Neglect paves the way for dispossession: The politics of “last frontiers” in Brazil and Myanmar
Journal article, 2021
A convergence of factors creates a worrisome contemporary pattern of resource dispossession of local populations in developing countries. Growing market demand for commodities, states’ interest in expanding their fiscally fertile territories, and environmental conservation pressures have promoted resource frontiers, where locals all too frequently lose access to land, water and livelihoods. To add momentum and legitimize outsiders’ agendas, such locations are sometimes framed as “last frontiers” – the final places of possibility. While various forms of resource “grabbing” have gained increased attention, we argue that a crucial dimension of frontier dynamics – neglect and its role in facilitating dispossession – warrants further study as it tends to be overlooked. Drawing on the frontiers and political ecology literature, this article analyzes how neglect by state authorities, markets, and environmental organizations paves the way for dispossession in those landscapes. We compare two cases: the Matopiba soy frontier in the savannas of Brazil's Cerrado and the Chin Hills of western Myanmar. Our results show how neglect is critical to imaginatively frame regions as “empty” places of possibility, excluding local actors economically from development and politically from governance initiatives. We argue that neglect not only precedes but is an enduring feature of resource frontiers, and identify four consecutive phases: (I) pre-frontier abandonment, (II) selective support to outsiders, (III) overlooked harms to communities, and (IV) socially exclusive sustainability agendas. As environmental concerns gain increasing global salience, Phase I sometimes leaps to Phase IV as international actors pounce to control what they regard as “last frontiers” for conservation. We conclude that external actors’ inaction enables local communities’ dispossession as much as their actions. This raises critical policy and scholarly questions about actors' responsibility and accountability, not only for harms done but also for systematically failing to heed local actors’ aspirations and needs.