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Abstract

This paper seeks to reconsider the contemporary relevance of the resource frontier, drawing on examples of nature's commodification and enclosure under way in the peripheral Southeast Asian country of Laos. Frontiers are conceived as relational zones of economy, nature and society; spaces of capitalist transition, where new forms of social property relations and systems of legality are rapidly established in response to market imperatives. Customary property rights on the resource frontier can be seized by powerful actors in crucial political moments, preparing the territorial stage for more intensive phases of resource commodity production and accumulation. Relational frontier space is understood through the work of geographers such as Doreen Massey, who views the production of space as ‘constituted though the practices of engagement and the power-geometries of relations’. In Laos, a twenty-first century resource frontier is being driven by new corporate investments in natural resources, and a supporting array of land reform programmes. The paper focuses on both the material and representational aspects of the production of the resource frontier, through policy and discourse analysis, and village level research in Laos’ Khammouane province. By rethinking a dualist and hierarchical-scaled imaginary of frontier places, both rural people and local ecologies are shown to be key actors, in a complex, relational reproduction of frontier zones. An emerging Lao spatial and political assemblage – a form of ‘frontier-neoliberalism’– is shown as producing dramatic changes in socio-natural landscapes, as well as new patterns of marginalisation and livelihood insecurity for a vulnerable rural population.
The Geographical Journal, Vol. 175, No. 2, June 2009, pp. 146–159 doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2009.00323.x
Geographical Journal Vol. 175, No. 2, pp. 146–159, 2009
© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
Blackwell Publishing Ltd Laos and the making of a ‘relational’
resource frontier
KEITH BARNEY
Department of Geography, York University, N430 Ross Building,
4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M3J 1P3
E-mail: kbarney@yorku.ca
This paper was accepted for publication in December 2008
This paper seeks to reconsider the contemporary relevance of the resource frontier,
drawing on examples of nature’s commodification and enclosure under way in the
peripheral Southeast Asian country of Laos. Frontiers are conceived as relational zones of
economy, nature and society; spaces of capitalist transition, where new forms of social
property relations and systems of legality are rapidly established in response to market
imperatives. Customary property rights on the resource frontier can be seized by powerful
actors in crucial political moments, preparing the territorial stage for more intensive
phases of resource commodity production and accumulation. Relational frontier space is
understood through the work of geographers such as Doreen Massey, who views the
production of space as ‘constituted though the practices of engagement and the power-
geometries of relations’. In Laos, a twenty-first century resource frontier is being driven
by new corporate investments in natural resources, and a supporting array of land reform
programmes. The paper focuses on both the material and representational aspects of the
production of the resource frontier, through policy and discourse analysis, and village level
research in Laos’ Khammouane province. By rethinking a dualist and hierarchical-scaled
imaginary of frontier places, both rural people and local ecologies are shown to be key
actors, in a complex, relational reproduction of frontier zones. An emerging Lao spatial
and political assemblage – a form of ‘frontier-neoliberalism’ – is shown as producing
dramatic changes in socio-natural landscapes, as well as new patterns of marginalisation
and livelihood insecurity for a vulnerable rural population.
KEY WORDS: Laos, resource frontier, relational economic geography, social nature
Introduction
This paper is concerned with the process and the
implications of the deepening incorporation of
the Southeast Asian country of Lao PDR into
global circuits of resource extraction and commodity
production. This process is understood through the
geographical metaphor of a twenty-first century
‘resource frontier’. In the last decade, natural resources
of all kinds have shown major increases in demand,
prices and rates of new capital investment, and
resource sector firms are ‘hot commodities’ in major
financial markets. In Southeast Asia, the classical
resource frontiers of Burma, Papua New Guinea,
Laos and Cambodia – the last remaining forested
landscapes where natural resources have not yet
been enclosed, extracted, and incorporated into
circuits of production and consumption – are being
reached (e.g. White et al. 2006). Rising demand for
resources of all kinds, and the merging of agro-food
with industrial bio-fuel energy markets, strongly
suggests that there will only be increased challenges
to forest conservation and forest-agrarian livelihoods
in global South countries (Nilsson 2007). These
trends are also leading to a new form of resource
geopolitics, and ‘locked-in’ strategies of corporate
resource security and wealth extraction.
In geography and political economy, the formal,
integrated ‘Turner–Webb’ frontier thesis has been
thoroughly critiqued (see e.g. Cleary 1993). However,
the metaphor of frontier remains widely used, as a
way of referring to agricultural–forest transition
zones of various kinds (e.g. Jepson 2006), and as a
way of conceptualising boom and bust cycles of
Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier 147
Geographical Journal Vol. 175, No. 2, pp. 146–159, 2009
© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
resource-based economic growth (Barbier 2005).
Jepson (2006) reviews how frontiers have been
conceptualised in recent social and economic
theory: as cultural or political boundaries; and as
sites characterised by social inequity, environmental
degradation and conflict. The frontier has also served
as a conceptual marker for the expansion of state
power into peripheral upland areas (e.g. Hirsch
1990) and in critiques of liberal-juridical property
rights regimes (e.g. Blomley 2003). In Southeast
Asian political ecology research, the frontier metaphor
has been widely employed in explaining patterns
of forest logging, cash crop expansion, and problems
of resource degradation and communal displacement
(e.g. McCarthy 2006; Tsing 2005; Walker 2006). A
related critical approach, adopted in this paper, is
to understand the production of frontiers through
the geographical extension of capitalist relations of
production (De Angelis 2004).
In the Southeast Asian country of Laos, specific
iterations of frontier dynamics are taking form. Laos
has recently been portrayed by key development
banks, private sector actors and Lao state agencies as
a new frontier’ for natural resources and business
opportunities [Asian Development Bank (ADB)
2004; Fortune 2007]. Companies and state enter-
prises from ASEAN and East Asian countries are
leading this wave of foreign direct investment into
Laos, with French and Australian corporations also
represented (ADB 2006). A neoliberal-inspired
discourse of the Mekong as an untapped resource
frontier serves as a legitimating ideology for a
particular strategy of large-scale resource develop-
ment and regional integration, the kind of which
has been the focus for oppositional civil society
and community-based social movements in South-
east Asia over the last two decades. The unevenly
regulated, ‘land rush’ quality of many of these land
investments is now leading to new and intensive
patterns of ecological degradation and social
marginalisation in the Lao countryside (CPI UNDP
2006; GTZ 2007b). A key question regarding the new
frontier investment regime in Laos involves to what
extent new forms of economic dependency and political
dominance are being established, both between
Laos and its neighbours, and regarding the internal
periphery within territorial Laos.
In outlining this interpretation of contemporary
Laos as a resource frontier, I acknowledge that
representations of geographical space always proceed
from a particular standpoint or set of interests
(Demeritt 1994). A key question running through
this paper is, therefore, what ideological work do
various representations of Laos as a ‘resource frontier’
perform? What are the consequences of these
imaginaries, and who imagines them? (cf. Massey
1999; Castree 2004).
The main section of this paper begins with a
conceptual discussion of resource frontiers, capital-
ism, scale, and nature in political ecology and
geographical research, building on the work of
Tsing (2005), Li (1999), and Massey (e.g. 1999),
among others. The rhetoric of ‘frontiers’ can be
understood as a legitimating ideological device,
used by state agencies, companies and develop-
ment banks, in the advertising and promotion of
Laos as a ‘new frontier for corporate investment’.
From a conceptual perspective, however, the Lao
frontier can also be understood as a contested and
complex empirical ‘reality’. When integrated with
relational approaches to economic geography and
political ecology, I suggest that the frontier can be
used to understand critically new forest–agrarian
transformations and resource displacements. The
second part of this paper shows how both the
discourse and the materiality of these processes
combine in the reproduction of Laos, and upland
subregions within Laos, as marginal, relational
frontier spaces.
