Zomia: An area on the borders

Zomia is the denomination for an area of the Southeast Asian Massif first proposed by Willem van Schendel in 2002, as part of a critic in Area Studies, that has since spawned a great deal of discussion and studies on this supranational area.

The area varies between 200/300 meters up to four thousand meters above sea level, in the periphery of multiple nations (between eight and ten, depending on the author) of assorted cultural and religious traditions. It has a very diverse climate, from temperate zones near Yangtze river to flood-prone zones of Irrawaddy and Sông Cái. It is however its altitude that makes Zomia unique.

yangtze-river-1028357_1920Zomia’s altitude has defined its population. As state-making, war, famine, taxes, economic crisis and issues with agricultural production occurred, people would flee the valleys below and settle on the mountains. As more people would escape into the mountains throughout the years, the previous inhabitants would sometimes find themselves unable to adapt to the lifestyle of the newcomers and move further up the mountains.

Zomia’s inhabitants organised themselves in a flexible and egalitarian mode, with hybrid identities, and social fluidity. Culture was defined by altitude and not proximity, with deep similarities, for instance, between Akha and Hani, despite being separated by thousands of kilometres. Overall, it is an area characterised by a culture of refuge and resistance.

The people of Zomia are mostly Animists, with a significant presence of Christianity. Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism have come to the area, but they are quickly adapted to the setting and have often transformed towards a millennialism view of an impending doom. Similarly with languages, there is a diversity of languages that have come from the people that moved to the region that have since adapted. Multilingualism is common, with people often speaking more than three languages.

kisspng-drawing-mountain-sketch-vector-mountain-landscape-5aa274e61c0d22.1057009115205961981149Up in the mountains the inhabitants of Zomia remained stateless populations. As Fernand Braudel wrote, “even the longest and most persistente [civilization], which may spread over great distances in the horizontal plane but are powerless to move vertically when faced with an obstacle of a few hundred metres”.

After the industrial revolution Zomia was no longer unreachable to the control of the Nations it borders. Technology eroded the friction that previously existed to control over mountainous areas. For a while the control over the area remained tenuous due to lack of value found in the area, but, as rare earth minerals have been found and control of border became increasingly important, this has quickly changed over the last 60 years. It is estimated that from the initial 80-100 million that originally inhabited Zomia over 50 million have since moved to the area from the majority populations of the States it borders.

Zomia might maintain some uniqueness however, indigenous issues have provided its inhabitants a possibility to position themselves as indigenous peoples with rights and political voices asserted by international human rights law.

Pedro Macno


Schendel, W. (2002) Geographies of knowing, geographies of ignorance: jumping scale in Southeast Asia. Environment and Planning D. Vol. 20, No. 6, pp. 647-668.
Michaud, J. (2006) Historical Dictionary of the Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif. Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Scott, J. C. (2009) The art of not being governed. An Anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. London: Yale University Press.
Sturgeon, J. C. (2004) Border Practices, Boundaries, and the Control of Resource Access: A Case from China, Thailand and Burma. Development and Change. Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 463–484.
Braudel, F. (1995) The mediterranean and the mediterranean world in the age of Phillip II. Volume One. Los Angeles: University of California Press. (original publicado em 1949).
Schendel, W, Cribb, R. et al. (2012) Debate. Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania. Vol. 168, No. 4, pp. 497-510.
Jung, C. (2008). The Moral Force of Indigenous Politics: Critical Liberalism and the Zapatistas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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