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The Problems Of Establishing Borders Politics Essay


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Establishing borders along physiographic features create many problems that might prompt conflicts in the border areas. Physical geographical features such as rivers, mountains, escarpments, estuaries, deserts and lakes have been used as natural borders for granted, because it is the easiest way to mark the border between states, establish peaceful relations and for their attribute as a good defense against aggression. In contrast with frontiers, which have been used in ancient times, boundaries are new phenomena that date back to the birth of the modern territorial state. Whereby the territory occupies an important weight therefore they need to be delimited, marked and administered to know where the authority of the state starts and stops. This essay will scrutinize the problems that are generated from establishing borders using the prominent features of physical geography. The first part will be devoted to defining the concepts of physiographic borders and giving the motivations behind their establishment. The second part will involve case studies divided into three parts according to the major examples of physiographic borders: the Pyrenees Mountainss between Spain and France, the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand, the estuary between Bangladesh and India in the Bengal Bay.

Definitions of Key Concepts

The concept of border has always been a major component of the state, but it did not acquire such importance until the birth of the territorial state which needs borders to mark the territory of its population and resources. The boundary is a thin line separating two countries which is defined by Martin Glassner and Chuck Fahrer as "…a vertical plane that cuts through the airspace, the soil and the subsoil of adjacent states " (75). Boundary is contrasted with a frontier which is "a politicogeographical area lying beyond the integrated region of the political unit and into which expansion could take place" (Martin Glassner and Chuck Fahrer, 72). The making of boundaries takes three stages: delimitation, demarcation and administration (Martin Glassner and Chuck Fahrer, 76). In terms of morphology, there are three categories of boundaries: geometric, physiographic and cultural-political boundary, the aim of this essay is to investigate the problems brought up by the establishment of borders along physiographic criteria. The prominence and familiarity of the physical aspects of geography such as rivers, deserts and mountains were the reasons behind their use as boundaries. However, other factors were also behind the use of natural borders. For instance, According to Juliet Jane, natural boundaries that have been described as best boundaries are "those least likely to be causes of war" (10), such as rivers, mountains, lakes, and deserts. Another reason that explains the use of natural boundaries is the belief that they are "encouraging peaceful international intercourse, and consequently… rivers, as regional bonds, would make good boundaries" (Juliet Jane, 10).

However, such assumptions are wrong as "squiggly geographic lines (like mountains) are likely to separate ethnic groups, for obvious reasons of communication and migration"" (Juliet Jane, 4). Establishing borders along physical features such as rivers and mountains divides population, because those areas are where people meet and trade. Even the new boundaries that the colonizers made in Africa, although most of them were based on geometric criteria, were established along natural features, as it is affirmed by Malcom Anderson:

African topography (rivers and relief features) sometimes led European colonial powers to draw political boundaries cutting across ethnic boundaries. Rivers form the current boundaries between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Zaire and the Congo; and relief features make up over a quarter of boundary features in tropical Africa.In many places, ill-defined African watersheds serve as centers of population rather than, as in Europe, clearly dividing populations.1 2 African rivers have attracted settlement, with the same ethnic group settling on both banks, particularly in semi-arid areas where flood-plains are suitable for agricultural use (79).

In general, the use of physiographic features as borders have been met with major difficulties and caused many conflicts, three cases studies will identify those difficulties and problems associated with natural borders.

Mountains as Borders

The use of mountain ranges as boundaries may seem as a visible physical boundary that separates two states evenly through their crest line. However, the crest line do not correspond to the watershed which creates many border disputes or separates communities in two different states ( Martin Glassner and Chuck Fahrer, 77). The Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain is a good example that illustrates the problems of creating border along mountains. The mountains range separates two major communities: the Catalans in Roussillon, France and in Catalonia, Spain in the Mediterranean side of the Pyrenees as well as the Basque in the Atlantic side.

http://akorra.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/basque.gif http://www.lmp.ucla.edu/images/Catalan.gif

