, OK, these people are taking action. There’s got to be something really interesting here and they must have a really good reason why they are taking the government and the corporation to court.

But after multiple years of doing interviews and observations and going through court documents and secondary documents, there was something really odd about the lawsuit that these three elders lodged. So the lawsuit was lodged in 2012 against the district authorities, national authorities, or corporate entities.

And I learned soon after that the three main plaintiffs although they’ve filed this lawsuit claiming to speak on behalf of over 500 local people, most of the 500 people that they had signed the petition for this lawsuit were not from the local area. They were elites in urban areas and there a lawyer also happened to have bought land within the concession from the male elders the plaintiffs. So there’s something really odd there.

And what that really revealed to me was not only the way that it was exclusionary towards other legitimate resource users, including the male elders wives, but also the privilege of male elders and leaders have in shaping the narratives around who has the right to belong and who does not and how they can actually co-opt legal mechanisms to their own benefit at the cost of marginalizing and invalidating the land rights of many, many others who are eking their lives from the land, livelihoods from the land.

Watts: And the identities that you’re referring to here obviously invoke gender and the exclusion, in this case, of elders elites local elites wives. But is this a multiethnic area or what other forms of identity tend to be excluded, young people or is it a generational issue? What are the sorts of dynamics that you ended up exploring as this process unfolded?

Chung: So coastal Tanzania has a long history of migration. So the town of Bagamoyo was a terminus of the East African slave and ivory trade in the 19th century. And that brought in many, many different ethnic groups from the interior of the country.

And there was a lot of racial and ethnic mixing between the local coastal indigenous ethnic groups with the more interior ethnic groups from the interior, as well as Arabs and other Indians that came into the coast for trade.

So the coastal region is a particular in that it’s very multiethnic, it’s very diverse. So there’s not a single ethnic group that really dominates and that’s really the– I would say that’s true for Tanzania more broadly because that was the strategic way.

The first president, Julius Nyerere, did a lot, what works to quell what he calling the tribalism. They wanted ethnic unity, national unity. So ethnicity was brought up, but was not always a primary form of belonging although the elders did– one of the elders did claim and play up his coastal indigenous ethnicity to shore up his birthright to be there. But it was not something that everyone did.

And for me, the primary forms of difference was largely gender, but gender is also not a singular form. So there are variations within people’s age, their class, and their marital status, or residential status, whether there are long-term residents versus more recent migrants. So all these variations and gradations of status within gender that I was really particularly concerned about not only in that particular article, but in the book as a whole.

Watts: Absolutely. You use the language of the project stalling and your study then became, in a sense reframed around the implications of such stalling. We’re five, six years on now and realize you haven’t probably been able to visit in the last year or so. But where are things now?

Have these exclusions that you were talking about generate some form of local organization to begin to contest the types of dynamics that you’ve just described or has the project made huge forward leaps as it were in which, these sorts of issues that you’re describing of being as it were resolved at least at the level of production and so on?

Chung: I have a lot to say about that. So the year after I left the long-term fieldwork 2016, at that point the project was still– the trajectory of it was so much uncertain. And then shortly afterwards, the Tanzanian governor revoked the investors land title.

And I mean, one of the reasons that I discuss in the book the reason why the project became stalled, I know I argue in the book that because the project became enmeshed in this really complicated landscape where there are these overlapping claims.

And one of the reasons that the government gave for revoking the title was that they wanted to save this national park that was adjacent to and overlapped with the project area. And anyway, so the government revoked the land title and the investor fought back.

So the investor took the government, they opened an arbitration case the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes. And the case is still ongoing. The company still exist and it will exist as long as this pending arbitration comes to a close.

But when the government revoked the land title, they said it was– they were doing that not to protect local people’s land rights, but to save the national park. And what was really interesting was that a year after the revoking the land title, the government actually gave the same land away to a domestic investor, an Indian investor, again, for the same sugarcane production.

And the timing of this revocation is important because it coincided with the regime change. Initially, the project was very much backed by the former president who was from Bagamoyo. And the new president was not willing to continue the investments that had been espoused by the predecessor. And so there were a lot of these political economic dynamics that shaped the land deal’s future.

And as of now from what I understand the domestic investor that the government and transfer the land to afterwards have began clearing the land. So I’ve been able to talk to the individuals who are actually displaced. So some people have remained on the land, but some portions of land have been cleared to build a factory and to plant sugarcane. And so some people have been displaced.

And it was really disheartening and heartbreaking to hear in the sense that the compensation they received was paltry. And the figures that I’ve received just recently in the past couple of months range anywhere from say maybe $1 to maybe $200. And it really ranged significantly.

