In its simplest definition, a buffer zone is an area between two or more adversarial powers, whose function is to physically separate them. It is thus conceived as an instrument of peace and stability. The word buffer conveys the idea of absorption of tensions, of cushioning. A buffer zone can exist at various geographical scales, in accordance with the scale of the powers it is separating. If, for example, the buffer zone serves to separate two ethnic communities, it may have a depth of a few kilometers or less; if it separates two major continental or maritime powers, it can cover many state territories.
The term buffer zone made its appearance at the end of the nineteenth-century in the context of the competition between the British and the Russian Empire in the north of the Indian peninsula. During the twentieth century, this term found extensive use. The 'Geopolitik' school included the term of Pufferzone to its often used vocabulary. In the French literature, the equivalent zone tampon was somewhat less frequently used.
The success of the term in the political geography of the first part of the twentieth century is related to the strong influence of the environmental determinism tradition. Since it was thought that physical space conditioned human affairs, the use of physical separation seemed the most appropriate means to preempt conflict situations. What this approach underestimated was the role of human action in the creation and the survival of a buffer zone. Buffer zones are as much the causes as the results of human affairs. Their study involves the whole spectrum of the relationship between space and politics.
The term buffer zone found various uses in scientific and nonscientific literature. It has reached outside political geography to the fields of physical planning and environmental protection to designate any zone separating land uses that may be considered as incompatible or dangerous for certain species. In political geography, the limits of the term are ill defined. It is often used in the place or in combination with other terms like frontier, march, shatter belt, demilitarized zone, glacis, cordon sanitaire, etc. It would be vain to introduce precise distinctions to differentiate these terms. The realities they describe shade into each other; it is therefore more useful to examine them together. They all express geographical phenomena of spatial transition from one territory to another. At the same time, they are themselves situated in an intermediary position, between the concept of the boundary, a linear division, and that of the territory. Thus, for example, the Cyprus buffer zone becomes a boundary if examined at the scale of Greek and Turkish spaces. On the other hand, Belgium, during a long period a buffer zone between France and Germany, was and is a territory by itself.
Buffer zones constitute therefore a gray area of political geography. They are difficult to grasp because they are inherently unstable, changing, challenging the territorial status quo. In the established political geography, they are at its margins. In a renewed political geography, less centered on hierarchical center–periphery approaches and focusing more on issues of in between, the phenomena they encompass will probably occupy a more central position.
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