Intensifying translocal precarity: The impact of COVID-19 on smallholder farmers’ commodity production and social reproduction in Cambodia


Rosa Yi and W. Nathan Green

Area (2024)

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Abstract: Against a backdrop of agrarian transformation, COVID-19 intensified translocal precarity among smallholder farmers worldwide. As scholars of economic geography and agrarian studies have shown, smallholder households increasingly struggle to reproduce themselves through agrarian livelihoods alone, with many households compelled to migrate to urban centres, both domestic and foreign, to find employment. Consequently, smallholder farmers now experience precarity shaped by the translocal spaces of both production and social reproduction. In this paper, based on a qualitative study of smallholders in northwestern Cambodia conducted from 2019 to 2023, we argue that COVID-19 deepened the translocal precarity of smallholder households, who already had to struggle with volatile commodity production and uncertain labour migration. We explain how the pandemic led to urban job losses and forced workers to return to rural homes and farming. On the farm, pandemic restrictions on cross-border trade of agricultural inputs drove up production costs while competition for land between migrant returnees increased land rental fees, pushing many smallholders into debt traps following poor harvests. Indebted households responded by migrating to Thailand again, where labour demand for industrial production remained low after the pandemic, creating additional uncertainty about their migration journey. We conclude that the impacts of COVID-19 on smallholder households are usefully explained through the lens of translocal precarity. This approach reveals how the pandemic played out within a broader conjuncture of agrarian transformation, defined by adverse incorporation into transnational commodity markets, a lack of sustaining infrastructure in the countryside, and an increasingly debt-driven migration regime.

About the author: Rosa Yi is a HYI-NUS Joint Doctoral Scholar from 2021-2025.