Southeast Asian Frontiers Workshop

The Southeast Asian Frontier Workshop is interested in hosting innovative discussions concerning the ongoing or past process of frontierization in Southeast Asian locales. The workshop aims to catalyze productive academic discussion and production concerning Southeast Asian frontiers while fostering a network of Southeast Asianists who hold academic interest in the region’s frontiers. Participants across the discipline of humanities, social science, and environmental studies are welcome to join. This workshop is a planned series, with each series discussing a specific geographical designation. For the first series, we will start with the Southeast Asian highlands.

Series #1


Virtual + On-site

Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 
August 18 – 20, 2022

Frontier is an asymmetric socio-spatial designation imposed by centralized power over marginal places. It carries overlapping meanings and functions: an ever-expanding space sustaining capitalist expansion, the limit of state power and capitalist reach, and an imagined wild and empty space that invites settlers’ imagination of conquest and reward. An imposition of a frontier category over highlands’ nature and people often entails the (re-)ordering of marginal political-economic conditions, sociocultural lives, environment, and human-nature relationships. Various experimentations are embedded in this (re-)ordering, including economic exploitation, technocracy, territory, science, and technology. The SEAF Workshop Series #1 aims at discussing the initiations, processes, and impacts of frontierization of Southeast Asian highlands’ nature and people.

Keynote Speakers:

Tania Muray Li Picture

Tania Murray Li

(University of Toronto)

Two Capitalisms, Two Commodity Frontiers: A View from Indonesia

In Indonesia there are two distinct types of commodity frontier, and two configurations of capitalist relations. One is the corporate-occupied commodity frontier, colonized by plantations, mines and other large-scale concessions. This configuration is often labelled capitalist although it is not characterized by “free” markets or competition: it depends on the forceful seizure of land, the coercion of labour, and state provision of subsidies. Inefficiency is protected by monopoly arrangements, and the goals served include national prestige and access to illicit streams of rent that are only loosely aligned with productivity or profit.  The second configuration is dominated by small scale farmers among whom capitalist relations – when they emerge – take the classic, textbook form: producers pay market prices for land, labour and credit; and they are governed by the imperative of market competition. There are no subsidies or bailouts, and inefficient producers go bankrupt. Indonesia’s small-scale farmers have been highly efficient suppliers of coffee, cacao and rubber to global markets for 300 years. Today they would also dominate in the supply of palm oil were they not suppressed by a regime that favours (and subsidizes) corporations. To call the corporate variant capitalist obscures its dependence on state support and subsidies; it also normalizes the marginalization of the highly productive, small-scale capitalists who receive no support or recognition, even when they are by far the most dynamic actors on commodity frontiers.

Smoke, Fire and Crisis on the Indonesian Forest Frontier

Large-scale forest and land fires have been occurring in Indonesia since the 1970s but within the last two decades the intensity of these fires especially in the outer islands and their effects on neighboring countries in regard to cross-border haze have triggered high media attention and new political engagements both nationally and internationally. As a direct consequence, the Indonesian government has recently taken stern measures by prohibiting farmers from burning land and forests as part of their agricultural practices. The cause of large-scale forest and land fires is complex and involves multiple actors and institutions ranging from small-scale swidden farmers to large scale plantation companies. However once again subsistence agriculture is directly linked to deforestation and small-scale subsistence farmers and their traditional activities of swidden agriculture is targeted as among the main perpetrators of forest and land fires. In the talk I will discus the ‘business of fire’ and how the burning of land and forest is part of a larger assemblage of appropriating land and make it investable for largescale plantation development.

Michael Eilenberg Picture

Michael Eilenberg

(Aarhus University)

Timo Maran Profile Picture

Timo Maran

(Tartu University)

Towards A Semiotics of Ecocultures: Semiotic Ground and Ecosemiosphere

From a semiotic perspective, Anthropocene manifests as a massive multiplication and spread of abstract symbols that lack referential connection with biological and material processes. Such growth of symbols is anti-ecological because of the large amounts of matter and energy required to produce and upkeep various media and artifacts that embody signs. As symbols are based on human conventions, they cannot also react directly to changes in environmental and ecological processes (described as dissent by David Low 2009). Alternatively, Eduardo Kohn (2013) and Andrew Whitehouse (2015) proposed the concept of semiotic ground to denote the semiotic basis of the ecosystem. It may be claimed that iconic and indexical signs constitute a common semiotic ground for human and non-human species alike that is also connected to the patterns of the material realm. In the biological realm, organisms rely on the presence of objects (as environmental constraints, properties, and resources). In icons and indexes exists a connection between object and interpretation and, accordingly, between material and semiotic realms. Highlands are especially rich environments with a number of constraints, patterns and resources. In ecocultures, we should find ways of grounding the culture, that is, reestablishing the connection between the human symbolic sphere and ecosystems that are predominantly iconic and indexical. Semiosphere could here be reinterpreted as the ecosemiosphere – a semiotic system comprising all species and their umwelts, alongside the diverse semiotic relations (including humans with their culture) that they have in the given ecosystem, and also the material supporting structures that enable the ecosemiosphere to thrive (Maran 2021).


SEAF Workshop Series #1: Highlands have excitedly accepted 36 panelists who will be presenting in 9 panels. Our panel themes are:

  • Highlands and development
  • Highlands and religious change
  • Natural hazards and social resilience in highlands
  • Conservation and environmentalism in highlands
  • Scientific practices in highlands
  • Political economic change in highlands
  • Governing Southeast Asian highlands
  • Representation of highlands and highlanders

Our Workshop Program

Presenter Guideline

Travel & Accommodation Grants

The Travel and Accommodation Grants  are available for the 10 selected presenters who do not have any other sources of funding to attend the workshop on-site in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. 

To compete for the Travel and Accommodation Grants  presenters should submit their full paper by 25th July 2022 through the online submission system.

Best Paper Prize

All submitted papers will automatically be eligible to compete for the Best Paper Prize IDR 5,000,000.

SEAF Workshop Series #1: Highlands is an hybrid event. We welcome non-presenter participants to engage with our workshop in virtual or on-site venue.

Workshop Convenors:

  • Muzayin Nazaruddin (Department of Communication Universitas Islam Indonesia – Department of Semiotics Tartu University),
  • Luthfi Adam (Research Fellow at Monash Indonesia & Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard University),
  • Sindhunata Hargyono (Dept. of Anthropology, Northwestern University),
  • Sari Damar Ratri (Dept. of Anthropology, Northwestern University),
  • M. Fathi Rayyani (Center for Ecology and Ethnobotany, BRIN)

Full Paper Submission

Abstract Submission