Border Landscapes: The Politics of Akha Land Use in China and Thailand

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Border landscapes: The politics of Akha land use in China and Thailand


Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005; and Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books,

2007. Pp. 255. Maps, Figures, Appendices, Notes, Glossary, Bibliography, Index.

doi: 10.1017/S0022463412000264

Janet C. Sturgeon's Border landscapes: The politics of Akha land use in China and Thailand is not only interesting reading for those concerned with the political-social-ecological structure and dynamics of what the author calls 'landscape plasticity: the ability of farmers [with different positions] to adjust complicated land uses over time in response to local needs, state plans, and border possibilities' (p. 9). It also addresses an important subject in Southeast Asian studies. This book grew from the author's doctoral thesis at Yale University in 2000 but shows no disfiguring birthmarks.

In the introduction and chapter 2, the author examines the impact of 'modernising' or state-strengthening efforts on institutionalising the border of China and Thailand; 'central to these transformations in rural areas were the imposition of citizenship, new forms of state-sanctioned property rights, and intensified state claims on rural resources' (p. 43). In particular, after 1949 'in both China and Thailand, state projects have been laid out from the centre in relation to control of people and territory, extraction of products, and legitimation of rule', through which 'the projects formalised property rights for marginal peoples, strongly shaping resource access and pulling land uses in the direction of simplified, lowland landscapes' (p. 64).

Chapters 3 and 4 provide insightful discussions on the relationships between minorities and the modernising state. The author introduces how hierarchical organisations and cross-border networks of varying scale cross-cut the landscape of the Akha and diminish its flexibility: 'the processes of state building in these border regions, together with international efforts to combat the drug trade and communism, have reworked and reinforced certain small border chiefs and their patronage relations....' (p. 72) while, 'along the edges of China and Thailand, clear, unambiguous borders added to the layers of practices in power relations among border entities and between these entities and their sovereign states' (p. 73). Prasenjit Duara, in Culture, power, and the state: Rural North China, 1900-1942, describes the state as having relied on many informal channels and agents that it policed and taxed in both money and grains. Sturgeon observes that 'these Chinese and Thai border areas were sites where village heads and other small chiefs with multiple loyalties and multiple connections could exert control over people and resources. In their role as protectors of the state border, they engage in smuggling and other illegitimate operations.' At the same time 'small border chiefs were well positioned to oppress and exploit local people marginalized by geography and by policies for "backward" hill people' (p. 118). Thus the borderlands are not merely 'zones of mutual interest' to larger kingdoms and empires, but also sites with influential 'chiefs'--who have distinct capacities, continued to mediate, and indeed constitute the border as well as the marginality of the border villagers. …


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