In the third section, the scaled complexities of the
resource frontier are drawn out through a national
scale analysis of neoliberal inspired resource sector
investment processes in Laos. The notion of the
‘patchworked frontier’ is introduced, which indicates
how new global resource sector investments in Laos
interact with previous spatial regimes of resource
governance, producing fragmented and overlapping
mosaics of resource governance and territorial
control (MacLean 2008). A case study in the fourth
section explores the locally contingent and unexpected
outcomes of tree crop plantation and hydropower
project development in a rural Lao village, further
contextualising relational frontier processes, and
associated livelihood changes, for a lowland Lao
community in Khammouane’s Hinboun River valley.
Fieldwork in Laos highlights that new frontier places
and landscapes are not simply the outcomes of global
political-economic forces and elite state-bureaucratic
discourses. Resource frontiers, as enacted in specific
locations, can be understood as relational spaces,
produced through scaled interactions which are
simultaneously material and representational. The
everyday practices of local people (Walker 2006),
and the ‘agency’ of local natures are typically
unacknowledged, but crucial actors in landscape
transformations (Tsing 2005; Raffles 2002).
The conclusion revisits how a de-centred, relational
approach to resource frontiers can be useful for
moving beyond a simple analysis of the changing
location and ‘impact’ of extractive industries. In
relational economic geography (Massey et al. 1999;
Massey 2005; Bathelt and Gluckler 2003; Yeung
2002 2005), analytical attention is placed upon the
iterative relations between actors at various scales.
148 Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier
Geographical Journal Vol. 175, No. 2, pp. 146–159, 2009
© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
Resource frontiers and peripheries can be viewed
less through exclusive, spatial and scalar hierar-
chies, or in Moore’s phrase, ‘hermetically sealed
sites of autonomy’, but rather as intensely
‘relational spaces of connection and articulation’
(Moore 1998, 347). In this understanding, locality,
communities and rural ecological landscapes emerge
with a significant degree of agency, articulated and
constructed in relation to an assemblage of other
actors and processes (see Massey 2005, 100–1).
Frontier sites are thus places which are shaped
through the overdetermined, emergent effects of
scaled power geometries (Massey 1999). Such a
relational-geographical approach may aid in
locating the complex, situated and cumulative
nature of local social and environmental transfor-
mations which reproduce frontier space, inequality
and marginality, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Relational understandings of the social–nature and
centre–periphery dynamics associated with resource
frontiers might also inform a more geographically
complex understanding of ongoing ‘structural’
processes of accumulation through dispossession
(De Angelis 2004; Glassman 2006; Hart 2006;
MacLean 2008).
Resource frontiers in economic geography and
political ecology
The frontier has been a recurring but contested concept
in political ecology and economic geography. The
classical, Turnerian frontier thesis was forwarded as
an interpretation of the historical experience of
colonial settlement in the United States. Turner’s
frontier was conceived of as ‘the meeting point
between savagery and civilization’, where the
challenge of expansion across ‘wilderness’ acted to
individualise, masculinise, and democratise a white
settler American society (Kristof 1959, 274). This
idea of the frontier was inflected with the paternal-
ist, racist ideology of its time, advancing a linear
narrative which acted to minimise the pre-
European settlement history of the Americas.
Turner’s frontier thesis was subject to a sustained
academic critique in geography by Carl Sauer and
others, although the frontier often re-emerged as a
way of conceiving of political borderlands or zones
of transition of various kinds (Kristof 1959).
The emergence of political ecology as a field of
research engaging with the political economy of
ecological degradation, poverty, and nature–society
interactions in the 1980s provided the resource
frontier with a new conceptual footing. The most
sustained engagement with the political ecology of
frontier landscapes has arguably been in relation to
the Brazilian Amazon (e.g. Schmink and Wood
1992; Hecht and Cockburn 1990). Another subset
of the political economy of Latin American resource
frontiers literature focused on the link between
resource frontiers and suboptimal economic patterns
of overexploitation and boom and bust cycles,
leading to Dutch disease cycles of low growth, and
the ‘resource curse’ (see Barbier 2005).
Cleary (1993), among other scholars (including
Schmink and Wood 1992), has critiqued frontier
theory as an inadequate explanatory framework for
understanding the complexity of political economic
transformations in the Amazon. In particular, these
authors point to problematic understandings of the
frontier as a linear historical-geographical process,
whereby the extension of forms of capital investment
is considered as synonymous with the expansion of
full capitalism. Cleary (1993, 332, 345) considers this
as reflective of a deeper, recurring problem with
the classical frontier thesis applied to the Amazon:
‘. . . theories of frontier development derived from
orthodox political economy have proved an unreli-
able guide to economic, social and political trends
in the Brazilian Amazon . . . The broad analytical
categories which characterise it peasantry, mode
of production, class, state – become blurred when
applied to the region, conflating and radically
simplifying a complex social reality’.
For Cleary and other critics, the Amazon actually
poses more problems than opportunities for the
advancement of capitalism. Further, Cleary critiques
representations of the peasantry in frontier political
economic theory, as ‘. . . both omnipresent and absent,
continually talked about but never actually appearing,
subsumed into an ideological framework in which
what a peasantry is, and the range of possibilities
open to it, had already been decided’ (p. 338). This
critique of a linear understanding to frontier forms
of cash crop expansion, and the problems with a
simplified understanding of social actors, has also
been applied to studies of upland and forested
Southeast Asia (e.g. Li 1999).
Yet, particularly in the post-Cold War phase of
global neoliberal capitalism (Harvey 2005), it would
be difficult to argue that new forms of capitalist
exploitation large-scale logging, plantations,
mines, hydropower dams, and other resource-based
industrial projects have not had a transformative
effect in many regions of the global South. A
nuanced understanding, which maintains a critical
perspective on the existence of scalar configura-
tions of power and a global capitalist political
economy, but in which frontier space is also under-
stood in a relational manner, as the product of
practices, trajectories, and emergent inter-relations
(Massey 1999; Bathelt and Gluckler 2003), may
address some of the limitations with frontier thinking
which Cleary and others identify. Indeed, for Marxist
scholars, such as De Angelis, frontiers of various
Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier 149
Geographical Journal Vol. 175, No. 2, pp. 146–159, 2009
© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
kinds are viewed as an essential spatial form in the
functioning of global capitalism:
Capital’s identification of a frontier implies the
identification of a space of social life that is still
relatively uncolonised by capitalist relations of
production and modes of activity.
De Angelis (2004, 72)
Frontier formations in this sense become under-
stood as a geographical expression of primitive
accumulation and enclosure, a process: ‘. . . rooted
in capital’s drive to continuous expansion’ (De
Angelis 2004, 72).
In research on the political ecology of Southeast
Asia’s forested and upland landscapes, the frontier
concept is often deployed as a malleable heuristic
device [see e.g. Tsing (2005) on Kalimantan;
and McCarthy (2006) on Sumatra]. Walker (2006)
forwards the frontier as ‘. . . expanding borderlands
(figuratively or literally) driven by economic cycles
of rapid investment with potential for dispropor-
tionate return on investment’. Along similar lines,
Tsing (2005, 28, 31) has recently described current
forest–agrarian dynamics in Kalimantan’s interior as
a deregulated zone of ‘frontier capitalism’. Indone-
sian frontiers are presented as an ‘out of control,
interstitial capitalist expansion’ a dystopian
‘travelling theory’, marked by violent dispossession,
high profits, and deep ecological degradation.
Tsing’s interpretation of the Kalimantan frontier
situates to how local people, places and natures
become actively marginalised, and how customary
property regimes are erased or confused by the
entrance of new actors who ‘change the rules’,
through both legal and extra-legal means. The
‘agency’ of nature and landscape is of key impor-
tance in Tsing’s account of how the Kalimantan
frontier pushed forward in Suharto-era Indonesia.
In a manner aligned with Tsing’s description of
Kalimantan, I understand the Lao resource frontier as
unevenly produced, through both legal and illegal
means. Highly damaging and extractive timber
mining operations, thinly disguised as plantation
concessions and linked back to powerful political
figures, can be located nearby to the projects of
highly capitalised global firms, claiming accreditation
through eco-social certification. The resource frontier
in Laos is composed of a heterogeneous assemblage
of development actors and state interests. This upland
frontier is also, to a significant degree, transnational
and corporate, centred upon large-scale hydropower,
mining, forestry and agri-business the export-
oriented resource sectors considered by key Lao
and international agencies to be the most important
for the country’s development future [Government
of Lao PDR (GoL) 2003]1.
