Rice and Spice

LESSON 7: Rice, capital, debt and rural hardship in Southeast Asia from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries

This lesson plan encourages students to critically examine the questions of ecological interdependence and sustainability as they relate to rice production and agrarian lifeways in contemporary Southeast Asia. Students will explore the ramifications of activities spurred by export cropping and development such as deforestation for the economic and cultural lifeways of impacted communities in Southeast Asia.

Subject History / Social Studies
Topic Rice, capital, debt and rural hardship in Southeast Asia from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries: Were the
Chettiars to blame for land alienation in Burma?
Key idea Under European colonialism, rice cultivation shifted from subsistence to large-scale, export farming. As a
result of the world economic crisis, fallen rice prices and unwillingness of the colonial governments to make
policy changes, land alienation and peasant impoverishment increased in Southeast Asia.
Key concepts Capital
Cash crop
Economic depression
International economy
Natural resources
Supply and demand
Level Lower secondary
No. of periods / lessons 2 periods (1 period is approximately 50 minutes)
Facilities needed Sources and handouts for distribution
Prerequisite knowledge Students should have covered Lesson 1: Introduction to rice cultures, Lesson 5: Spice, rice and the economic
histories of Southeast Asia and Lesson 6: The spice trade, European control and regional response to have
knowledge about rice culture and the inter-connectedness of the region.

Learning objectives
By the end of the lesson, the students will be able to:

  1. Describe how land alienation occurred in Burma and how the Burmese peasants directed their anger over losing their land at the moneylenders (the Chettiars in particular).
  2. State the other causes that contributed to the problem of land alienation.
  3. Recognize the multiple forces behind the issue of land alienation.
  1. Engage in the study of sources and role play to investigate different perspectives when they are examining a contentious issue.
  1. Realize how the development of rice export industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth  centuries was a double-edged sword.
  2. Cultivate historical empathy and understand the conditions of possibility and the choices available to the historical actors.


Download the lesson plan for details on the talks and activities suggested below.

1. Hook activity: Cloze (gap-fill) and reading inference task

Students read a source and learn new vocabulary. This text presents how Southeast Asia’s economy changed from previous centuries by using the example of rice farming.

2. Teacher talk

The lecture presents the evolution of Southeast Asia economy in the late 19th – early 20th centuries using the example of rice cultivation in Burma. It shows how the economy developed but also became more vulnerable to the global market, leading a new class of farmers to lose their land to moneylenders.

3. Discussion

Using various sources, students reflect on the situation of rice cultivators and the problem of debt.

4. Teacher talk

The teacher explains the links between  moneylending and land alienation.

5. Reflection: Exit pass

Students reflect on the connection between Southeast Asia and the global markets.

6. Role Play 1

Students portray the exchanges between a Burmese cultivator and a Chettiar moneylender.  Cards help selected students to become familiar with their character. The students in the audience ask them questions.

7. Role play 2

Students portray the exchanges between two British colonial government officials, a European merchant and a Burmese landowner. Cards help selected students to become familiar with their character. The students in the audience ask them questions.

8. Reflection: The iceberg diagram

The students use multiple sources and information acquired during the lesson to brainstorm on the responsibility of the Chettiars for land alienation in Burma. The Iceberg Diagram help students gain awareness of the multiple factors that give rise to the issue of land alienation: the obvious ones and the more complex ones. The visual image of the iceberg helps students remember the importance of looking deeper than what is on the surface in order to better understand events in the past (or present).