This is a blog for fellow and future students. And for anyone interested in rural China.

Conventional thinking about modernity, growth, and development, so defined, is hopelessly, dangerously, and perversely blind to its structural deficiencies and devoid of real alternatives taken seriously in the centers of power. The future existence of the world’s people depends on breaking this utterly deficient style of developmental thought.” Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick, Theories of Development (2009)


I explore the nexus where self-interest and practice meet power and policy through ethnographic field research. I conducted my first rural fieldwork project in 2007-2008 on an indigenous reserve in Costa Rica. I thought that language was the key to understanding, and I wanted to document the connection between the community’s loss of language and erosion of identity. However, every community member I interviewed corrected my presumption: their identity was not tied to their language, but their land – losing their land would mean losing who they are.

I shifted my focus from language to the interests, practices, and policies dictating who can access land and it’s resources. After studying Mandarin in China from 2008-2009 at Zhejiang University (and then completing a Fall 2009 fieldwork project in West Bengal, India on farmers’ violent uprisings over neoliberal land reforms that resulted in massive land grabs by TNCs), I returned to China in 2010 and conducted a 12-month fieldwork project on rural farmer’s land-use interests and practices, and their (non)alignment with China’s land-use strategies. Living and working with farmers side-by-side, I traversed the country from the northeast province of Jilin to the southern island of Hainan, documenting the lives of families from five farms in five provinces. My thesis described how these families land-use interests are(n’t) aligned with global land-use strategies. Yet, five field visits was only a tiny piece of the mosaic that is China’s vast and complex rural landscape.

After 2 years working in the US for a national network of rural community development organizations, I returned to China in 2013 to continue my exploration of critical crossroads in the debate over China’s rural land-tenure system, and the implications for rural livelihoods as land-use policies and practices change at the village and family level.

My current research as a National Geographic Young Explorer revolves around village-level implementation of Zhejiang’s ‘Down-the-Mountain, Out-of-Poverty’ ( 下 山 脱 贫 ) rural resettlement program in Suichang County. In my free time, I document the stories of families in northeast and western provinces that have left their lives in the city to start farms in the countryside.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions or comments: elena.kayes@gmail.com

Guest blog:


2 Responses to About

  1. Gaetan says:

    I’m so glad I found your blog! I did research in Xishuangbanna about how shifting policies for land-use and property rights and the introduction of rubber tree as a small-holder crop has changed the life of local Dai farmers. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more.

    • elenakayes says:

      Thank you for the comment, and your research sounds fascinating! I would love to learn more, might it be possible to send me your paper?

      Please do keep in touch, I think there is much I could learn from you!

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