Fragrant Frontier: The editors’ account – New Mandala

Sarah Turner, Annuska Derks and Jean-François Rousseau (eds) 2022. Fragrant Frontier. Global Spice Entanglements from the Sino-Vietnamese Uplands. NIAS Press.

Open Access:

Although we continuously discover a wide range of spices in our kitchen cabinets, their origins and commerce routes retain one thing of a legendary attract. In this e book, we work to demystify these roots and the spice commerce networks that begin within the Sino-Vietnamese uplands. Within this frontier, totally different ethnic teams are concerned in rising black cardamom (Lanxangia tsaoko), star anise (Illicium verum) and ‘cinnamon’ (Cinnamomum cassia, generally known as cinnamon) for native, regional, and international markets.

The manufacturing and commerce of those three spices have quite a few social, cultural, financial, and geographical expressions. Some are centuries previous, whereas others are a results of altering agro-ecological circumstances, latest state insurance policies, or revolutionary commerce alternatives. These spices are thus fascinating instances with which to discover the intersections of the lived practices of spice cultivation and manufacturing, and the globally increasing marketplace for ‘unique’ spices.

Our collective e book has three targets: 1) to foreground the experiences of the upland frontier farmers cultivating these spices and the livelihood impacts they’re dealing with and adapting to; 2) to research the varied actors concerned within the commodity chains that transfer and remodel these spices from upland farms to international markets; and three) to analyse the value-creation techniques that totally different people and firms alongside these commodity chains make use of to commerce these spices. We map the flows of those spices and tease out the facility imbalances that create benefits and downsides for people alongside these international commerce routes (see our Story Maps for visualisations of those flows).

Across the Sino-Vietnamese uplands, the ethnic minority farmers on the coronary heart of this assortment are primarily constructing livelihoods on the beginning nodes of the commodity chains explored right here. The farmers rising black cardamom are most frequently Hmong (a part of the Miao group in China) or Yao (Dao), and to a lesser extent Hani and Yi (Lô Lô in Vietnam). Star anise cultivators are predominantly Nùng or Tày, whereas Yao and Hmong are likely to “cinnamon” timber.

Most of those populations nonetheless base their livelihoods round a core staple crop of rice or maize, complemented by produce from residence gardens. Spices therefore are typically a complementary money crop. Yet, agrarian transitions and state-led “growth” schemes are more and more integrating these households into the market economic system. While some upland residents are hesitant to alter livelihood practices that they’ve relied upon for generations, others readily undertake new alternatives. The integration of conventional and fashionable agrarian applied sciences and practices can nonetheless create cultural and financial dilemmas, a lot of which turn into evident on this e book.

Conceptually we draw on debates from frontier and borderland research, rural livelihood literatures, understandings of the agrarian transition, and commodity chain analyses. Each of the e book’s chapters attracts from these broad conceptual discussions, whereas additionally highlighting extra particularly related conceptual literatures and critiques.

Gains and pain as Vietnam goes global

There is each shiny and darkish sides to Vietnam’s integration into the worldwide economic system.

In Chapter 2, “Vietnam’s star anise commodity chains entangled in flex-crop debates”, Sarah Turner and Annuska Derks be aware how little is understood about who cultivates this spice within the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands and the way it reaches shoppers around the globe. This is regardless of star anise having a number of usages and therefore potential to be thought-about a “flex crop” because of its function as a key element within the pharmaceutical manufacturing of the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu.

To examine the roles of actors alongside star anise commodity chains originating in northern Vietnam, we put commodity chain ideas into dialog with “flex crops” debates to disclose the intricate and idiosyncratic nature of the commodity chains upon which cultivator livelihoods rely. As these chains join uplands and lowlands by way of quite a few linkages, cultivators, intermediaries, wholesalers, exporters, and market merchants continually renegotiate their positions alongside the chains to take care of viable livelihoods.

For many concerned, monetary positive factors fluctuate wildly over time with unsure monetary returns and shifting calls for. We discover that the segmented information people have of those commodity chains retains many in a weak place. We thus query the effectiveness of the Vietnamese state’s present strategy to selling this commodity as a method to enhance native livelihoods.

In Chapter 3, “Cardamom cultivator issues and state missteps in Vietnam’s northern uplands”, Patrick Slack digs additional into the ways in which the Vietnamese state makes an attempt to combine upland ethnic minority farmers into the market economic system by way of rural growth initiatives selling cash- and mono-cropping and agricultural intensification.

Focussing on a Vietnamese upland district immediately on the borderline with Yunnan, Slack finds that state upland interventions have additionally been intersecting with growing excessive climate occasions. This potent mixture has resulted in notable declines in black cardamom yields. Ethnic minority cardamom cultivators subsequently take a look at, have interaction with, or ignore state-endorsed options and different alternatives as they see match, based mostly on their very own understandings and experiences of the native agro-ecological context. Despite persistent and intensified state interventions to coax upland farmers to domesticate monocultured money crops, livelihood portfolios stay various.

“Cinnamon” on the market in Hanoi. Image courtesy the authors.

In Chapter 4, “The style of cinnamon: The making of a specialty product in northern Vietnam”, Annuska Derks, Sarah Turner, and Ngô Thúy Hạnh deal with ethnic minority farmers cultivating what some international retailers check with because the “champagne of cinnamon” in northern Vietnam’s Yên Bái Province. A more in-depth examination reveals, nonetheless, that this spice isn’t so-called “true cinnamon” however Cassia, with the precise species remaining unsure.

