15 March 2018

Reconfiguring Frontier Spaces: The Territoriality of Resource Control

This policy-brief by Mattias Borg Rasmussen and Christian Lund is redirected by The Secretariat for Development Cooperation at SCIENCE from Copenhagen Centre for Development Research.

Oil Palm Plantation, Indonesia, Photo: Michael Eilenberg

The cover picture depicts an Indonesian palm oil plantation. Dubbed a green desert for its barren, monocultural transformation of the forest, it is not only the biophysical properties of the landscapes which are radically reconfigured. Preceding this violent transformation of space, ideas about who can make use of what kinds of resources and the cultural understandings of these landscapes have systematically been undermined, dismantled and erased by a number of legal, discursive and violent operations. This case is not unique.

The global expansion of markets produces frontiers of contestation over the definition and control of resources. In a frontier context, new patterns of resource exploration,  xtraction, and commodification create new territories. A recently published collection (Rasmussen and Lund 2018) explores this emergence of frontier spaces as transitional, liminal, spaces in which existing regimes of resource control are suspended, making way for new ones. We argue that the new territorializations of resource control in a frontier space represent a set of processes that precede legitimacy and authority, fundamentally challenging and replacing existing patterns of spatial control, authority and institutional orders. The argument The notion of frontiers is increasingly relevant: the commodification of nature, the scramble for land and resources, the imaginaries of self and others, the erasure of existing orders, and the establishment of new patterns of governance and regimes of regulation. While frontiers used to be seen as linear movements across space, we see them as the discovery or invention of new resources. This reconfigures the relationship between natural resources and institutional orders. Rather than a ‘tidal wave’, frontiers mushroom across the globe. A frontier is not space itself.

It is something that happens in and to space. Frontiers take place. Literally.Frontier dynamics are intimately linked to their seeming opposite: territorialization. They dissolve existing social orders – property systems, political jurisdictions, rights, and social contracts – whereas territorialization is shorthand for all the dynamics that establish them and re-order space anew. Frontiers and territorialization seem to us to be co-constitutive. A frontier emerges when a new resource is identified, defined, and becomes subject to extraction and commodification. The ‘discovery’ of new resources – oil, gold, new crops like soy or oil palm, carbon storage, or ‘scenery’ – opens frontiers and challenges  stablished rights. New resource frontiers emerge in different places around the globe. They do not exist as a function of geography per se, but are brought about because new possibilities of resource extraction and use prompt new and competing claims to authority, legitimacy, and access. Frontiers are linked to processes of land control and are actively created through social and political struggles. Frontiers are the discursive, political, and physical operations that classify space and resources as ‘vacant’, ‘free’, ‘ungoverned’, ‘natural’, or ‘uninhabited’. This happens by expunging exiting systems of right and use, and often by the dislocation of previous users. Frontiers, thus, pave the way for acts of territorialization. Territorialization, in turn, is the creation of systems of resource control, – rights, authorities, jurisdictions, and their spatial representations. However, when new resources are discovered or come within reach, new acts of frontier-making are mobilized to undo established territorial orders. This sequence is, in principle, cyclical: frontier–territorialization–frontier–territorialization …

This constant process of formation and erosion of a social order of property rights, socio-legal identity, and political institutions constitute a dynamic where governing institutions build, maintain, or lose their authority, and people become, or disappear as, enfranchised rights subjects. This process transforms nature into resources and commodities. Collectively, the collection of articles pursues a double argument related to the frontier spaces. The articles look at resource frontiers as dynamics of spatial control that fundamentally challenge existing institutional arrangements in a non-linear fashion. As new types of resource commodification emerge, institutional orders are sometimes undermined or erased outright, and sometimes ‘taken apart’ and then reinterpreted, reinvented, and recycled. In resource frontiers, the ideas of what constitutes the nature of resources, as well as the rules that govern their use and control, are reworked. We direct the attention to the vernacular political forms that constitute emergent institutions and struggles over legitimate rule.

This double argument relates to the ways in which the mushrooming of frontier spaces transforms the nature of resources in fundamental ways. Frontier spaces are intimately connected to commodification through processes of dispossession involving enclosures, land grabbing, and other forms of primitive accumulation. New technologies such as genetic modification of seeds in soy production or chemical procedures for extracting minerals ensure that particular geographical spaces can host recurrent frontier moments of capitalist extraction. Yet, despite mutating forms of dispossession, the replacement of systems of knowledge, the undoing of the commons, the valorization of nature, and its formalization into the uniform, legible commodification of resources seem to be ubiquitous.

Read the full policy brief here and find more here.

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