In this section, I have argued that a relational
approach to the political ecology of resource
frontiers holds analytical potential as a ‘meso-scale’
heuristic device for understanding the geographies
of resource extraction, displacement and marginality
under global capitalism. In turning to the Lao
context, I show how the frontier is less being settled,
as much as it is being emptied2; and resource
sector investments are being accompanied by a
sweeping programme of enclosure.
Imagining, producing and governing frontier
space in Laos
Oxiana Ltd. geologist Tony Manini spent seven years
of the last decade exploring jungle tracks on the Ho
Chi Minh Trail in Laos, searching rocky outcrops for
gold. The expedition paid off with a $4.29 billion
gold and copper find, the first in Laos by an overseas
mining company.
‘We were leading the push into new frontiers,’ said
Manini, 40, who with a team of Soviet-trained Laotian
colleagues drilled 440 holes between 1993 and 1999
in a jungle littered with unexploded Vietnam War-
era bombs.
http://www. Bloomberg.com (16 August 2004)
The idea of Laos as a resource frontier has a long,
and often problematic, historical provenance. From
‘colonial backwater’, to ‘battle state’, ‘buffer state’,
and more lately the ‘cross-roads state’ of the Greater
Mekong Subregion, there have been numerous,
external representations of Lao territorial space (see
Jerndall and Rigg 1998; Pholsena and Banomyong
2006). As Ivarsson (2008, 34) highlights, the idea of
Laos as an underpopulated territory, an ‘unsettled
frontier’, extends back to the colonial period, when
the Siamese and French struggled over control of
the lands east of the Mekong. After the French
colonial state secured the boundary between
Indochina and Siam as the Mekong River, the Lao
territories became the focus for attempts at road
and rail infrastructure development. The aim was to
‘de-link’ Laos from the cultural and economic influence
of Siam (Ivarsson 2008). Such spatial imaginaries of
Laos as a frontier served as utilitarian tropes, linked
to issues of colonial, and neo-colonial, political-
economic power.
The above quote from Australia-based Oxiana
Mineral’s3 gold and copper project in the uplands at
Xepon district, in Savannakhet province, captures
something of the current zeitgeist concerning the
Lao resource sector, updating the colonial idea of
Laos as an underpopulated frontier zone. The
current iteration is a representation of Lao territorial
space as an available, untapped space, which has
150 Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier
Geographical Journal Vol. 175, No. 2, pp. 146–159, 2009
© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
remained out of the reach of international capital,
due to the Indochina wars and the post-conflict
isolationism imposed by the Lao People’s Revolu-
tionary Party (LPRP). Oxiana’s mining project, along
with the World Bank and ADB’s backing for the
Nam Theun II hydropower megaproject, are particularly
notable, as they represent highly capital-intensive
transnational projects, sited in a socialist country
carrying a high sovereign risk profile4. This is a
clear reiteration of the idea of the frontier as a ‘less
explored’ country that nevertheless holds the
opportunity for significant risk and profit. It is also a
‘smooth’, non-relational perspective of territorial Laos,
a free, unbounded space available for commodity
extraction and production (cf. Massey 1999).
Recent imaginings of Laos’ development future
have become closely associated with various
business-friendly representations of an untapped
frontier. The ADB, for instance, dubs the Greater
Mekong Subregion as a ‘last frontier’ for intra-
regional business opportunities and for environment
conservation programming (ADB 2004). The trope
of the frontier is also being deployed by Lao state
ministries themselves, in seeking to boost investor
interest into the country. For instance, in a special
advertising section of the high-profile American
magazine Fortune (2007, S1–S2), Deputy Prime
Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Thongloun
Sisoulith pitches Laos as a ‘New Frontier of Oppor-
tunity’, highlighting Laos’ ASEAN and upcoming
WTO membership; supportive, confidence-building
investment policies; and an expanding volume
of intra-regional trade made possible through
infrastructure upgrades. ‘We have been to sign
foreign direct investment memorandums of under-
standing worth $2 billion,’ stated the Deputy Prime
Minister. This value of FDI is not insignificant
when compared with Laos’ 2006 GDP of US$3.455
billion (World Bank 2008).
The idea of Laos as a resource frontier (and upland
Laos, in particular, as a sub-national resource
periphery) is not simply an ideological spatial
imaginary forwarded by the elite. In another sense,
the resource frontier also captures an important
empirical ‘reality’ concerning the political economy
of rapid and uneven development in the country.
Market reforms and large-scale foreign direct invest-
ment (FDI) from China, Vietnam, Thailand5, and
elsewhere, have become synonymous with the Lao
path to socialism, and now represent the primary
means by which the Lao state engages with questions
of development and rural poverty. Peripheral,
‘post-socialist’ Laos has become one of the last
nation-states to become functionally integrated with
global capital flows and investment, a classic example
of the geographical extension and deepening of
capitalist relations. Natural resources are the most
crucial components of this development and regional
integration project.
New announcements of large foreign direct
investment deals into Laos are now regular features
in the state-controlled Vientiane Times newspaper. In
the hydropower sector, nine projects are currently
in operation in Laos which together generate
approximately US$20 million per year in export
revenues. The total number of hydropower project
sites in Laos, holding at least a ‘Memorandum of
Understanding’ agreement with the GoL, has reached
75 (LNCE 2008). In mining, some 96 companies are
operating 156 mining concessions in Laos (Depart-
ment of Geology and Mines 2007).
For commercial tree plantations, 2007 data from
the Lao Committee for Planning and Investment
(CPI) indicate that concessions covering a minimum
of 150 000 ha have been granted to six international
companies, representing a projected investment of
US$500 million as of early 2007 (CPI 2007).
Included in the current list of Lao plantation investors
are the world’s second largest forestry and paper
company (Stora-Enso), Asia’s largest paper producer
(Oji, from Japan), a major multinational from India
(Aditya-Birla), and Vietnam’s Dak Lak Rubber
Company. A key governance issue in the plantation
sector is that many of the external plantation investors
have signed deals directly with provincial or even
local administrations, without the knowledge or
approval of the relevant central ministries. The
reverse also holds, with central actors at times
approving investment deals without the knowledge
of provincial levels of government (e.g. GTZ 2006,
Annex 11). The official record documenting the
actual state of the plantation investment regime in
Laos therefore remains incomplete (but see Dwyer
2007 for a review of available data).
Undoubtedly, there remain significant limitations
in the ability for international capital to invest
profitably in Laos. Laos remains near the bottom of
regional good governance, transparency and ‘ease
of doing business’ surveys. Announced FDI projects
can be delayed, and then later abandoned, due to
bureaucratic hurdles and rent seeking, a generally
weak regulatory environment, and indeed due to
the underlying, speculative objectives of particular
investors (see e.g. GTZ 2006; Dwyer 2007). But the
steady progression of the Lao state, and their devel-
opment bank patrons, in recasting the country as a
new frontier for capital intensive resource sector
investment is striking. Regional integration and
investment, set back significantly by the Asian financial
crisis of 1997–2001 (Pholsena and Banomyong
2006, 93), is a project now firmly back on track
(see also Glassman 2007). While the country’s
external debt load remains high, at approximately
80% of GDP, from a macroeconomic perspective
Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier 151
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© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
the World Bank (2006, 2) argues that ‘. . . with
prudent fiscal management this [external debt] and
other vulnerabilities are expected to ease alongside
the increases in FDI [foreign direct investment] due
to large projects’.
