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.

Shukri al-Quwatli: the broken vision of a Syrian patriot

New evidence of torture and misery emerges from Syria daily, as long-anticipated peace talks aimed at ending the civil war make a virtually stagnant start. It is a time of villains, a time devoid of heroes. One wonders how many left in Syria today remember Shukri al-Quwatli.

Homs now resembles a blitzed WWII city
Homs now resembles a blitzed WWII city

Quwatli could rightfully lay claim to being one of Syria’s greatest heroes. A constant thorn in the French side during their period of mandate, he spent many years in exile directing the forces of independence. Taking advantage of the instability brought by the Second World War, Quwatli manoevured his National Bloc to the forefront of Syrian politics and was elected President in 1943. By 1946, he had brokered an agreement that forced the final withdrawal of French troops. Syria was independent.

Quwatli as President
Quwatli as President

Ousted by a coup in 1949, Quwatli returned from exile and to a second spell as President in 1955, when his successor National Party won free elections. In August 1955, a month before assuming the presidency, he was asked about the future security of his country, which had remained unstable in the post-colonial era:

The President-elect is reported as saying that the Arabs are capable of organising the defence of the Middle East from Tangier to the Persian Gulf without help from anyone…Shukri Bey opposes Syrian cooperation with the West in defence matters.

This British report reinforces the perception of Quwatli as an avowed nationalist and his stance is understandable in a country that for so long was denied independence by foreign powers.

Quwatli further claimed that the ‘strengthening and consolidation’ of the Arab League would ensure Middle Eastern peace.

Taken now, Quwatli’s vision seems both naive and misguided. Yet it should be remembered that, in 1955, the biggest perceived threats to Syrian sovereignty were a resurgence of colonialism and the emergence of an Israeli state.

It could also be argued that Quwatli’s declaration that Western interference in Middle Eastern defence was unnecessary has borne out. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – in addition to the NATO intervention in Libya – have ultimately proved hugely destabilising to regional security.

What Quwatli did not understand or foresee, however, was that it was the Arabs within the Middle East that posed the biggest problem. Religious and ethnic differences have terminally split the region with the manifestation of decades of strife being played out on the scarred battlefields of Syria.

The Islamic split has proven particularly troubling to the Middle East
The Islamic split has proven particularly troubling to the Middle East

Shukri al-Quwatli was a patriot, an Arab nationalist in every sense. His conviction that Arab solidarity was necessary to secure a peaceful future for Syria led him to becoming a key player in the merger with Egypt in 1958. Perhaps the short-lived existence of the United Arab Republic should have served as a warning.

The Syrian war is an internal Middle Eastern conflict where the lines are blurred between freedom fighters, patriots and ordinary civilians. Oftentimes the ‘enemy’ is simply the common man searching for a better life.

Quwatli’s vision is surely broken and his memory in danger of being eradicated. For how can you have a national hero without a nation?


British correspondence source: (National Archives, FO 371/115519)