The making of resource frontier spaces in the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia: A critical analysis of narratives, actors and drivers in the scientific literature
Forest frontiers are rapidly changing to sites of commodity agriculture throughout the tropics, with far-reaching transformations in landscapes and livelihoods. Many of the dynamics that drive frontier commodification are well-rehearsed since colonial times. Policies to deregulate markets, privatize or formalize land tenure and open borders to trade have stimulated resource exploitation. The accompanying territorial interventions such as new enclosures, reconfigured property regimes and claims are purposefully employed to create space and labor, and have radically reconfigured the relationships of millions of people to land and rule. Narratives of what is an opportunity for whom, who should benefit from these spaces, and what is a problem in need of a solution have shaped policies and development choices in frontiers over time.
Science plays a critical role, by putting forward particular knowledge and understandings, contributing to problematisations and promoting or legitimating certain solutions. In this paper, we review how science has portrayed forest frontiers in the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia. We analyse storylines put forward in the scientific literature and find three dominant narratives that intersect and reinforce each other to legitimate colonial exploitation of forest and land resources, and the enactment of colonial forest and land codes that have laid a deep-seated path in post-colonial policies. The narratives focus on imaginings of frontier regions as spaces that are “idle” or “empty”, and where possibilities for extraction, conservation and development appear unlimited; the problematization of smallholder and shifting cultivation farming as practices in need of change; and the legitimation of capitalist and market-based rationales as solutions.
We find these narratives to be largely similar across both the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia and persistent in contemporary policies and global development strategies. This analysis allows for a deeper understanding of how commodification of frontiers came about, and what role science can play for a more just development.
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