But there are clear omissions and simplifications
involved in this imagining of rural and upland Laos
as an available frontier space for transnational
investment into hydropower dams, plantations and
mining. The particular notion that the Lao uplands
are underpopulated has been reiterated by the
ADB, in recent assertions that there are abundant
tracts of ‘degraded land’, without claimants, available
for tree plantations development (ADB 2005). This
is despite years of documented research some of
it sponsored by the ADB itself on the importance
of local claims and access to natural resources,
including long-term rotational fallows in swidden
agriculture, for livelihoods in the upland country-
side (see Chamberlain 2001 2007). Similarly, the
World Bank and the ADB have provided loan
guarantees for the Nam Theun II project, despite
the fact that the dam will undermine the liveli-
hoods of over 120 000 downstream persons, and
there are only limited plans to deal with this
eventuality (see e.g. International Rivers 2008).
One could argue that such omissions are not an
accidental oversight – they are a crucial method of
externalising the true costs of resource develop-
ment mega-projects, and shifting the damages and
the responsibility onto local populations.
Understandings of Laos as a resource frontier, on
the one hand, serve a useful ideological function for
resource capital, as this taps into popular under-
standings of frontiers as ‘empty’ or under-populated
wilderness, which hold the promise for high rates of
return on investment. A more critical understanding
of frontiers, however, identifies a crucial truism of
capitalist globalisation that capital actively seeks
out and establishes new resource peripheries,
thereby reproducing uneven development and
marginalisation. De Angelis writes:
It is capital that identifies a frontier, and the identifica-
tion of this frontier implies the creation of a space of
enclosures, a horizon within which policies and practices
promoting further separation between people and
means of production in new spheres of life.
De Angelis (2004, 73)
As Tsing (2005) points to in Kalimantan, the
ambiguity and manipulation of legality and illegal-
ity in the Lao resource sector, and the existence of
both simple extractive and governing-developmentalist
resource project types should not be understood as
an aberration from more normal or ‘rational’ patterns
of development. Rather, rapid processes of primitive
accumulation and the continuous colonisation of
new geographic spaces are inherent features of
capitalist dynamics. Kelly and Kaplan, drawing on
Weber, point to the ‘functional’ aspects of such a
dynamic instability:
Markets in general, and markets in capital in particular,
have great use for the calculability that comes with
powerful legal regulation, not least to protect great
and risk-laden investments. But nevertheless they have
also an even greater use for schemes that lead to
growth via exploitation, manipulation and other
overcoming of legal limitations.
Kelly and Kaplan (2001, 424)
Lao state planners and their multilateral develop-
ment bank backers face a crucial problem area in
this sense, precisely because the uplands are most
emphatically not an ‘empty wilderness’, or freely
available for market development. The freely available
frontier land of the development programmer’s
imagination must be created; produced where it did
not exist before. Thus, in order to capitalise fully upon
the revenue-generating potential of the Lao landscape,
to provide investment capital with above average
rates of profit (i.e. resource rents), and to provide
the state with a revenue base to maintain its (often
clientalist, neo-patrimonial) functions, widespread
upland enclosures must be engineered.
This presents an expansive new technical problem
area for state governance in Laos. Coercive enclosures
are being achieved through a state apparatus that is
willing and able to implement programmes of
resettlement and focal site development (see Baird
and Shoemaker 2007). But in Laos, as elsewhere,
developments on the resource frontier are usually
not simply a story of domination and expropriation.
As the Lao state moves towards governing and
improving, rather than simply expropriation and
extraction, rural and upland resource development
has also become a complex field of political
negotiation, involving the promise of social develop-
ment and community improvement, in exchange for
relinquished communal claims to state’ land. This
exchange of land for development can be, and
indeed typically is, a very unequal bargain. But the
resolution of this new governmental question in
Laos hinges around how ‘successfully’ such an
upland transition can be engineered. A range of
more or less sophisticated development programmes
has emerged, at times involving cooperative arrange-
ments between private sector resource firms and
socio-environmental NGOs, in which the provision
of development ‘goods’ (access to extension
services, new technologies, market access, tenure
security and so forth) are extended to affected
communities, in an attempt to counteract negative
152 Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier
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© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
outcomes of resource development. These develop-
ment interventions are aimed at moving rural
people towards producing saleable commodities,
but from a smaller space of land. In these ways, the
displacement and enclosure effects from large-scale
resource development projects come to be viewed
as ‘reasonable, if difficult decisions’ by a wide number
of mainstream development and conservationist
actors. De Angelis (2004, 82) also points to the
complex and contradictory nature of resource frontiers
and the capitalism’s enclosures:
The discourse of enclosures . . . must present itself not
as a negative force, one that separates, brutalises, and
disempowers; but, on the contrary, it also has to wear the
mantle of rationality, and project a vision of the future
that makes sense to a multiplicity of concrete subjects.
De Angelis (2004, 82)
It is important to recognise this productive, ‘positive’
side to producing and governing frontier space in
Laos in accounting for the enduring power, and the
political legitimacy, of what can be quite radical
programmes of rural dispossession. A comprehensive
analysis of the Lao frontier would also incorporate
not just the technical, material development inter-
ventions, but also how poverty alleviation programmes
are involved in a remaking of rural subjectivities,
towards the goal of producing modern, productive,
market-oriented farmers. The ‘soft’ power of devel-
opment outside of extreme cases of military–
authoritarian coercion lies in the extent to which
these external governmentalising objectives overlap
with the desires of rural people themselves for
better lives and increased opportunities for their
children. This can be the case even as rural people
are dispossessed from their historical territories,
and as entire landscapes of the Lao countryside are
radically transformed.
The next section grounds this approach to the
political ecology of resource frontiers in Laos, with
an example of resource sector development and
landscape transformation from Hinboun district in
Khammouane province. I propose a conceptual
approach to Laos’ rural and upland zones as hybrid,
relational frontier spaces, by focusing on the emergent
interactions between land tenure reform, the political
economy of resource sector investments, and
centre–periphery and social–nature dynamics.
Patchworked frontiers, resource investment and land
reform in Laos
Many of the contemporary resource projects and
policies under way in Laos, especially those which
are linked to corporate social standards and new
eco-certification regulatory mechanisms, can be
understood as closely linked to neoliberal forms of
development. It bears recalling, however, that Laos
continues to be the site for alternate regimes of
investment, extraction and accumulation, not all of
them liberal-capitalist in orientation. Actors other
than multinational resource firms continue to be
active on the Lao frontier, such as extractive
logging interests with ties to the military or provin-
cial governor-patrons (Anonymous 2000; Hodgdon
2008). There are thus distinct frontiers at work in
Laos, associated with different, elite fractions and
power configurations, and different state agencies.
These competing political-economic blocs are also
in tension with each other, producing a spatially
‘patchworked’ frontier landscape involving different
and, at times, overlapping modes of resource regula-
tion and population governance, and a hybrid state
structure in Laos (see MacLean 2008).
A ‘first frontier’, or the programmes associated with
French colonial, war-era and subsequent decentralised
political structures in Laos, continues to have a
deep transformative effect upon the Lao landscape.
These frontier formations have resulted in localised
ecological degradation, and sharp declines in forest
cover and ecosystem integrity in many rural
locations. Lao state policies of upland resettlement
also continue to combine with the interests and
outcomes of these forms of state-led resource
developments. New resource towns linked to
commercial extraction, such as the French tin
mining town of Ban Phon Tiou in Khammouane
province (subsequently taken over by North Korean
and Russian investors), or the town of Lak Xao in
Borikhamxai province (associated with BPKP – or the
Lao Mountainous Areas Development Company),
were developed through this period. In the logging
sector, the first frontier was often established in
association with Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese
actors, through partnerships with the Lao military,
provincial governors and central Party officials
(Walker 1999; Anonymous 2000; Hodgdon 2008).
On the ground, these extractions took the form of
selective timber mining. While much of these
timber resources were (and continue to be)
exported and streamed into global supply chains, it
would be difficult to locate this process primarily
as one of capitalist exploitation. Clientalist power
politics and institutional arrangements within Lao
state agencies could be considered just as crucial
to its functioning (Hodgdon 2006 2008).
The additional layering of a ‘second’ frontier in Laos,
through more recent patterns of capital-intensive,
neoliberal inspired resource investment, including new
land reform policies, overlaps with the processes
and outcomes of the first frontier, producing
complex, ‘striated and patchworked’ landscapes.
