How do we get country boundaries?

Posted on November 17, 2011


It’s a difficult question. For Britons, the point is almost irrelevant – we are an island, and the only thing we have to worry about is where England ends and Scotland and Wales begin. Luckily, although people from Glasgow and Edinburgh and Arbroath might beg to differ, we get along well with our neighbours and therefore that’s not a big deal.

The boundary line between England and Scotland, for instance, has been majorly helped out by the whacking great big Roman wall which Hadrian built. It was a ready-made line of demarcation between the countries.

But what happens everywhere else in the world? And more importantly, what happens when one nation disagrees with another over who has soverign rights over a plot of land?

It’s something we’re seeing more and more these days. South Sudan is the world’s newest country – as I’ve previously written about here – but the long road to its independence from Sudan was punctuated with protracted negotiations over where, exactly, the borders of the new nation would lie. It’s not without reason. On a personal level, you’re playing with people’s lives: if someone is on the wrong side of the border, then they suddenly lose rights and citizenship.

On a grander scale, you’re also talking about seriously large amounts of money. For South Sudan and Sudan, it was oil. It just so happened that the majority of Sudanese oil was taken away from them in the secession. They fought tooth and nail to keep some of it, because they are predominately an oil economy.

The same thing happened under the Arctic. Russia planted a flag 14,000ft under the sea in order to stake a claim to an area which could have proved to have significant hydrocarbon resources. Then Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay wasn’t necessarily overly happy about that. “This isn’t the 15th Century,” he said. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory.'”

It’s happening again. That picture up there is the current makeup of the offshore sections of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. However, the Ivory Coast’s national oil company has released another map which redraws the boundaries so that the majority of the lucrative spoils of oil are in their ownership. Their justification is that the boundaries are really arbitrary.

I’ve written previously about the problems of putting arbitrary borders on areas of land which don’t conform to straight lines:

The Berlin Conference held in 1884 was a grand meeting of old imperial hands. Chargés d’affaires from Europe’s leading colonial powers gathered in long drawing rooms to sit around impossibly large tables, a phalanx of wallflower advisors backing them, in order that they might better organise their individual stakes to parts of Africa. A great map of Africa was hung from one of the rooms’ high ceilings, matching the huge heavy curtains for weight and splendour. This was the great theoretical carve-up of Africa into neat geometric lines and right angles: “you can try your luck at taming the savages in this bit as long as you leave us this and this”, they would discuss between breaks.

Called by King Leopold II at his luxurious Berlin villa, the conference brought together representatives from the United Kingdom, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Sweden-Norway, Spain, Denmark, France, Belgium, Italy, Russia and Portugal to work out an African policy when it came to geographical claims. All turned up. The United States were offered a seat at the table, but chose not to attend. They talked over several months and came up with the General Act of the Berlin Conference, a diktat which outlined in international (colonial) law each individual nation’s claims to parts of Africa and the all-important shipping routes which would allow their interests in the continent to flourish. When the representations took their seats in the panelled walled rooms of Leopold’s villa, 80% of Africa still remained under tribal control. 18 years later, in 1902, 90% of it was officially European-owned.

The Berlin Conference codified country’s rights to claim land which was not really theirs: it established arbitrary territories in which they could contest ownership, which in turn led to the arbitrary borders that each power established for the colonies they created. Had either level of cartography been more compassionate and less focused on straight lines and 90 degree angles, some of the current complications that seem endemic in African nations might today be avoided.

It’s not only limited to Africa, though. It just so happens that they’re the nations that are most willing to fight for it. Think about the United States of America. There are so many straight lines on that map. There are no perfectly square land masses on our planet (though if you can find one and point it out to me, I’m more than willing to eat my words).

Cartography is an amazing thing, but it’s also fraught with difficulties. When you carve up a piece of land into sections, you’re essentially trying to give order to something which simply isn’t designed for it. There’s no wonder that ten, twenty – or, in the case of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, 27 – years later, it comes back to haunt people.

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