Derks, Turner, and Ngô examine the making of “Vietnamese cinnamon” because it strikes from the hills of northern Vietnam to grocery store cabinets within the Global North. They element how totally different actors outline “Vietnamese cinnamon” and infuse it with oft-contradictory values. While the state and NGOs are likely to ignore ongoing taxonomic confusion, selling a advertising and marketing geographical indication (GI) to focus on the distinctiveness of this commodity, promoting methods within the Global North deal with different distinctions, reminiscent of remoteness, ethnicity, style, and well being advantages. Farmers, nonetheless, proceed to promote an vague product on the worldwide market, elevating questions relating to how worth is created alongside the Cassia chain, and who advantages.

Crossing the Sino-Vietnamese borderline, in Chapter 5, “Extreme climate occasions, cardamom livelihoods, and energy dynamics in Southwest China”, Jean-François Rousseau and Xu Yiqiang study the fallout from a sequence of maximum climate occasions that decimated black cardamom plantations in Yunnan. The authors examine how totally different actors have skilled the impacts of harvest failure and the value spike it drove alongside the cardamom commodity chains beginning in Yunnan.

Building from scholarship spanning vulnerability and livelihood research to commodity chains literature, Rousseau and Xu spotlight how energy relations and belief manifest in particular methods at totally different nodes alongside the cardamom commodity chains. They clarify why some actors alongside these chains have benefited from the acute climate occasions, whereas others haven’t.

Hani farmer together with her dried cardamom, Yunnan, China. Image courtesy the authors.

In Chapter 6, “False guarantees: Cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise boom-bust cycles in Yunnan, China”, Jennifer Langill and Zuo Zhenting discover the market processes and state campaigns which have pushed cardamom, Cassia, and star anise “booms” in China’s Yunnan Province. They discover that the surges finish as quickly and abruptly as they start. The various components concerned within the “crop busts” are discovered to incorporate market failure, climatic occasions, and inappropriate state-sponsored agrarian methods. These occasions create quite a few challenges for farmers, who undertake a spread of particular livelihood diversification methods to manage and adapt.

Drawing on “boom-bust” and livelihood scholarships, Langill and Zuo assist their evaluation with interviews performed with ethnic minority cultivators and native state officers in Yunnan’s borderlands. They spotlight the totally different vulnerabilities that farmers face and description the livelihood methods that farmers take up in response to their “spice bust” experiences.

In Chapter 7, “Marketing makeovers and mismatches of Vietnam’s quintessential spices”, Michelle Kee and Celia Zuberec observe how key actors commodify star anise, black cardamom, and “cinnamon” as a way to goal particular shopper priorities and preferences. Starting their journeys within the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands, these three spices are marketed in ways in which at occasions draw on distorted imaginaries of cultures, locations, and histories to entice shoppers within the Global North.

Kee and Zuberec reveal the stark contrasts between the realities for ethnic minority farmers, and the best way these farmers and their livelihoods are portrayed and marketed by totally different spice retailers in Asia and past. More particularly, the authors reveal how makes an attempt by authorities officers in Vietnam to create geographical indications (GIs) and regional product specialities are largely ignored or dismissed by each Vietnamese exporters and international wholesalers and retailers. These dynamics elevate questions as to how governments and NGOs within the Global South can greatest assist native cultivators.

In Chapter 8, “Reflections on aromatic frontier entanglements”, Sango Mahanty briefly contemplates and highlights a number of the key conceptual and empirical themes rising from the gathering as a complete. She concludes: “We have right here a borderland–frontier in a state of flux, the place social and environmental trajectories are various, dynamic, and consequential, not least for the ethnic minority communities who inhabit them”. What the longer term holds for these cultivators and different actors concerned within the international entanglements of spices from this aromatic frontier, would be the subsequent chapter of this advanced story.


You can discover three digital “StoryMaps” for the spices we deal with right here. These visually depict the commodity chains and actors that star anise, black cardamom, and “cinnamon” are entangled with, from upland ethnic minority cultivators within the aromatic frontier of the Sino-Vietnamese uplands to international shoppers. They may be seen at these hyperlinks:

Star Anise:

Black Cardamom:


About the Editors:

Sarah Turner is a Professor of Geography at McGill University. She is a growth geographer specializing in ethnic minority livelihoods, agrarian change, and on a regular basis resistance in upland northern Vietnam and southwest China. She additionally works with road distributors and different members of the cell casual economic system, in addition to small-scale entrepreneurs in city Southeast Asia. She is an editor of the journals Geoforum and Journal of Vietnamese Studies.

Annuska Derks is an Associate Professor and departmental co-director on the University of Zurich. She is a social anthropologist inquisitive about social transformation processes in Southeast Asia, specifically in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Her analysis focuses on migration, labour, gender, in addition to the social lives of issues, and interrogates discourses of growth and innovation.

Jean-François Rousseau is an Associate Professor on the University of Ottawa. He is a growth geographer with analysis specializing in the relationships between agrarian change, infrastructure growth – particularly hydropower dams and sand-mining – and ethnic minority livelihood diversification in Southwest China.



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