Various historical and contemporary land reform
Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier 153
Geographical Journal Vol. 175, No. 2, pp. 146–159, 2009
© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
policies, including upland resettlement and land
and forest allocation, are in some areas supporting
these new export-oriented, resource investment
regimes through the freeing up of land and forest
resources for capitalisation (Baird and Shoemaker
2007; Lestrelin and Giordano 2007).
In the past 10 years, new land tenure policies
have been extended into the uplands in the form of
Land and Forest Allocation (LFA), participatory land
use planning and land allocation (LUPLA), upland
resettlement and focal site development. Thus
far, the implementation of new upland tenure
policies has not typically served as a basis by which
communities receive full, official recognition of
customary lands (see e.g. Ducourtieux et al. 2005).
Indeed, as field research has shown, the implemen-
tation of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s
Land and Forest Allocation programme has at times
represented the very mechanism whereby villagers
lose customary access to land and resources to
plantation firms (Barney 2008). In other cases, the
swidden eradication goals of the programme have
undermined local livelihood practices (for a review,
see Ducourtieux et al. 2005). The creation of the
National Land Management Agency, and recent
reforms to the forestry law, among other legislation
and decrees, can be understood in part as a state
response to recognised problems with previous
programmes in land and forest allocation and land
registration. The strategic focus for a number of
institutions with a mandate to address land and forestry
issues, both Lao state and donor, is now securing
more complete recognition of customary and common
property rights for upland communities through an
improved approach to LFA-LUPLA; experiments
with collective land titling; or through improving
the understanding and recognition of the existing
legal rights to customary land and property as
enshrined in the Lao Constitution, and the Forestry
and Land Laws (e.g. Village Focus 2005; GTZ 2007a).
The patchworked frontier can produce striking
landscape transformations. In my primary fieldwork
sites in central-southern Laos, the most egregious
forms of elite-sponsored tropical timber mining (in
the guise of plantation concessions, for example of
coconut or oil palm; see GTZ 2007b, 22), can be
situated not far from closely surveyed and mapped
spaces of the World Bank certified-sustainable village
forestry programme, or co-managed IUCN protected
areas aimed at a conservationist and eco-tourist
clientele. These spaces, in turn, are not far removed
from surveyed land reform areas, which have
excised areas of so-called ‘degraded forest’ from
communal control for the creation of industrial
plantations of eucalyptus and rubber (Shoemaker et al.
2001; Barney 2007). There is no singular political-
economic rationality or intentionality at work in the
Lao uplands: neoliberal, clientalist, bureaucratic
and extractive-accumulation logics interact with
provincial and district levels of the state, and with
local livelihood practices, to produce a complex and
relational reworking of the upland frontier in Laos.
The contemporary Lao uplands can be under-
stood as a hybrid authoritarian–neoliberal frontier
space, established through processes of new mapping
and expanded forms of state territorialisation (through
land registration and LUPLA, for example), as well
as through ‘unmapping’ or unhinged customary
property rights (for example, through resettlement,
or concessions development; Tsing 2005). To date,
however, the major cumulative effects of state
development have been to undermine local ecologies,
and restrict customary claims of upland communities,
and to shift livelihood practices into increasingly
restricted and ecologically marginal sites. Because
state agricultural extension and marketisation services
typically remain weak and only partially effective,
many upland communities have been forced into
short-term exploitation of their remaining resource
assets to maintain levels of food security (NSC ADB
2006). As examined below, another common response
in upland Laos is out-migration.
The relational frontier and livelihoods in
Khammouane province
The following case further situates and explains
these relational dynamics, detailing the centre–
periphery and social–natural transformations in a
study village in Laos’ Khammouane province,
affected by both hydropower and industrial planta-
tion development. The cumulative and emergent
effects of these projects and state policies are
resulting in complex changes to the Hinboun
watershed, and in the relationship of local commu-
nities to their surrounding natural resource base.
The local environment in the village of Ban Pak
Veng is itself a social landscape, the result of a
complex history of human settlement and modification
(see Raffles 2002). In a further relational explanation,
I show how local people become closely involved
in the reproduction of frontier spaces, in this case
through engagements with commercialised small-
holder agriculture. Between large-scale hydropower
and plantations, land reforms, migrations and new
farmer cropping systems, the Hinboun Valley is a
pertinent example of both the planned and the
unexpected trajectories of development under way
in the Lao countryside.
Hinboun District is the location of two of
Laos’ major resource development projects: the
Theun-Hinboun hydropower project (THPC) and
the Oji-Laos Plantation Forestry Ltd (Oji-LPFL). The
presence of North Korean and Russian mining
154 Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier
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© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
companies at the historic town of Ban Phon Tiou,
on a tributary of the lower Hinboun River (the Nam
Pathen), adds the externalities of the mining sector
into the fray of the Hinboun watershed. Research
was conducted between 2006 and 2007 on the
political ecology of property rights and local
livelihoods, through ethnographic research in the
village of Ban Pak Veng. This village in the lower
Hinboun valley is experiencing the overlapping and
cascading effects of hydropower dam and industrial
plantation development (see also Barney 2007).
Briefly, Ban Pak Veng is a central Lao village of
approximately 65 households, with a total popula-
tion of 270 persons. Traditionally, livelihoods in
this village have been heavily reliant upon access
to customary resources found within the village
territory and surrounding areas. In the period prior
to the 1998 initiated THPC project, people in Ban
Pak Veng were primarily wet rice farmers and fishers,
planting the rich alluvial soil on the Hinboun floodplain
and accessing the river’s aquatic resources. Access
to the surrounding upland forests also provided an
array of non-timber forest products and wildlife,
which formed an important part of local food
security. Village elders recall that in the 1960s,
farmers in Ban Pak Veng were exclusively reliant
upon upland swidden in the hills located to the
west of the village for rice production, as at that
time they had not learned how to practice lowland
wet rice agriculture, and most could not afford
draught livestock. Aerial photos from 1992 confirm
that, by that time, wet rice had become the
predominant form of agriculture. In addition, this
community had a history of engagements through
the 1980s with the institutions of the post-war
socialist economy, particularly in terms of trading
fish and other local resources for access to essential
commodities. The community traded goods through
the 1980s with the state-run district markets during
the post-war socialist economy, exchanging fish
and other local resources for access to essential
commodities. After the economic reforms of the
late 1980s and early 1990s, villagers began the
cash sale of local resources, especially fish, livestock
and bamboo shoots.
The Theun-Hinboun hydropower project, completed
in 1998 with ADB support, was the third major
hydropower project in the country, coming online
after the 1971 Nam Ngum dam near Vientiane and
the Houay Ho hydropower project in Champassak.
The design of the THPC project was based upon an
inter-basin transfer of water from the Theun-Kading
river system into the neighbouring Hinboun watershed.
The THPC project has been the focus of an intensive
debate regarding the adequacy and transparency of
ADB and GoL social and environmental safeguards
and the rights of local communities to receive full
compensation and mitigation for economic losses
due to resource development (Shoemaker 1998;
International Rivers Network 1999). Given the political
restrictions upon local civil society in Laos, the
Berkeley-based International Rivers, along with
regional and international environmental organisa-
tions such as TERRA and FIVAS, have been at the
forefront in pressuring the ADB and THPC (in part
via their Norwegian financial backers) to increase their
commitment to compensating for the significant
downstream losses resulting from the diversion project,
in both the Hinboun and the Kading watersheds.
In practice, THPC project has not provided
adequate compensation for downstream affected
communities6. Evidence points to extended and
deepened episodes of downstream flooding along
the Hinboun channel, beyond what was the case
previous to the inter-basin diversion project (Barney
2007; FIVAS 2007). The Nam Kadding system has
in turn experienced significantly reduced flows,
undermining river fisheries (Shoemaker 1998; Inter-
national Rivers Network 1999). In Ban Pak Veng on
the Hinboun this has caused the loss of access to
all of the village’s riverside wet rice paddy fields,
starting from approximately 2001, 3 years after the
initiation of THPC. The project has also negatively
affected local fisheries, as well as the riverside
gardens which were an important dietary source
prior to the project (Barney 2007).
