Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Borders and fences: Keeping in and keeping our

Borders and edges, boundaries and walls and fences: they simultaneously keep out and keep in. On a farm, for instance, the yell, “The cattle are out!” means everyone rushes to round up the animals and get them back safely inside the fence where they belong—that is, keep them in. Or think of the Iron Curtain, which was erected to keep in, for example, the East Germans who might have strayed to the West. Then there is the fence that keeps out: your neighbor’s dog does not come in and jump on your toddler; the U.S. president wants to build a wall to keep Central Americans from entering the U.S.


Borders featured in disputes in March. Bolivia brought a case against Chile at the International Court of Justice, trying to “reclaim its coastal territory from Chile” to gain access to the Pacific Ocean, which it lost in the 1904 peace treaty that ended the 19th century War of the Pacific. Landlocked, Bolivia wants the court to order Chile to “negotiate in good will” over access to the sea because the 1904 treaty was “signed under duress.” In the early 1970s the two countries, both under dictatorships, worked together in Plan Condor, the South American states’ coordinated hunt to eliminate anyone linked to left-wing ideas. In 1975 Chile entered into negotiations with Bolivia and proposed an exchange of territory that would give Bolivia a corridor to the sea, but the negotiations broke down and the two governments have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1978. The attitudes of the people living in the proposed area whose citizenship would change from Chilean to Bolivian do not seem to be part of either state’s argument.; ;


Across the Pacific, Australia and Timor-Leste signed a treaty, mediated by a commission established under the UN convention on the Law of the Sea, defining the permanent maritime boundary between them. The border was seen by Timor-Leste as an issue of sovereignty, while Australia “sought a boundary that was aligned with its continental shelf.” The basic question, however, was the exploitation of the oil and gas fields between the two countries and the associated pipeline and processing plants. In the background was the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty that was signed between Australia and Indonesia, while Timor-Leste was still ruled by Jakarta, and the 1972 “continental shelf boundary” agreement between them. Timor-Leste has yet to reach an agreement with Indonesia on its maritime boundaries, and Timor-Leste’s petroleum minister said those negotiations could be “complicated.”;


In Europe, Kosovo’s parliament ratified the border with Montenegro, which the European Union required for Kosovars to gain visa-free travel to the EU states.  Meanwhile, the border disputes in Kashmir, in Ngorno-Karabakh, in Gaza, and in war-torn Syria continue to foster death and despair.


Settling disagreements by international courts or mediation is surely preferable to continued conflict. In preparation for such negotiations, it is helpful if not essential for communities to build “collective territorial viewpoints.” The techniques and resources outlined in the Manual of Collective Mapping: Critical Cartographic Resources for Territorial Processes of Collaborative Creation by the Argentine team of Julia Risler and Pablo Ares are useful tools in such processes.  Whether mapping the location of oil and gas, the route to the sea, or a fence between neighbors, a border line is socially constructed, and its acceptance depends on acknowledging the human rights of people who live on both sides of it. Archives maintain the drawn maps and the treaties, but those documents, important as they are, only recognize the current political reality. It is the intertwined social threads that make a boundary real, even if the cattle do get out.