Laos and the making of a ‘relational’ resource frontier



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.