As a result of these changes, the post-2001
responses by villagers in Ban Pak Veng to the new,
project-induced flooding regime included shifting
more fully back into planting rice in upland areas,
through swidden cultivation. However, in 2001, 600
of the 1832 ha of the village’s swidden space,
which in fact represents diverse communal, agro-
forestry production systems (see Cramb 2007,
xii), providing rice and a wide range of crucial
non-timber forest products, were zoned by the Lao
Land and Forest Allocation (LFA) programme for
commercial eucalyptus development. These 600 ha
represent the majority of the upland locations in
which dry, swidden rice production is possible in
the village. Only minor compensation was guaranteed
to the villagers by the plantation company, amounting
to US$1 per ha per year. The fact that BGA Forestry
(the original concession holder, which was purchased
by Oji Paper in 2005) organised and subsidised the
implementation of the LFA process in Ban Pak
Veng, as well as the other villages, in their 150 000
ha concession zone in Hinboun and Pakkading
districts, means that a direct conflict of interest was
introduced into the zoning process.
Villagers now faced a ‘double displacement’,
from the cascading externalities of both hydro-
power and industrial tree plantation development.
In Ban Pak Veng, the Oji-LPFL began bulldozing
Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier 155
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© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
these local ‘degraded’ agro-forests in 2005, and by
August 2007, approximately 120 ha had been
planted with fast growing eucalyptus pulpwood
species. Villagers are able to plant upland rice
between the rows of the company’s trees only for
the first year, after which time the eucalyptus canopy
begins to close, and these sites can no longer be
intercropped. If the full extent (600 ha) of the
company’s plantation programme is implemented
in this village, there will be repercussions for local
food security. Even if only a partial enclosure is
enacted, the overall availability of upland forest for
rice production, and natural forests for food production,
will be squeezed. The likely result will be an
intensification of swidden, with corresponding
declines in soil fertility and rice yields (Ducourtieux
et al. 2005; Lestrelin and Giordano 2007), and
higher swidden labour demands for weeding (a task
which is borne largely by women). Such local
scenarios and probable outcomes are not discussed
in the plantation company’s public documents or
impact assessments. Indeed, the conversion of swidden
land into plantations for the production of export
commodities, is an explicit state target and fully
consistent with the overall Lao forestry sector strategies
and policies (GoL 2005). This is a strategy of socialising
losses and privatising gains, which ultimately
serves to increase the rate of profit for private sector
and corporate investors in Laos, while exposing
already vulnerable local communities to increased
risks of impoverishment.
In Ban Pak Veng, the outcome to date of these
transformations for villagers has been a significant
undermining of livelihood stability. A primary set of
responses from families in the village can be
understood through an intensifying shift of young
people towards internal and cross-border migration,
and new wage labour opportunities. Interviews in
Ban Pak Veng conducted in July 2006 and February
2007 show that 26 young women and female
teenagers, and nine male teenagers, were working
in Thailand or Vientiane. Out of a village of 48
households and some 260 residents, this is a major
proportion of the village young people7. The migra-
tion process is a multifaceted and often personal
issue for village young people, and structural
descriptions of underlying ecological ‘drivers’ of
migration can sit uneasily with the specific series of
events and decisions that lead young people to
leave the countryside (Bouahom et al. 2004). Pak
Veng does, however, show significantly higher rates
of outmigration than neighbouring villages, which
were less affected by the externalities of THPC and
Oji LPFL (Barney 2007). As the majority of these
migrants from Pak Veng lack official documentation
or passports, they are illegals in Thailand and are
thus working under very vulnerable circumstances.
The emergent, relational interactions between
historically mediated resource management practices
in this village, and external programmes of land
reform, hydropower and plantations development,
are thus reshaping both the local environment and
villager’s responses. A further way of understanding
relational frontier processes emerges when one
includes the role of remittances in shaping new
agricultural practices and a local process of
commons privatisation in Ban Pak Veng. Village
research showed that the remittances sent back to
Pak Veng village from young people working in
Thailand are being used by their parents for small-
holder investments in a new agricultural boom crop
nyang phala, or rubber trees. 2006 represented
the first year of smallholder investment in rubber for
Ban Pak Veng, with five village farmers beginning
experimentation with planting rubber seedlings in
their upland rice fields. A foreseeable problem is
that, as these seedlings mature, the former system
of communal upland land management will be
privatised along household lines. These new rubber
gardens thus represent locally driven removals of
land from the common property forest–land system,
and the first farmers in the village to make this move
will clearly be in an advantageous position over
other Pak Veng residents who make the transition
to intensive agriculture at a later date, or not at all.
While shouldering a degree of risk, the early
pioneers in this process have their selection of the
best remaining land (i.e. land which has not
already been planted by Oji-LPFL), or land situated
closest to the village.
Such new agricultural investments, including
perennial rubber and fruit tree plantations, are
happening at the same time as the local resource
base is being rapidly transformed and degraded,
and the available resource base is being quickly
‘squeezed’ by two powerful corporate actors. The
trend towards smallholder rubber, if it accelerates,
may then complete the dismantling of the Ban Pak
Veng upland swidden land use system based on
common property ownership. This agrarian-frontier
transition is occurring in an unequal fashion, where
the most advanced and asset-rich villagers will be
the first to benefit from agricultural commercialisation.
At the same time, the process of large external
agricultural investments comes at a cost, of separated
families and increased vulnerabilities for young
people negotiating through the migration process
(Shoemaker et al. 2001).
Creative villager responses to, and engagements
with, a fast-changing set of circumstances of landscape
transformation and resource degradation highlight
the specifically relational production of frontier space
in Laos. To locate the various aspects and implica-
tions of community and ecological transformation
156 Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier
Geographical Journal Vol. 175, No. 2, pp. 146–159, 2009
© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
in this village, one must focus on the interactions
and dynamics occurring between actors and
resource sectors hydropower dams and the river,
plantations and forest land, land reform and
villager practices. Villagers themselves are also
becoming actively engaged in new modes of cash
crop production which then feed back into
further changes to land tenure and landscape
dynamics.
The enclosures which are being produced through
capital-intensive resource development are altering
landscapes which were already the result of signifi-
cant histories of human interactions. As the case of
Ban Pak Veng shows, there is little which is essential
or timeless about subsistence-oriented forms of
livelihood in rural Laos. Indeed, the primary form
of rice agriculture in this community has shifted
quite dramatically, from upland swidden in the
1960s, to wet rice between the 1970s and the
1990s, and then back again towards hill rice post
2001. The full displacement effects of the Oji LPFL
forestry project on upland swidden rice farming
and livelihoods have become evident only in relation
to the community responses to the initial set of
wet rice enclosures resulting from the THPC hydro-
power project. This, in turn, has resulted in changes
from migrations, and subsequently, autonomous
villager engagements with new cash crops, and
new transformations in village property rights.
Local changes from resource sector frontier
development in Laos can thus be best understood
as a ‘co-production of socio-nature’ (Bakker and
Bridge 2006) in which the agency of marginalised
local people, as well as river water, soil, and trees,
are crucial aspects of frontier formation. This also
implies that there is no original resource-based
livelihood to return to in Laos, or which can serve
as an independent baseline for isolating the efects
of development interventions. Relational frontier
processes and actors, both central and local, produce
new landscapes of commodity production and
extraction, as well as unexpected transformations
and displacement effects for a vulnerable upland
and rural population.
