The Changing Modalities of ‘Frontiers of Existence’ and ‘Commodity/Resource Frontiers’:

Preliminary Notes based on Deforestation in Brazil
13 October 2017

Much research has been dedicated to the study of commodity and resource frontiers. These concepts have also been heavily criticized for many reasons, and been even called obsolete academic tools; in the 1990s, some Latin Americanists argued that the commodity and resource frontier had collapsed in the Brazilian Amazon, and did not capture the local complexities.

The concept has also been criticized for its suggestion that physical changes in territory are central, and that clear frontiers could be found in landscapes; such critique has argued that we should primarily see frontiers as ideas and as dispersed processes. However, the recent 15 years’ global agroextractivist expansion and land rush often based on immense deforestation and obliteration of existing lived environments and existences, suggests that clearly physically detectable, landscape-altering commodity frontiers are still expanding. The Brazilian pasture, soybean, corn, eucalyptus and sugarcane plantations, as well as forest-flooding dam expansions, are tangible frontiers, visible from land and satellites. These landscape changes imbue a redistribution in what exists and can exist, and where and how; most studies have omitted or paid little attention to these existential dynamics, a point that this paper would like to start to remedy. Existential redistribution, including mass extinctions of species and obliteration of innumerable existences e.g. in burned down Amazon and Cerrado forests, which the imposition of ‘resource frontiers’ creates and on which commodity frontiers rely at (to work for capital accumulation for example), is a key theoretical-empirical point that has not received concerted enough attention. This article offers a preliminary theoretical study on the importance of studying ‘frontiers of existences’, based on an exploration of existing studies and data collected on Brazilian commodity frontier openings, collapses, re-openings and possible closures. The article suggests that the existing frontier-research should, firstly, see that there are real, physical and landscape-altering frontiers, which have led to major changes in existences in the past 15 years – an overtly non-physical conceptualization of commodity frontiers is ontologically problematic as it hides existences. Second, agrarian political economies should be aware of the much-too-common vocabulary that hides existences (such as ‘biodiversity’, ‘volume of meat produced’), considering frontiers also as places of existential redistributions and struggles.