Figure 1 The Basque Community in the Pyrenees (UCLA) Figure 2 The Catalonia Community in the Pyrenees (UCLA)

The designation of the Pyrenees as the boundary between France and Spain dates back to 7 November 1659, when the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed (Jean-François Berdah, 166). When those boundaries were established many communities were separated: Cerdanya, Catalonia and the Basque. The mountains are characterized by their rough environment and peak summits which are tough for human inhabitation, however even in the mountains a social life can exist and thrive as those communities were sharing borders in both sides, as it is stated by Jean-François Berdah:

the "natural border" which constitutes the Pyrenees, with whatever difficulties and pressures this involves, was in fact at all times a very easily surmountable obstacle, both for mountain dwellers and for the populations who for economic, political or personal reasons, decided on a given day to pass from Spain to France or from France to Spain. The permeability of this border, not only in the coastal regions of the Basque Country and Catalonia but also in the valleys of the central Pyrenees, is striking all the more so as the control of passages became a tangible reality only with the tardy enforcement of royal power. (177)

Therefore, the valleys as well as the coastlines were used as points of contacts between the communities that live on the two sides of the Pyrenees. For instance, The Basque people live in both sides of the Atlantic Pyrenees (Alfonso Perez-Agote, 184) and from the map in figure 1 it is noticeable that the community was cut into half when the border was established and the same occured to the Catalonian community in figure 2.

In fact, within the Pyrenees border, a country was established under the name of Andorra which has been ruled jointly by both France and Spain since 1278 (Jean-François Berdah, 166). The country is situated almost in the middle of the Pyrenees which can be seen figure 2 as a small area demarcated between the borders. Although the range is peaky and rugged with mountains, plateaus and plains exist whereby a whole community was able to thrive in the border zone between Spain and France. In general, the Pyrenees Mountains can be describes as "…a juxtaposition of little communities, delineated by mountains, piedmonts and adjacent plains" ( J. Nicholas Entrikin and Vincent Berdoulay, 141) and it this environment that made these communities to settle in those areas.

The attraction of Mountains as borders has to do also with their effectiveness as defense borders, in fact a country like Switzerland was able to escape invasion both in World War I and II regardless of its status as a neutral country. Whereas, other countries that preferred to be neutral such as Belgium and Netherlands were being attacked from their borders by Germany as they lacked defensive borders. In the same perspective, at the end of WWI, Italy was keen on strengthening its defense by having mountains as natural boundaries in its northwestern border with Austria. Therefore, during the Paris peace treaty Italy asked for the region of South Tyrol to be given to Italy to have "control over the passes in the region" (Allen Buchanan , 243). The annexation of the South Tyrol into the region of Trentino-Alto Adige separated German community into two groups: one in Austria and the other in Italy. It is worth noting that even today the only region where German is the primary language in Italy is South Tyrol which stands as different from the rest of the country. This mountainous region allowed Italy to have a defensive natural Border, which prevented Austria from attacking it from the Northern border.

Rivers as Borders

Rivers are usually boundary points between riparian states. However, this physical feature creates many problems, as it is declared by Victor Prescott and Gillian D. Triggs: "the obvious limitation of rivers as boundaries is that water is transitory. The paradox inherent in conceiving of water flowing between two states as a territorial boundary is that the passage of the water is necessarily temporary, while sovereignty imports the notion of permanence" (215).

The demarcation of the borders along rivers rests on either one of these three principles: the middle, thalweg or bank of the river. Of all those three criteria, the thalweg represents the more accurate division of the river through the navigation line and the one used in international law. However the first criterion is used to mark division in rivers that are not navigable. For instance, in 1893 the US Supreme Court case of Iowa versus Illinois 147, divided the Illinois River along the middle (Victor Prescott and Gillian D. Triggs, 217). The river, by nature, constantly changes its course and width and it definitely creates islands, dries and its banks erode; therefore, the processes of avulsion and accretion have been used to solve these problems (Victor Prescott and Gillian D. Triggs, 219). For instance, the Rio Grande River has run through these processes due to the changing course of the river, in order to prevent such effects from influencing the border the two countries agreed to use cement to stabilize the course of the river.

