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Down to the Road: Landscape, Morality and Politics in Bidayuh Experiences of Resettlement


Project description

Liana Chua

This project examines notions of place, movement and morality among four remote rice-farming Bidayuh villages involved in a dam-building and resettlement scheme in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Since 2007, I have conducted short but regular stints of fieldwork among these communities, which, owing to numerous delays, have been living on the verge of resettlement to a planned township by the main road for over four years now.

My research centres on three key, overlapping themes. First, it explores the role that the landscape plays in Bidayuhs’ lives as a moral and affective space with its own material agency and temporality. In this capacity, it has historically mediated relations both within and between Bidayuh communities, and between Bidayuhs and the state. Over the last few years, all these relations have been destabilized by extensive alterations to the landscape, which has become a liminal, ‘troubled’ space marked equally by anxiety, anger, hope and expectation.

Secondly, the project examines the influence of religion on Bidayuh engagements with development and the state. Drawing on my doctoral and post-doctoral work, this project investigates the moral, political and ‘cultural’ influence of Christianity in my acquaintances’ responses to the dam-construction and resettlement scheme. To what extent, for example, has Christianity given the affected communities a means of dealing with or articulating their experiences of state-led development policies? How do its temporal models and modes of personhood shape their views of ‘modernization’, change and migration?

These two topics feed into a third interest in the anthropology of resistance and collaboration – and everything in between. Although the thorny relationship between these two concepts has been widely problematized in anthropological theory, they remain influential tropes in the contemporary world, shaping the way NGOs, politicians, the media and other onlookers have approached the resettlement scheme. While partly reflexive, my interest is also in discerning how ideasand discourses of ‘resistance’ and ‘collaboration’ – some of which straddle the boundary between academic and non-academic worlds – are being deployed in this particular situation.

Funding for this project was provided by a British Academy Small Research Grant (2008-2010) and by Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (2007-2010).