Frontiers: Civil Society and Nature

Redclift, Michael. 2006. Frontiers: Histories of Civil Society and Nature. Boston: MIT Press.

Through a series of brief case studies, Michael Redclift explores the meanings, practices, and imaginaries associated with frontiers, which he analyzes through the mutually interacting interfaces of nature and civil society. Redclift conceives of frontiers in three main ways: “as boundaries, as areas of human settlement and commodity production, and as cultural imaginaries” (27). He sees frontiers as “contested zones, where rival versions of civil society (or its denial) vied with each other, and where it was often their definition and management of nature that was most at odds” (ix).

By “civil society,” he explains that he basically means a critical version of “social capital” that acknowledges how human action is embedded in deeper social and political structures imbued with relations of power, class, ethnicity and gender (31-33). “Civil society is accorded importance not as a narrowly defined concept but as an element in a wider set of relationships through which property rights have been exerted over nature” (31). He argues, “Civil societies have grown up in which the management of natural resources is intimately linked with wider histories of class conflict and market relations” (33). In this way, he views civil society as the dialectical result between nature and human sociality. Although I didn’t find this conceptualization of “civil society” all that enriching, I was really attracted to his use of Lefebvre for examining the frontier as a social space—though it could have been drawn out more in the empirical cases.

He subsequently threads these arguments through the cases of a pastoral community in the Pyrenees, frontier settlement in Canada west, chicle and Maya resistance in Yucatán, plantation agriculture in coastal Ecuador, and the commodification of Caribbean Mexico as the Maya Riviera. In the studies he fleshes out the different frontier dynamics at play.

In the Pyrenees, pastoralism and transhumance, along with bundles of customary rights, serve as a bulwark against landlord seigniorial control—at least for a while. These spatial practices also help maintain a fragile possibility of sustainable subsistence for the pastoralist who also rely on accumulated knowledges and relationships attained via practice.

The Canadian example presents a wider-flung relational historical geography that explains why, how, and with what effects English, Scottish, Irish, and U.S. migrants settled Canada’s western frontier. The sudden thrust of private property, along with massive speculation, and the encounters with a foreign natural environment help explain the often discordant discourses of frontier life by settlers who seemed overwhelmed by the exuberance, abundance, and “roughness” as well as “lawlessness” of the frontier environment—this is the frontier effect that I like to call “Dystopian Eden.” Interestingly, the discourses on frontier society “took as their starting points a series of opposites: wilderness/settlement, violence/law and order, social refinement/uncouthness. However, in the text of these accounts we can also see evidence that the discourses on society and nature were assimilated into each other. The myth of civic virtues that develops to civilize nature itself also incorporates elements of the relationship with nature” (99).

The Ecuador chapter traces the country’s changing commodity frontiers (cocoa, rice, bananas) according to changing regional, national, and international political-economic dynamics as well as the ever-present hand of USAID. The last two empirical chapters take a close look at two different periods in the Yucatán Peninsula: the lead up and aftermath of the Caste Wars and the contemporary tourism boom on the so-called “Maya Riviera.” The former presents a case of an unparalleled (in the book) “scale of social resistance mounted by the indigenous Maya people, and the extent to which it posed an alternative vision of the relations between society and nature” (132). In the conclusion, Redclift notes, “The history of chicle and the rebel Maya in Yucatán reminds us that frontiers are often defended, as well as settled” (157). Chicle was first used as a way to undermine elite control while asserting and bankrolling Maya autonomy and rebellion, but that only lasted until chicle became further integrated into a capitalist commodity frontier. The commodification of a sanitized and supposedly “extinct” Maya culture for tourist consumption is a more familiar story.

At the end of the book, Redclift explains, “The concept of frontier has been employed in a number of ways, some of which have heuristic value in exploring aspects of space and nature. This relationship between nature and society, encapsulated in the frontier, has been explored as a metaphor and a point of departure for examining the contradictions of modernity” (193). He adds, “Frontiers provide an illuminating example of how nature is employed to mark out the social boundaries of inclusion and exclusion” (193). I like this last line most, and allows me to make the most sense of the book. Throughout, he’s trying to show how the interface of society and nature is always a contested one in which old exclusions can be reproduced and new ones created. However, the Maya example also shows how being on the “wrong side” of a frontier—or on the outside—can also be politically enabling.


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