Chile, Bolivia and Peru: territorial disputes and the ‘nitrate war’

The International Court of Justice has ruled on a maritime territorial dispute between Chile and Peru which concerns a large swathe of Pacific Ocean known to be host to abundant fish stocks. A redrawing of the maritime boundary has favoured Peru in terms of territory gained, although the area with greatest economic potential remains in Chilean hands.

This one of several territorial disputes in the region with Peru and Bolivia also contesting Chilean ownership of mineral-rich land along the coastline that was initially lost during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

Chile has retained most of the gains it made during the War of the Pacific
Chile has retained most of the gains it made during the War of the Pacific

Chile has always been known for its abundant copper resources and it remains one of the world’s prime exporters of the metal. In the late 19th century, however, copper production was falling as rudimentary extraction technology failed to sufficiently exploit Chile’s mines. In reaction, the Chileans began to take control of nitrate fields in territory nominally under the sovereignty of their weaker neighbours, Bolivia and Peru.

Nitrate was highly desired across the globe during the late 19th century for its use as a fertilizer. The dispute over the rights to the nitrate resources hijacked by the Chileans in large part contributed to the War of the Pacific. It resulted in an emphatic Chilean victory, deprived Bolivia of an access-point to the sea, and fixed the borders of western South America for the future.

Chilean nitrate colony
Chilean nitrate colony

Because of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which calculates a state’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from its coastline, the territorial changes encompassed by the War of the Pacific have taken on greater significance. The Peruvians estimate that the annual catch in the territory disputed with Chile is £121m, a not inconsiderable sum.

Historical reasoning often forms the basis for modern territorial claims. The Chinese, for instance, partly base their claim over the entire South China Sea on the settlement of tiny islets by mariners in the fifteenth century. Some states in Africa, meanwhile, refuse to acknowledge territorial borders imposed by the forces of colonialism, instead abiding only by traditional areas of influence and settlement.

The reaction to the ICJ’s decision has so far been muted, although it is likely to be hotly disputed in the days to come. Both the Peruvian and Chilean governments have promised not to dispute the outcome and have urged their citizens to respond with caution.

The dispute arises from differing interpretations of each state's land border and its subsequent 200 mile EEZ
The dispute arises from differing interpretations of each state’s land border and its subsequent 200 mile EEZ

When economic dividends and nationalist concerns are at stake, however, such sentiments can only be admired.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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