Fluid boundaries: Frontiers of land-use change

How is land-use change enacted at frontiers, both violently and by peaceful means? This is one of the central questions leading investigations in the “Violent futures?” project on dynamics of organised violence in the face of large-scale land-use changes—infrastructure and conservation—in northern Kenya. The political science research project looks at the planning and implementation of an infrastructure corridor as well as community conservancies. The planning of these land-use changes produces zones of interaction, where existing and projected land use practices meet and clash with each other. When development interventions occur in regions, which administrators, politicians and entrepreneurs define as ‘empty spaces’, the research project understands these zones of interaction as frontiers. In addition, the notion of frontier entails the belief in linear, future-oriented progress from an ordered region into a supposedly empty or ungoverned space, characterised by wilderness, scarce population, and undeveloped economic potentials for human exploitation. This understanding of planners, businessmen, and government officials is constitutive for a frontier. While the expansion of a frontier includes an inherent future orientation, the boundary of a frontier remains blurred. Whereas planners are projecting the frontier onto certain geographical areas such as borderlands that (are meant to) undergo structural change, in our understanding, the frontier does not demarcate a geographical space but denotes the fluid socio-spatial boundary between different forms of social organisation.

Planning of the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia (LAPSSET) transport corridor that started in 2009 has initiated an infrastructure frontier in northern Kenya. Its plan foresees an oil pipeline transporting crude oil from oil fields in Turkana County, Kenya, to the Kenyan coast, highways and a railway line connecting the Indian Ocean with East Africa’s hinterland, as well as special economic zones in a 50-km zone along the corridor. LAPSSET officials see pastoralist communities in need of being developed, of leaving their unsustainable lifestyles and turning to modernity. In this view, the pastoralist livestock economy and cattle raids are seen as vestiges of the past without a right to exist in future. Ten years into its making, however, the corridor largely remains a zone of “not yet” (Tsing, 2005). Apart from a few constructed elements, including parts of a road and a seaport, the grand infrastructure projects await implementation and funding. Nevertheless, a rush to secure land property rights by Kenyan elites in anticipation of future investments has alerted everyone of the high stakes potentially involved in the LAPSSET projects and has already increased existing tensions and conflicts.


Another land-use change in northern Kenya that is already occurring is frontiers of conservation, namely community conservancies. Since the 1990s, conservancies have mushroomed in northern Kenya to balance the protection of the environment and the use of natural resources by the local population. Community conservancies are also meant to reduce conflicts among different pastoralist groups that compete for grazing land in the northern rangelands. Some conservancies have improved conflict resolution and cooperation among pastoralist communities by regrouping them in one conservancy, ending previous violent conflicts along territorial boundaries between the communities. Other mono-ethnic conservancies in the region, by contrast, have increased tensions between rival pastoral groups. The frontier of conservancies is also problematic for another two reasons: One is that the lead conservation agency regroups most of the conservancies and accompanies their management with little ownership of the pastoralists. Similar to the LAPSSET officials, the non-governmental agency views the pastoralist management of rangelands as eroded and in need of replacement by a modern, conservationist one. Second, the conservation agency has fundamentally remodeled the organisation of violence in the region by equipping conservancy scouts with state weapons to patrol the conservancies—which at the same time are grazing areas for livestock. Being armed, the conservancy scouts assume policing functions and shift the balance of power between state and non-state actors, blurring the boundaries between state and non-state actors in the security realm.


At frontiers of land-use change, we observe a shift in the socio–spatial boundaries between different forms of land-use, of people of different ethnic or social belonging, of livelihoods, and of organised violence. Frontiers thus constitute the fluid boundaries of existing and future forms of social organisation.

By: Conrad Schetter and Marie Müller-Koné

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