We define borderlands as zones straddling an international border. Frontiers are more fuzzy political spaces, marking zones of transition between different centres of power and regulation.

Frontiers and borderlands

What they are and why they matter

Frontiers and borderlands, though often presented as ‘lagging regions’, may be at the forefront of processes of rapid social, political and economic change. Many frontier activities and cross-border networks evade the ordering logic and regulatory regimes of the metropolitan centres. Simply labelling these undertakings as illegal and law and order problems has very little analytical purchase. In order to address them, we need to understand them from a borderland perspective.

Breaking out of the territorial trap

Our understanding of the world is limited by ‘methodological nationalism’. Data are organised at the national level, national borders are reified as self-evident, and nation- states present themselves as the natural elements of the international system. This leads us to foreground ‘the formal’, the ‘legal’ and ‘the official’. And it renders challenges to this order as illicit and undesirable.

This perspective, what we call ‘borderland blindness’, needs to be questioned as it fails to capture how borderlands (and frontiers) actually work. They are simultaneously places of fixity and transgressive motion. Many apparently sharp borders are in fact fuzzy and porous. Social-cultural connections often straddle national boundaries. Supposedly illicit cross-border economies can have very productive and benign effects.

A borderlands perspective

Rather than viewing borderlands and frontiers from the centre, we need to take these peripheral areas as the starting point of our analysis. Adopting such a ‘borderlands perspective’ requires, in our view, looking at three inter-connected disciplinary approaches: political economy, political geography and history.

This has great merit academically, but it has major ramifications for policy responses too. Many of today’s key policy challenges emanate from borderlands and frontiers: migration, conflict and insurgencies, climate change, epidemics, poverty and under- development. Therefore borderlands can be understood as zones of concentrated intractabilities, and these policy challenges cannot be adequately met through state- centred approaches.

A borderlands perspective offers a fruitful vantage point to engage with these issues. It provokes some fundamental questions about the utility and effectiveness of state-based policy making, whilst also offering innovative approaches to addressing ‘unruly borderlands’.

Drugs in the Afghan or Myanmar frontier

The production and trafficking of opium are central to the political economies of both countries. Understanding these economies (and social and political networks around them) must involve looking at cross-border dynamics. After all, the border is not just a hindrance, but also an opportunity to make profit. Border regimes do not simply obstruct drug trafficking, they shape it.

Labour migration in transborder economies

Economies thrive on difference. It is thus no surprise that borderlands with a high gradient and porous borders spawn thriving trans-border economies. This often involves large-scale labour migration - be it legal or informal. The economies of states like Singapore or cities like Kuching (Malaysia) crucially depend on the proximity of a reservoir of cheap labour across the border.

Logging, ecology and land tenure

The globalised commodity networks associated with an extractive frontier like Borneo or Sumatra’s forest are underpinned by vital interests both for states and the private sector as well as local populations. Subsequent concern about ecological impacts of timber extraction and increased assertiveness of frontier inhabitants affect established interests, bargaining positions and alliances.

A purely national response to these challenges is clearly insufficient. Both causes and effects defy the international borders. Global and local interests challenge national governments from above and below. And official policies are undermined by state entities and regional elites fending for themselves.

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