Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Should we promote commodity crops in forest frontiers?

By Sango Mahanty, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

Among aid agencies, agricultural value chain interventions are often used to promote value addition, rural livelihoods, and economic growth in the global south. In Cambodia, for instance, two large and concurrent aid projects have aimed to strengthen value chains for cassava (manihot esculenta), even urging farmers to enter cropping contracts so that new, privately financed processing factories can thrive. At the same time, as a crop that can be grown easily on newly cleared lands, cassava is implicated in forest loss along Cambodia’s agriculture-forest frontier. Dramatic price volatility and crop pathogens have also fuelled debt and social disruption in farming communities.

My paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers shows that by shifting our analysis from value chains to market networks we can gain a more nuanced understanding of frontier markets. Value chain or commodity chain studies focus on the actors, institutions, and processes that bring goods and services from peripheral frontiers to global markets (Bair, 2009). In contrast, network analysis enables us to also consider how indirect actors frame conditions, entice farmers into new commodity markets, and influence market trajectories.

My research on cassava markets in Mondulkiri province, North-East Cambodia, finds that a boom in cassava cultivation has produced two distinct market networks. The first network supplies dried cassava chips to trans-border markets that serve bioethanol and livestock production. The second network supplies fresh cassava to Vietnamese starch and processed food factories. By assessing the social, material and spatial relationships in each network, I show that subtle geographical variations in transport networks, migration patterns, and the availability of uncleared land support dried cassava production in upland areas and fresh cassava in Mondulkiri’s lowlands. The dried and fresh cassava networks reflect Mondulkiri’s differentiated geography of cassava production, arising from its varied landscape, demography and market opportunities. At the same time, each market network continually reconfigures these landscapes and communities in a process of co-production.

Labourers on established cassava farm, lowland Mondulkiri, Cambodia

Furthermore, both the dried and fresh cassava markets are highly dynamic. The promise of new land and income can mobilise farmers to grow new crops, while setbacks in the form of loss in soil fertility, price instability and debt have the effect of demobilising market networks. Projects that promote specific market crops or encourage contract farming can cut across these fluxes in detrimental ways, for example by reducing farmers’ flexibility to choose different crops.

Although Mondulkiri is often described as a frontier province, its history of settlement and migration along available transport networks has produced highly differentiated spaces and opportunities. When land becomes harder to find in established areas, lowland migrants target new settlement locations, effectively creating a “frontier within a frontier”. This relational dimension of frontiers (Barney 2009) is also evident in international trading networks for cassava starch, where each actor sees themselves as peripheral. While Cambodian farmers think that Vietnamese factory owners set cassava demand and price, starch producers feel like peripheral actors in a global market controlled by international buyers. These examples suggest that frontier discourses are applied to very diverse settings that warrant interrogation if we are to better understand how frontier markets function.

Should we promote commodity crops in the frontiers of the global south? My research findings indicate a need for caution. Interventions must be founded on nuanced knowledge that goes beyond value chain logics, particularly in areas that are undergoing dramatic and differentiated forms of social and environmental change. Without this, projects run the risk of uniformly promoting market engagements that are socially and environmentally unsustainable.

About the author: Sango Mahanty is Associate Professor at The Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, where she leads the Resources, Environment & Development Group. The research discussed in this post and the associated paper draw on her Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (2014-2018), which studied market formation in the context of rapid social and environmental change along the Cambodia-Vietnam border.


Bair, J. 2009. Global commodity chains: genealogy and review. In J. Bair (Ed.), Frontiers of Commodity Chain Research (pp. 1-34). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Barney, K. 2009. Laos and the making of a “relational” resource frontier. The Geographical Journal, 175, 146–159. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2009.00323.x

Chan, S. 2018. Farmers urged to enter contract farming scheme. Khmer Times. Retrieved from

Chan, S. 2018. Cassava mosaic virus now affecting at least five provinces: Ministry. Khmer Times. Retrieved from

Mahanty, S. 2019 Tale of Two Networks: market formation on the Cambodia-Vietnam frontier. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 1-20. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12286

United Nations Development Program Cambodia. Our Focus: Upgrade value chain. Retrieved from

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