Frontier Expansion and Economic Development

By Barbier, Edward B. | Contemporary Economic Policy, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Frontier Expansion and Economic Development


Barbier, Edward B., Contemporary Economic Policy


I. INTRODUCTION

Finding new frontiers or reserves of natural resources to exploit has been the basis of much of global economic development for the past 500 years (Cipolla, 1976; di Tella, 1982; North and Thomas, 1973; Toynbee, 1978; Webb, 1964). Such frontier-based economic development is characterized by a pattern of capital investment, technological innovation, and social and economic institutions dependent on "opening up" new frontiers of natural resources once existing ones have been "closed" and exhausted (di Tella, 1982; Findlay, 1995; Findlay and Lundahl, 1994).

However, recognition of the role of the frontier in development has only occurred over the past century, beginning with the first frontier thesis on American development as put forward by Frederick Jackson Turner. (1) Turner's frontier thesis was further extended by Walter Prescott Webb to explain not just American but global economic development over the 1500-1900 period of world history. (2) In recent decades, historians, geographers, and social scientists have continued to modify the Turner-Webb frontier thesis to describe processes of frontier-based development in many areas of the world, including Latin America, Russia, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand (Hennessy, 1978; Savage and Thompson, 1979; Wieczynski, 1976; Wolfskill and Palmer, 1983). Although there is considerable debate over whether the original thesis envisioned by Turner and Webb is still relevant for all frontier regions, there is a general consensus over both the definition of a frontier and its significance in terms of economic development: A frontier area is assumed to be "a geographic region adjacent to the unsettled portions of the continent in which a low man-land ratio and unusually abundant, unexploited, natural resources provide an exceptional opportunity for social and economic betterment to the small-propertied individual" (Billington, 1966, p. 25). Or, as di Tella (1982, p. 212) has put it more succinctly, throughout history processes of frontier-based development "were characterized by the initial existence of abundant land, mostly unoccupied, and by a substantial migration of capital and people."

Today, frontier-based economic development is very much prevalent in many developing regions of the world, which still have abundant, mainly forested lands and other natural resources at their disposal. Although Webb's Great Frontier may have closed at the turn of the twentieth century, frontier areas of various sizes, characterized by a "low man-land ratio and unusually abundant, unexploited, natural resources," still exist throughout the developing world. Exploitation and conversion of these frontier reserves clearly influence the overall pattern of economic development.

For example, many low-income and lower-middle-income economies not only rely principally on direct exploitation of their natural resources through primary industries (e.g., agriculture, forestry, fishing, etc.) but also over 50% or more of their export earnings come from a few primary commodities (World Bank, 1992). Natural capital--the value of the natural resource endowment of a country--is particularly important in the developing world. For low-income countries dependent on export revenues from primary commodities (other than petroleum), 20% of their national wealth comprises natural capital (World Bank, 1997). (3) These economies are also experiencing dramatic land use changes--especially conversion of forest area and wetlands to agriculture--that are symptomatic of classic frontier expansion processes (FAO, 1997). Over 1970-90, for developing countries, 47% of the increase in crop production in Sub-Saharan Africa, 48% in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 41% in East Asia (excluding China) has come from increases in harvested land area, and these trends are projected to continue until 2010 at least (FAO, 1995; Fischer and Heilig, 1997).

However, there is also evidence that the process of frontier-based economic development in many small open developing countries today may not be generating as prodigious or as sustained an economic boom as the Turner-Webb frontier thesis would predict. …

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