Saturday, September 01, 2007

That's My Piece of Sea

Like grownup siblings still embittered by a childhood dispute, Peru and Chile seem determined to draw out the consequences of the 19th-century War of the Pacific as long as possible.

Domainating the attention of politicians and media at the moment -- especially in Peru -- is the question of the maritime border.

Peru maintains that, while its land border with Chile was set by the Treaty of Arica in 1929, the maritime limits have never been satisfactorily settled. However, Chile says that the maritime border was defined by two fishing treaties signed in 1952 and 1954.

The technical controversy is over whether each country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone should be delimited by the geographical parallel, as agreed in the fishing treaties, or by a bisection of imaginary lines perpendicular to the respective coastlines, as established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (see diagram, taken from Wikipedia entry on the topic.)

Peruvian governments have been trying to begin negotiations on the matter since 1986. The Chilean response has always been that the matter is settled by the fishing treaties, so there's nothing to discuss.

In 2005 the Peruvian congress drew up a law to define the 200-mile maritime zone over which it has sovereignty. This included about 38,000 sq km of water currently under Chilean adminstration -- the shaded area in the map.

With no progress possible through diplomatic channels, Peru decided to take the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a decision announced by president Alan Garcia in his discourse to the nation on 28 July this year.

A preparatory step was to draw up a a cartographic map illustrating the area claimed as sovereign by Peru. The map was published in the official daily El Peruano on 12 August, prior to being presented to the United Nations

Chile's response to the publication of the map was one of official surprise and offense, claiming that the map was a unilateral action that 'ignored' the existing treaties. Chilean foreign minister Alejandro Foxley sent a formal note of protest to the Peruvian ambassador and called the Chilean amabassador to Peru back to Santiago for consultation.

But Peruvian representatives responded that there had been plenty of warning of the process that was to be followed, and Chile had been forewarned of publication of the map

Rising tensions were defused when the earthquake struck southern Peru on August 17, and Chile was among the first countries to send aid to the victims.

However on 23 August Foxley further complicated the matter, stating that settlement of long standing Bolivian claims for access to the sea could be prejudiced by Peru's claims. But this was brushed aside by Bolivian president Evo Morales, who said on a visit to the eathquake zone in Pisco that "I know the Peruvian government isn't going to be an obstacle to resolving this matter with Chile".

The whole debate is put into perspective by an entertaining piece of reportage from Rodrigo Barria Reyes of Chilean paper El Mercurio. Barria Reyes describes the fruitless search by a 518-tonne, 33-man Chilean navy vessel for a tiny 4-man Peruvian fishing vessel suspected of entering Chilean-controlled waters without permission.

The main target for Peruvian fisherman from the port of Ilo is the blue shark, whose fins are considered in some Asian markets to have potent aphrodisiac properties To reach international waters where the sharks are abundant, boats have to cross the Chilean-patrolled zone. Those that don't request permission, or fish in Chilean waters, are towed back to Arica where their cargo is dumped and they are fined and deported.

In this case the Peruvian boat was trespassing, but made a quixotic dash back into Peruvian waters before the Chilean navy could catch it. El Mercurio reports that the fisherman braving the high seas in search of shark fins make $600 for a 15-day trip. Meanwhile, Peru has set aside $2 million USD to fight the court case in The Hague.

To an outside observer, it seems incredible how much importance is attached to a patch of ocean. It's appropriate that the El Mercurio article described the tiny fishing boat as 'Lilliputian', because the way in which arcane details of geography are being scrutinised by politicians, lawyers, historians and bloggers in both countries is reminiscent of something from Gullivers Travels.

To be fair, the leaders of both countries have been at pains to stress that border issue is completely separate from the two nations' economic and social relations. Both governments have tricky balancing acts to maintain. Foxley and president Michelle Bachelet need to placate the hawks in opposition who accuse them of having a muddled and over-accommodating foreign policy, while Garcia needs to stay a step ahead of Peruvian nationalists like Ollanta Humala who are always ready to stir up anti-Chilean feeling.

Far more than the material value of the territory itself, the current fuss is a reflection of the place that the War of the Pacific continues to play in both countries' collective psyches. And while it seems to be Peru that continues to obsess over the past, some Chileans argue that there's a lot their country could do to restore good will. In a guest column in La Republica, Chilean journalist and university professor Felipe Bianchi Leiton said that Chile should formally apologise to Peru for selling arms to Ecuador during its border dispute with Peru in 1995 -- when Chile was supposed to be a guarantor of the peace.

He further argued that Chile should return the books stolen from the library of Lima during the War of the Pacific, and give up disputing denomination of origin rights for pisco. Finally, Leiton stated that Chile must accede to the Peruvian request to extradite ex-president Alberto Fujimori to face trial in Peru.

But the effort to make Fujimori face trial is a different question altogether.

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