Theories of frontier expansion in the last four decades have been mostly shaped by studies of state-driven smallholder colonization. Modern-day agricultural frontiers, however, are increasingly driven by capitalized corporate agriculture, operating with little direct government intervention.
The expansion of contemporary frontiers has been explained by the existence of spatially heterogeneous “abnormal” rents, which can be caused by cheap land and labour, technological innovation, lack of regulations, and a variety of other incentives. This article argues that understanding the dynamics of these frontiers requires considering the differential ability of actors to capture such rents, which depends on their access to production factors and their information, preferences, and agency.
The authors propose a new conceptual framework drawing on neoclassical economics and political economy, and apply to the South American Gran Chaco, a hot spot of deforestation for soy and cattle production. The region is divided into a set of distinct frontiers based on satellite data, field interviews, and expert knowledge, in order to review the drivers and actors of agricultural expansion in these frontiers.
The authors show that frontier expansion in the Chaco responded to the rents created by new agricultural technologies, infrastructure, and rising producer prices but that the frontier dynamics were strongly influenced by actors’ abilities to capture or influence these rents. The findings thus highlight that understanding contemporary commodity frontiers requires analysing the novel ways by which the agency of particular groups of actors shapes land-use outcomes.
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