Large-scale Monocultures

Malaysian plantations

Monocropped plantations less efficient but easier to administer and tax.

tl;dr: Small=holding farms and agriculture typically more efficient in production, but large monoculture farm operations are less movable and easier for the state to tax.

How do we explain the decided colonial preference for plantation agriculture over smallholder production? The grounds for the choice can certainly not have been efficiency. For almost any crop one can name, with the possible exception of sugarcane," smallholders have been able historically to out-compete larger units of production. Time and time again, the colonial states found, small producers, owing to their low fixed costs and flexible use of family labor, could consistently undersell state-managed or private-sector plantations.


The fact that, in protecting the estate sector, the colonizers were also protecting the interests of their countrymen and those of metropolitan investors was only one factor in explaining their policy. If it were the main reason, one would expect the policy to lapse with the country's independence. As we shall shortly see, it did not. The plantations, although less efficient than smallholders as producers, were far more convenient as units of taxation. It was easier to monitor and tax large, publicly-owned businesses than to do so for a vast swarm of small growers who were here today and gone tomorrow and whose landholdings, production, and profits were illegible to the state. But because plantations specialized in a single crop, it was a simple matter to assess their production and profits. A second advantage of estate rubber production was that it typically provided centralized forms of residence and labor that were far more amenable to central political and administrative control. Estates were, in a word, far more legible communities than were the Malay kampung, which had its own history, leadership, and mixed economy.

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Grain farming in Montana

Even with the crops requiring little supervision, flat fields suitable for application of machinery, the (industrial) Campbell farm struggled.

The advantages industrial farms did have over smaller producers were of another kind. Their very size gave them an edge in access to credit, political influence (relevant to taxes, support payments, and the avoidance of foreclosure), and marketing muscle. What they gave away in agility and quality labor they often made up for in their considerable political and economic clout.

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Tanzanian polycropping

The order of the fields was replicated in the order of the plants within the fields. Tanzanian farmers often planted two or more crops together in the same field (a technique variously called polycropping, intercropping, or relay cropping). In the coffee-growing areas, for example, coffee was often interplanted with bananas, beans, and other annuals. For most agronomists, this practice was anathema. [...] While empirical evidence was even then mounting in favor of the ecological soundness and productivity of some intercropping regimes, the faith continued unabated. What is clear, however, is that monocropping and row planting vastly facilitate the work of administrators and agronomists.

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seeing-like-a-state Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press. ↩︎ 1 2 3