And the male elders that had previously lodged the lawsuit, they seem to have been the beneficiary of the heaviest, the highest sum of compensation. So you can think about the different political dynamics, local political dynamics, and patronage that have gone in the process.

Watts: In your view given where the project is now, is there a larger story here really a political story of struggles by powerful political actors within and outside of the Tanzanian state?

And that justification that the government gave about the national park was largely a bit of a ruse. And what was at stake here was in fact a type of ferocious internal political struggle in which certain powerful domestic capitalist interests that you invoked Asian capital in some sense seemingly is winning out. Is this the type of big framing that you see as produced this radical kaleidoscopic shift in this project?

Chung: For me, this case, how this land deal came about, the conjunction which it came about, the way it became stalled, and how it was governed and experience raises broader questions about development and late agrarian capitalism in which investor, states, donor agencies are together implicated in this plunder and continued plunder and management of rural resources and livelihoods and landscapes.

But not always. They can’t do that always as you please. They are confronted with this local particularities and historical geographical specificities that really deter this trajectory of these projects however ambitious they are.

And so I think studying for me this meandering trajectory of this land deal made me rethink, what is it that we know about modernization theory and how we need to really continue debunking that? That’s so powerful. It’s a powerful ideal that continues to persist that investors can come in and grab land and turn it into monocultures and generate profit. It doesn’t always happen.

And of course, there are times when it does happen. But in the cases that I’ve seen in other cases in Tanzania it often has not been the case. And so think rethinking this linear evolutionary trajectory of development that has become so the norm and the ideal for many investors and states.

Watts: Thank you. Let me ask you one last question. You mentioned in passing Julius Nyerere, the first president, this enormously charismatic character and his own socialist vision for the country Ujamaa and so on.

In the story that you’ve just told us, is there any residue of that period in any way at the level of Bagamoyo and how citizens and villagers in some sense view the world and their way and their place in it or the Tanzanian state or is that something now that’s history, it’s in the trashcan of history, it was a noble experiment and that’s that as it were? How do you see that period in its legacies?

Chung: It’s still so much alive. I mentioned earlier that the investment concession used to also be a state cattle ranch. And the reason that the cattle ranch was made possible, because that land had previously been settled by people and they were forced to move. During Ujamaa villagization. They were forced to move to other established villages.

And so when that area became available once people left, then the land became, sorry, the cattle ranch. And so people still go back to that. They’re like, oh, we were evicted from this land and we have the right to go back. And so when the ranch closed in 1990s, people began resettling the area.

And when the government said you’re not supposed to be here. They would say, well, this was our land before Ujamaa, before villagization. So this is where we’ve been the whole time. And so people tend to reclaim what was previously theirs. But the resonance, the legacies of which I still live on they are– people talk about it and they’re especially elders of the generations that lived through that period.

And there’s a saying that people always say, they say serikali ni serikali, which means government is government. And that’s the phrase that they used to say during the socialist period that government is government. Government will do things it needs to be done even if it means displacing millions of people from the land.

Watts: Well, Youjin, thank you so much for generating a little time. It was a fascinating conversation. We will provide some links on the Matrix website for people who are interested in following up and reading some of your work.

And I’m hoping that perhaps when your book appears we’ll have you back and we can talk a little bit more about your wonderful work and perhaps the project will have a new story to tell by that point. It sounds to me like it’s had these fantastic ups and downs and twists and turns and ruptures and so on that make it absolutely a fascinating story. So once again, thank you so much for being with us today.

Chung: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit




You May Like

Matrix On Point


Published May 21, 2021

Matrix on Point: America’s Pursuit of Racial Justice

A "Matrix on Point" panel on the long (and continuing) struggle for racial justice in America led to a thought-provoking conversation among Professors Monica Bell, from Yale Law School; Leigh Raiford, from UC Berkeley; and Brandon M. Terry, from Harvard University. Moderated by UC Berkeley's Christopher Muller.

Learn More >

Affiliated Centers


Published May 19, 2021

President Biden’s First 100 Days: An Assessment

Recorded on April 22, 2021, and presented by UC Berkeley's Citrin Center for Public Opinion Research, an online panel evaluated the first 100 days of the Biden Administration.

Learn More >

Matrix Book Salon


Published May 11, 2021

Matrix Book Salon: “Race to the Bottom: How Racial Appeals Work in American Politics”

Recorded on May 7, 2021, this UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix Book Salon featured the book, "Race to the Bottom: How Racial Appeals Work in American Politics," by LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University, who was joined in conversation by Taeku Lee, Professor of Political Science and Law at UC Berkeley.

Learn More >