Alec Murphy

Sovereignty Challenges at Interstate Borders

Where and How History Matters

Lurking behind the typical world political map supposedly depicting the division of Earth’s land surface into legally sovereign political units are many controversies over interstate boundaries. The norms that developed along with the modern state system make it difficult to advance extra-state territorial claims based simply on the presence of natural resources or peoples with similar cultural characteristics in those territories. Instead, most interstate territorial conflicts are based on the claim that the territory in question once belonged to the claimant state, it was improperly taken away, and the claimant state has the right to get it back.

That was the case with the longstanding Ecuador-Peru border conflict. The political partitioning of South America under Spanish rule gave Ecuador a basis for considering the territory in dispute to be part of its domain. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, Peru promoted settlement and military control over the remote Amazonian region based on a different interpretation of past administrative arrangements. Powerless to respond to Peru’s annexation of the region in the early 1940s, Ecuador agreed to a military pullback in 1942 (the Rio Protocol). Ecuador continued to press its territorial claim for many decades thereafter, however, only abandoning it formally in 1998. The 1998 agreement suggests that even longstanding interstate territorial disputes can be resolved, but resolution is easier when dominant views of at least one of the disputant state’s raison d'être is not grounded in an ethno-nationalist story in which the territory in question played a significant role.

Columbian States in 1824

Division politica de Colombia en 1824

A. Lahure


David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Our earliest map depicts early patterns of spatial sovereignty. This Colombian-commissioned map superimposes the republics’ 1889 boundaries atop the filled-in outlines of the former Viceroyalty of New Grenada’s Departments (Departmentos) that were included in Gran Colombia in 1824. Of interest here are the peripheral southwestern Departmentos that would become Ecuador, which illustrate the roots of the Peru-Ecuador boundary dispute. As this map shows, the former Departmento del Azuay in the remote Amazonian interior was split between Colombia and Ecuador in the dissolution of Gran Colombia. Although these two countries would continue to exchange territory in the region for some time, no inter-state conflict would erupt between them.

Map of Ecuador for Dr. Teodoro Wolf

Carta Geografica Del Ecuador Por Dr. Teodoro Wolf

H. Wagner & E. Debes


David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Officially sanctioned maps are typically quite useful in exploring a state’s conception of its own spatial sovereignty, and this turn-of-the-century map of Ecuador is a prime example. While political boundaries are not foregrounded in this map, the names of Ecuador’s provinces, cantons, and parishes (Provincias, Cantones, and Parróquias respectively) constitutes a significant portion of the right-hand side of the map in a map key. Even more critically, this map conspicuously contains two insets of sovereign territory that are included in the map in defiance of the spatial limitations of the projected scale: the distal Galápagos Archipelago, and “La Region Oriental del Ecuador.” The latter of course constitutes the territories disputed with Peru.

South America Map Puzzle

E.E. Fairchild Corporation


David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

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Departing entirely from the realm of state-sponsored cartography, we find here a rather unorthodox example of how border depictions from afar can shape thinking about border. This depiction comes in the form of a children’s puzzle. Apart from the eye-catching presence of clever illustrations conveying the cultural character of the continent, this map also notably shows Ecuador’s claim to the disputed region, not Peru’s. While the New York-based E. E. Fairchild Corp. was exceedingly unlikely to have been advancing an explicit geopolitical position on the disputed territory, its depiction of the area as Ecuadorian was common in American cartography at the time. Curiously, it would only be one year after this that the 1942 Rio Protocol would shift the United States’ recognition of the disputed area to being Peruvian, likely to the chagrin of anyone seeking up-to-date geographical learning from their newly purchased puzzle.

Alec Murphy (University of Oregon) is a political-cultural geographer with regional specialties in Europe and the Middle East. His work focuses on the ways in which the changing political organization of space reflects and shapes ethnic, socio-economic, and environmental processes; the foundations and consequences of influential geopolitical ideas and assumptions; the role of legal and political arrangements in mediating human-environment relations; and the importance of geographical education for efforts to address critical challenges facing the contemporary world. He is the author of The Regional Dynamics of Language Differentiation in Belgium (1988), Cultural Encounters with the Environment (edited with Douglas Johnson; 2000), Geography: Why It Matters (2018), Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture 12th ed. (with Erin Fouberg; 2020), and The European Culture Area, 7th ed. (with Terry Jordan-Bychkov and Bella Bychkova Jordan; 2020). He completed his PhD in Geography at the University of Chicago.