Conclusion: rethinking the resource frontier and
development futures in Laos
This paper has presented a series of key points
concerning development on the resource frontier in
Laos. Drawing upon recent work on relational
approaches in economic geography (Massey 1999;
Bathelt and Gluckler 2003; Yeung 2002 2005), the
paper first discussed how the discourse of Laos as a
‘last frontier’ is being deployed in an imaging of
the Lao uplands as an empty, available site for
transnational resource sector investment. Such
discourses can, in turn, translate into very ‘material’
outcomes in terms of boosting foreign direct invest-
ment into Laos. Second, drawing upon scholars
such as De Angelis, I have argued that a more critical
approach to the ‘frontiers of capitalism’ can be a
useful concept for understanding the contemporary
geographies of enclosure, and the continuous
imperative behind accumulation by dispossession
in the global economy. Third, drawing upon political
ecologists such as Tsing, Raffles, and Walker, and
incorporating the critiques of Cleary, I have grounded
and de-centred a critical political-economic analysis
of the Lao resource frontier by incorporating
relational concepts of social–nature and centre–
periphery. The Lao village of Ban Pak Veng in
Hinboun District shows how the ecosystem changes,
resulting from the externalities of development
mega-projects and state land reform policies, combine
and overlap in a complex reworking of frontier
landscapes. The vulnerabilities introduced by these
resource transformations and displacements, in turn,
result in further transformations, by the actions of
local people, for example, entering into cross-
border wage labour markets and developing new
agricultural strategies of rubber crop production. In
this way, changes in property rights, landscape and
livelihood on the Lao frontier through corporate
investment also become tied in with the actions of
local people and communities engaging with
their environment.
A key argument in this paper is that a relational
perspective on nature, economy and livelihood is
not simply a theoretical concern. Such accounts of
the inter-connectedness and historical complexity
of local social-natures and local livelihoods have
often been lacking in accounts of the ‘impacts’ of
particular resource sector development interventions
in Laos. This can lead to a failure to appreciate the
cumulative nature of contemporary changes occur-
ring in Laos, while leaving the environmental
impact assessment process and other development
interventions (including mitigation and compensation
programmes from corporate investors) inadequately
conceptualised overly compartmentalised and ultimately
under-capitalised. Relational approaches to social-
nature and political ecology hold out the possibility
of more accurate perspectives regarding how Lao
villagers are adapting and shifting their livelihood
strategies in relation to changing environments and
state policies. Relational approaches to frontier
transformations recognise how Laos, and territories
within Laos, are being actively ‘peripheralised’ in a
globalised economy (Hayter et al. 2003). Relational
understandings of economy, nature and society can
thus help to inform agrarian questions. In Laos,
such approaches could be used to interrogate the
power politics through which resource frontiers,
Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier 157
Geographical Journal Vol. 175, No. 2, pp. 146–159, 2009
© 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2009 The Royal Geographical Society
displacements and marginalisations are produced,
and to locate what forms of locally beneficial
environmental and economic organisations are possible
and feasible for Lao upland and rural communities.
Acknowledgements
The author thanks lan Baird, Mike Dwyer, Kevin
Woods, Phil Hirsch, Niels Fold and an anonymous
reviewer for helpful comments on earlier versions
of this paper.
Notes
1 Tourism and garments being the other key sectors of the Lao
economy. Agriculture, mostly oriented around smallholder
farming, still accounts for some 40% of Laos’ GDP.
2 There are some exceptions, for example, the settlement of
the coffee frontier on the southern Bolaven Plateau in the
1980s involved a coercive state programme of relocation. I
thank Ian Baird for pointing out this history. Some of these
smallholder coffee plots on the Bolaven Plateau are now
being repossessed and cleared in favour of large-scale
Vietnamese rubber concessions.
3 In mid 2008 Oxiana Minerals merged with another mid-tier
Australian mining multinational, Zinifex, to create a new
conglomerate, OZ Minerals. The OZ project at Sepon is still
termed Lan Xang Minerals Limited (LXML).
4 Indeed a crucial role of multilateral development bank project
financing is the provision of financial guarantee facilities against
‘perceived political risks in Lao PDR’ (ADB 2005, 33).
5 Although the GoL has historically sought to reduce their
economic dependence upon Thailand; and China and Vietnam
tend to be the favoured investor countries. See Pholsena and
Banomyong (2006, 49–70) for a discussion of Laos’ bilateral
relations with Vietnam and Thailand.
6 No compensation by THPC has been provided to local
communities for reduced fisheries on the Nam Kadding system.
7 These rates of outmigration are also not untypical for many rural
villages in Laos. However, the forests, rivers and surrounding
environs are also comparatively rich in natural resources in
this area of Hinboun District, which could be the basis for
more ‘viable’ rural communities in these locations.
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51
... A further and major challenge in achieving global consistency in defining SPAs as distinct spaces is that existing literature interprets sparse areas within developing and developed countries in fundamentally different ways. In the developing context, SPAs are understood as places of primitive economic accumulation (Di Tella 1982;Barbier 2005), where abundant resource commodities exist which are 'ripe' for exploitation (Barney 2009). Accordingly, SPAs in developing countries are the 'contested spaces' of neo-colonial frontier conquests (Barbier 2005;Tsing 2005;Geiger 2008) including in many cases, a conquest of the original inhabitants of the lands in which resources are located, such as for the Amazon Basin (see Cleary 1993;Geiger 2008) and the Southeast Asian highlands (see Tsing 2005;Barney 2009;Rippa 2019). ...
... In the developing context, SPAs are understood as places of primitive economic accumulation (Di Tella 1982;Barbier 2005), where abundant resource commodities exist which are 'ripe' for exploitation (Barney 2009). Accordingly, SPAs in developing countries are the 'contested spaces' of neo-colonial frontier conquests (Barbier 2005;Tsing 2005;Geiger 2008) including in many cases, a conquest of the original inhabitants of the lands in which resources are located, such as for the Amazon Basin (see Cleary 1993;Geiger 2008) and the Southeast Asian highlands (see Tsing 2005;Barney 2009;Rippa 2019). Nevertheless, the significance of indigenous populations and their struggle for land rights (see Peluso and Lund 2011;Rasmussen and Lund 2017) is also emphasized in the context of developed countries (see Kassam 2001;Howitt 2001;Instone 1999;Howitt and Jackson 1998;Bohl-van den Boogaard, Carter, and Hollinsworth 2017;Taylor, Tátrai, and Erőss 2018), which, according to Carson and Koster (2012) provides certain grounds for comparisons. ...
... This dynamism is particularly the case in SPAs (Tsing 2003;Barbier 2005;Geiger 2008;Fitjar 2013;Woodworth 2016;Väätänen 2019). Hence our pre-defined 'theatre' means some regions might not be in-scope if the study is repeated in future due to population increases, as is the case now with land conversion frontiers in Southeast Asia, mostly in Borneo, Laos and Cambodia which are the focus of much of the contemporary work on neo-colonial frontier studies (Tsing 2005;Barney 2009). Nevertheless, while our 4 people/km 2 threshold could be debated empirically for its subjectivity, its selection is based on the existing literature and it provides a suitable, if not perfect, basis for the analysis presented here. ...
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Sparsely Populated Areas are perceived as regions with the least human impact but the greatest potential for change. For some decades, the human geography of sparsely populated areas has attracted studies seeking to explain and differentiate their economic and demographic polarization in comparison to respective national averages. Evaluation of the economic, demographic and social progression of these sparsely populated areas is however obfuscated by the absence of globally agreed definitions on the qualifying criteria and, concurrently, inconsistent nomenclature to identify such regions internationally. Therefore, the aim of this study is to demonstrate the capacity for a globally consistent typology to identify the economic and demographic patterns in common, but within very different environmental constraints and institutional frameworks. To do so we focus on first-tier subnational geographical units with extremely low population densities and apply multivariable typology to understand and differentiate the key demographic and economic issues for sparsely populated areas. Using multivariable typology we identify three types of demographic and economic patterns as ‘marginal’, ‘semi’ and ‘very remote’ sparsely populated areas. The results emphasize the diversity of circumstances among these areas as a result of their past economic and demographic trajectories, but also as functions of institutional and political constraints.
... Laos provides a relevant setting for studying local development implications of land deals, including the partially implemented or abandoned ones, as land deals are plentiful. The Government of Laos uses its rich natural resources as a growth engine, especially to attract foreign investments (Dwyer, 2007(Dwyer, , 2014, presenting Laos as a sparsely populated, land abundant country, with plenty of "underutilized" or "degraded" land (Barney, 2009;Lestrelin et al., 2012). However, the "abundant land" is being placed under stricter control by still incomplete land reforms and land use planning efforts aimed at regulating the use of land and natural resources through mapping and zoning exercises (Lestrelin et al., 2012). ...
