Challenges in emerging frontiers

“American Progress” (John Gast, 1872). Painting in the public domain. Obtained from Wikimedia

Our work on Northern Mozambique starts from the premise that this region might constitute an emerging frontier for land use investments and expansion.

Our work on Northern Mozambique starts from the premise that this region might constitute an emerging frontier for land use investments and expansion. Before digging into the question of whether this premise is verified, let us discuss why we focus on “emerging frontiers”.

A large share of current agricultural expansion and deforestation takes place in so-called “frontiers” – i.e., regions with rapid development of natural resource exploitation and land use changes, concentrating migration of smallholders as well as large-scale corporate investments. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner, American historian, wrote “The significance of the frontier in American history”, describing the expansion of the frontier and the rolling back of wilderness as an attempt to make livable space out of an uncooperative nature (see the Figure). Since then, intensive research efforts have been focused on describing and explaining the functioning of active deforestation frontiers in relation to agricultural expansion. A major conclusion of these works is that even though public and private governance interventions can indeed have some effectiveness to reduce deforestation and foster more sustainable land uses, these corrective measures are often hard to implement, face multiple obstacles and vested interests, and often remain fragile, contested and reversible. And even more importantly, a lot of environmental and social damage done is hard to reverse.

In contrast, research has been much less developed on unravelling how these frontiers emerged from territories considered as marginal in terms of agricultural productivity and connections to global markets. In the MIDLAND project, we aim to explain the processes that condition and shape the emergence of agricultural frontiers in territories considered as marginal in terms of agricultural productivity and global market connections. Much of this work is focused on the Miombo dry woodlands of Southern and Eastern Africa, with a more specific focus on Northern Mozambique. How and from what processes frontiers emerge in the first place, how and why is it that some places shift from being seen as “marginal”, remote, uninteresting, to becoming targets of interests and investments? Similar frontiers are emerging or re-emerging in other places, like the Paraguayan Chaco and Chiquitano (le Polain de Waroux 2019, Henderson et al. 2021), or boreal regions (Meyfroidt 2021), often overlooked by the international community of civil society, large NGOs, and international institutions. We build on a core assumption that steering the course of frontiers towards more sustainable outcomes might be easier when these frontiers emerge compared to when they are fully active, rampant frontiers operated by powerful actors. Of course these regions, like the North of Mozambique, already face critical sustainability challenges in terms of food security, livelihoods, environmental degradation and others, but prospects of large-scale commodity frontiers would add up a whole new dimension to these challenges.

Yet, an important caveat is that often, there’s good reasons why the abundant natural resources in these places have not triggered frontiers earlier. Remoteness, lack of infrastructures or other forms of agglomeration economies (market access, skilled labor, service providers…), unreliable investment contexts, lack of public authorities means, political instability or conflicts, critical barriers in agroenvironmental conditions, are all kinds of reasons that can typically explain why frontiers have not – yet – emerged in some areas. But these same factors can also hinder efforts towards governance towards sustainability. Active frontiers as in the Brazilian Amazon or Cerrado experience large-scale deforestation and high social impacts, but are also the places where innovative public-private governance mechanisms are developed, new monitoring tools and civil society mobilization trigger supply chain actors to take strong commitments to improve their sourcing, and detailed datasets allow for methodologically robust evaluation of policies’ impacts.

With rampant poverty, increasing pressure on land, continuing deforestation, the status quo is not a desirable option in places like Mozambique. The challenge is thus about ramping up research efforts, datasets and monitoring tools development and mainstreaming, institutional strengthening, and policy responses, along with investments in agriculture and other economic activities. As team member Dilini Abeygunawardane often says, the challenge is about “attracting the right kind of investors, and investments”, to address sustainability challenges.


Patrick Meyfroidt
Patrick Meyfroidt
Professor of Land Systems and Sustainability Science

My research focuses on how land systems can contribute to sustainability.