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Seven territorial conflicts on seven continents that show why geography still matters – Part 1

The new year comes with a new topic for the Perspective: “building bridges for peace”. This first article for the topic took me on a (virtual) journey across all seven continents. I want to challenge the reader to think about building bridges for peace in a quite literal sense. For us who are living in Europe most territorial conflicts seem to be a matter of the past, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine was an unpleasant reminder that geography still matters immensely in foreign affairs. Looking over the edge of our own continent it becomes evident that geographical proximity and disagreement over territorial ownership are still one of the main factors why countries go to war against one another. Therefore, this two-part article presents seven border conflicts on seven continents, some more universally well-known, some quite unknown, to show that building bridges between neighbours literally or metaphorically is a task as important as ever for the international community.

“Prisoners of Geography” is the title of one of the most famous books written by Tim Marshall, a British journalist, author and specialist in foreign affairs. In his book, Marshall argues for the persisting importance of geography in conflicts all around the world. Most wars are in one way or another about territory and access to natural resources, drinking water, or navigable waterways. Some countries have been fortunate enough to hold these assets while others find themselves trapped without resources, are landlocked or have unnavigable land. These later countries are “prisoners of their geography and they often struggle to build a strong political and economic system. Conflicts about territory and resources exist everywhere in the world, in fact, there is not a single continent that is not currently experiencing an unsettled territory dispute. This article is the first out of a two-part series. It gives an insight into territorial disputes in South America, Asia and Africa – that probably not everyone has heard of yet.

South America

Every year on March 23 thousands of people take to the streets of La Paz in Bolivia to celebrate the day of the sea. The Bolivian Navy dresses up in full dress uniform and children chant in the streets. The paradox is that the navy has no sea to sail on as the territory of Bolivia has been completely landlocked for almost 140 years. In the Pacific War in 1884, Bolivia lost 120 000 km² of land to Chile, with it its small but strategically important access to the Pacific Ocean. In 1904, the two countries signed a peace treaty in which Chile granted Bolivia access to its ports as compensation for the lost land. However, Bolivia never really accepted this deal as both countries have not actually made peace with one another and diplomatic relationships are, until this day, still on ice. In 2013, Bolivia’s then-president Evo Morales decided to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ended up ruling in favour of Chile. Still, after the announcement of Bolivia’s defeat, Morales declared that “Bolivia will never give up”. The landlocked nation will thus keep celebrating the day of the sea every year, in the hope that someday, their navy might actually have a sea to sail.

“Bolivia has not lost nor will it ever lose the right to claim its access to the sea as an indispensable attribute of life. The coastline was and will be Bolivia’s.” – Inscription on the wall in the Museo Litoral Boliviano (The coastal Museum of Bolivia). (Image Credit: Johanna Fredrich)


In 2020, after three decades of negotiation, the border conflict between the former Soviet countries Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan was officially put to rest. However, experts worry that the agreement will only stir up the conflict once again. It seems as if the agreement has, in fact, intensified the uproar in the area. Like so many other territorial disputes, this one is about water, more specifically, the freshwater reservoir Kempir-Abad in the border region between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which has long been claimed by both countries. The countries agreed on a demarcation of the border and to jointly manage the reservoir. The deal includes that while the water reservoir remains on Kyrgyzstan’s territory, Uzbekistan is still allowed to use it to supply its population with water. It was hoped that the agreement would solve a decades-long dispute, however, regional Kyrgyz civilians and activists argue that the deal was made behind their backs and that the government failed to bargain in the interest of the Kyrgyz people. Many locals and activists took to the streets in protest after the deal was made. The protest was forced down by Kyrgyst authorities and many protesters were arrested by the police. Unfortunately, despite the agreement, the border region remains unstable.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan came together and reached an agreement but the conflict still does not seem to be settled locally. (Image Credit: alexfan32 / Shutterstock.com)


An Island, smaller than half a football field, but inhabited by more than 500 people is the source of the “smallest” territorial conflict in Africa. The tiny island is located in Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, which is rich in fish and one of the most important freshwater sources on the continent. The disputed island is right at the border between Uganda and Kenya and for both countries, the territorial claims over the island are more about fishing rights for Lake Victoria than about the island itself. While overfishing has diminished fish catches for years, there are still many valuable species in the deep waters around the island. In 2004, Uganda started to send military forces to the island, allegedly to fight piracy in the area. However, Kenyan fishermen complained that Ugandan forces were harassing them for fishing illegally in Ugandan waters. The conflict nearly escalated when Kenyan forces also started to patrol the area. When more and more people started to settle on the island, the countries tried to solve the question of which nation has the right to claim the land. However, no solution was found and currently, the island is co-managed by both countries. Still, conflicts are rising occasionally between the local fisherman and with fish stock further decreasing and fresh water becoming more scarce, the conflict could escalate at any time.

Fishermen at the shore of Lake Victoria (Image Credit: Sebastian Castelier / Shutterstock.com)

Click here for Part 2 of the Series

By Johanna Fredrich

12th November 2023

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