... The opportunities for rent seeking by state officials are "gigantic" (Sikor and Lund, 2010, p. 15) in settings like Laos where state institutions claim the property rights over land, and thereby have a key role in the authorization of land deals (Lu and Schönweger, 2017). Several studies in Laos document the ways large-scale land deals displace local livelihoods and semi-subsistence activities (Barney, 2007;Kenney-Lazar, 2010;LIWG, 2012;Suhardiman et al., 2015) creating plantations in which former farmers serve as wage laborers (Baird, 2011), while foreign investors and national elites are argued to be the main beneficiaries (Barney, 2009;Andriesse, 2011). However, what happens when land deals are abandoned or never implemented has received little attention. ...
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Although many land deals are never implemented to production stage, little is known about how abandoned projects affect local communities and the government agencies that promote them. This article analyses the effects on local actors, their land access, land use and tenure security of a large-scale bio-fuel land deal in northern Laos that a Chinese company initiated but subsequently abandoned before reaching the planting and production stage. The project left local people bound by contracts without cancellation clauses and with livelihood losses, until the investment contract eventually was annulled by Lao state actors. The deal has prepared the provincial government to receive new investors to further the modernization of agriculture and a land-based economic growth, both in terms of identifying land for development, and experiences gained of how to handle international investors. However, it seems unlikely that local actors can decline future projects when interests of investors and government actors overlap–interests that may not be limited to those officially stated as the objectives of the land deal. A more accurate terminology and additional research is needed to shed light on the outcomes of land deals that for some reason never reach a production stage, whether as a “virtual,” or “failed” land deal.
... Rasmussen and Lund (2018) have advocated for a bifocal perspective of territorialization and frontier dynamics, making visible their interplay in (re)configuring space, property relations and institutional arrangements. Both concepts have been used by scholars to analyse and discuss the transformations of upland areas across Southeast Asia (Barney 2009;Diepart and Sem 2018;Hall, Hirsch, and Li 2011). Scholars have also shown how territorial politics shape institutional structures (Bolleyer 2018;Keating 2018) and public policies (Agnew and Mantegna 2018). ...
... reinterpreted between national, provincial and district levels of the state and adjusted to local contexts, to produce complex networking patterns across scales (Barney 2009;Castella et al. 2013). Consequently, we do not deal with strategic choices made by a single rational entity, but with the outcome of complex interactions among many actor-networks over a long period of time. ...
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, the community’s economy weakened due to an economic recession, even changing people’s behavior in meeting food needs. The crisis, gradually over a long period, causes people to experience food insecurity, resulting in decreased nutrition. Disease outbreaks are increasingly widespread because nutritional needs have not been met. One of the efforts made is a self-sufficiency strategy by assessing the area’s potential. Carrying the theme of the application of permaculture concepts in the development of organic salted egg industrial centers as an effort to be self-sufficient in food in Slorok Village, Doko District, Blitar, East Java, the Community Service Program Team of Brawijaya University is trying to empower human resources from Slorok Village. The activity process is designed according to the community’s potential, problems, needs, and desires while adhering to the six aspects of permaculture. The smoked salted eggs program was chosen to process duck eggs, which experience fluctuating prices, and as a micro business product for the community. The challenges faced in the production and marketing processes require the cooperation of stakeholders, continuous monitoring and evaluation, and social capital improvement
... Indeed, governments across the Global South frequently promote economic modernisation and capitalist expansion, often in collaboration with private interests, as a way to increase control over frontier populations and spaces, which often -but not always -intersect with state borderlands (discussed below). In the process, frontier populations regularly face 'civilising' cultural reforms that aim to transform their livelihoods and social practices (Barney, 2009;Fold and Hirsch, 2009;Hirsch, 2009). State and non-state actors often spare no expense to 'improve' the nation's physical and metaphorical frontier and work in concert to leverage political, economic, and legal power to these ends ). ...
... Indeed, governments across the Global South frequently promote economic modernisation and capitalist expansion, often in collaboration with private interests, as a way to increase control over frontier populations and spaces, which often -but not always -intersect with state borderlands (discussed below). In the process, frontier populations regularly face 'civilising' cultural reforms that aim to transform their livelihoods and social practices (Barney, 2009;Fold and Hirsch, 2009;Hirsch, 2009). State and non-state actors often spare no expense to 'improve' the nation's physical and metaphorical frontier and work in concert to leverage political, economic, and legal power to these ends ). ...
... Dominance of large-scale investments: In the lower Mekong region, Laos is often portrayed as one of the "last frontiers" in Asia in the context of resource exploitation and development (Barney 2009). This notion extends to the sphere of policymaking, with a lack of integrated planning in regard to nature conservation and socioeconomic development in general. ...
... By contrast to the expansionist school, which depicts edges as loosely connected liminal frontiers, the capitalist school highlights edges as the space where capitalism adsorbs the periphery (Cleary 1993;Barney 2009). It conceives edges as 'zones of exploitation' where bountiful resources are extracted (Lloyd and Metzer, 2013). ...
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Sand frontiers all over the world are expanding owing to the growing demand for construction sand. While several scholarly interventions are devoted to accounting for the extensive ecological damage and ways of improving sand governance, this article focuses on politicising these ecological transformations, in the process, understanding the nature of sand frontiers from the very local level. It does so by analysing placebased socio-political and economic dynamics of sand extraction in Zimbabwe's Eyrecourt Farm. The case study shows that local dynamics configure sand extraction spaces into politicised and ungovernable extractive geographies. These findings are not only representative of Zimbabwe's sand frontier. They also hold true in sand spaces linked to transnational networks of demand and supply. Overall, the study demonstrates the importance of local dynamics in understanding the emergence, development, and functioning of sand frontiers. The local dynamics unearthed here also help us break down the notion of a global sand frontier by positioning place-based dynamics as more important to understand.
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Neoliberalism--the doctrine that market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action--has become dominant in both thought and practice throughout much of the world since 1970 or so. Writing for a wide audience, David Harvey, author of The New Imperialism and The Condition of Postmodernity, here tells the political-economic story of where neoliberalization came from and how it proliferated on the world stage. Through critical engagement with this history, he constructs a framework, not only for analyzing the political and economic dangers that now surround us, but also for assessing the prospects for the more socially just alternatives being advocated by many oppositional movements.
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The Amazon rain forest covers more than five million square kilometers, amid the territories of nine different nations. It represents over half of the planet's remaining rain forests. But is it truly in peril? And what steps are necessary to save it? To understand the future of Amazonia, one must know how its history was forged: in the eras of large pre-Columbian populations, in the gold rush of conquistadors, in centuries of slavery, in the schemes of Brazil's military dictators in the 1960s and 1970s, and in new globalized economies where Brazilian soy and beef now dominate, while the market in carbon credits raises the value of standing forest. Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn show in compelling detail the panorama of destruction as it unfolded and also reveal the extraordinary turnaround that is now taking place, thanks to both social movements and the emergence of new environmental markets. Exploring the role of human hands in destroying - and saving - this vast, forested region, "The Fate of the Forest" pivots on the murder of Chico Mendes, the legendary labor and environmental organizer assassinated after successful confrontations with big ranchers. A multifaceted portrait of Eden under siege, complete with a new preface and afterword by the authors, this book demonstrates that those who would hold a mirror up to nature must first learn the lessons offered by some of their own people.
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David Harvey's adaptation and redeployment of Marx's notion of ‘primitive accumulation’–under the heading of ‘accumulation by dispossession’–has reignited interest in the concept among geographers. This adaptation of the concept of primitive accumulation to different contexts than those Marx analyzed raises a variety of theoretical and practical issues. In this paper, I review recent uses and transformations of the notion of primitive accumulation that focus on its persistence within the Global North, addressing especially the political implications that attend different readings of primitive accumulation in the era of neoliberal globalization.