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Jean-François Bissonnette

SSHRC William E. Taylor Fellowship

SSHRC William E. Taylor Fellowship: Jean-François Bissonnette  

“The commercialization of nature, which is what is happening in the palm-oil plantations of Southeast Asia, raises issues around workers’ rights and the allocation of land resources. These questions fascinate me.”

A geography PhD student at the University of Toronto, Jean-François Bissonnette got a taste for international research during his undergraduate studies. “Towards the end of my BA, I worked on a research project mapping the expansion of the palm oil plantations in East Malaysia for Rodolphe De Koninck, Canada Research Chair in Asian Studies at the Université de Montréal.”

Aside from his field work, the 27-year-old researcher also wrote articles in specialized magazines, as well as two chapters of a book. He even learned Indonesian, which won him the trust of the Indonesian plantation workers. “People are generally touched and happy to see that an outsider tried to learn their language,” he says.

Bissonnette’s doctoral research examines the major socio-economic transformations caused by the fast expansion of palm-oil tree plantations in Indonesia. “In Southeast Asia, as well as in the entire tropical belt,” he says, “forest lands are being converted into palm-oil plantations—creating oil for both human consumption and biodiesel—at an unprecedented rate. This expansion has debatable consequences for workers, and major consequences for the environment.”

To understand the rural economic and social changes affecting this particular region, Bissonnette is analyzing Indonesian government policies. He also goes into the field to observe the effects these changes are having on workers’ living conditions, and has interviewed more than 50 workers, as well as foremen and recruiters. “Indonesian workers have an intimate knowledge of the limits and potential of palm-oil production,” he says. “Their perspective is crucial to discovering the generated by this rapid expansion.”

Although his main objective is to inform other researchers, consumers and the general public about the situation of Indonesian workers on palm-oil plantations, Bissonnette also hopes his work will improve the workers’ quality of life.

The SSHRC William E. Taylor Fellowship is awarded each year to the top doctoral SSHRC award holder.