The Mekong River border between Laos and Thailand is a major issue between the two countries regarding the demarcation of the border due to the changing course of the river and the emergence of islands such as Don Khiaw Island. Historically, Laos did not come into being until the French colonization of Indochina. The Kingdom of Champassak used to live in the northern banks of the river until the coming of the French colonial power that cut it into half (Martin Gainsborough, 83). Conversely, when the Japanese came to the area they divided the river along the deepest channel and took Don Khiaw Island as a neutral zone (Martin Gainsborough, 86). With the help of France, Laos obtained its independence in 1946 including the Champassak area in the river to the country, although the ruler of Champassak city was Thai (Martin Gainsborough, 97). The thalweg of the river is recognized as the boundary line between the two states which means that all the islands that emerged on the river belong to Laos.

The predicament caused by this border is that it changes its course and during dry seasons some parts of the river become attached to Thailand. As a result, many conflicts were erupted between Laos and Thailand over the Mekong River. For instance, in 1984 a dispute erupted over the ownership of three villages between the province of Xainyaburi in Laos and the Province of Uttaradit in Thailand. The Laos based their attachment to the villages on the convention between France and Siam kingdom in 1907 while the Thai government argued that the American aerial survey of 1978 located the three villages on the Thai watershed of the Thai side of the border (Ronald Bruce St. John, 31). The Mekong River has divided the communities that live on both banks of the river as it is stated by Martin Gainsborough: "family bonds exist across borders, but not irrespective of them. The border that slices through the Tai-Lao world of south-western Laos and north-eastern Thailand shapes in very tangible ways how these kin relationships are played out and how this social world is enacted" (79).

map of Laos

Figure 3 The Map of Laos (World Links)

From the map in figure 3, it is apparent that the Mekong River constitutes a major component of the borders between the two countries to the extent that even the capital of Laos, Vientiane, is situated on the right bank of the river. Laos is a landlocked country thus it needs the river to have access to the sea but Thailand does not want to be ousted of its rights in the river due to the demarcation made by post colonist powers in the area.

Estuaries as Borders

The estuary of the River Haribhanga between Bangladesh and India in the Bengal Bay created a conflict over the emergence of an island due to the Bhola cyclone in 1970. The island is called South Talpatti by the authorities of Bangladesh and the New Moore or Purbasha Island by Indian authorities. The problem resides on the two different approaches to the river by both countries as "India claims that the main channel of the river flows to the east of the new island, whereas Bangladesh maintains that it flows to the west, which would clearly make the island an integral part of the Bangladesh territory" (Alok Kumar Gupta).

Figure 4 The Dispute over South Talpatti Island (Joshua Keating)

Demarcating the border is important for both countries as the area contested is rich in oil and gas as well as the benefits of EEZ (exclusive economic zone). According to the international law, mainly article 76 and 82 of the UNCLOS (The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) the border is defined through the deepest channel which is called thalweg (Alok Kumar Gupta). Looking at the map in figure 4 it is noticeable that the Island is closer to India, nevertheless according to the bold demarked line that depicts the thalweg the island belongs to Bangladesh. Yet, the river keeps changing its course and it is not clear whether this is a river boundary or a sea boundary. It is worth noting that the island disappeared in 2010 due to the sea-level rise caused by global warming.


To conclude, the use of physiographic elements of geography to delineate a border has been popular due to three reasons: its visibility and easiness to demark, its defensive nature and its encouragement of peaceful relations between the bordered states. While natural borders are embodied by these positive assumptions, physiographic features lurk many problems that make physiographic features unstable for boundaries for two reasons: its temporary nature and lack of permanence, division of communities that live on both sides of the natural boundary. The case studies of Pyrenees Mountains, the Mekong River and the estuary between Bangladesh and India all show the difficulties of creating borders along physiographic features as well as the conflicts that might spark in the future regarding those borders, owing to their instability as well as their effects of separating ethnic communities.

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