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Durham University

IBRU: Centre for Borders Research


The Bolivia-Chile-Peru Dispute in the Atacama Desert

Author: Ronald Bruce St John


The Bolivia-Chile-Peru Dispute in the Atacama Desert - image

The Atacama Desert, situated on the central-west coast of South America, is one of the more remote and inhospitable areas in the world. In spite of its location this arid, sparsely inhabited region occupies a unique place in the contemporary pantheon of outstanding boundary and territorial disputes. In a continent awash with territorial controversy, the dispute in the Atacama Desert stands apart as one of the most involved and intractable. The dispute reflects the conflicting geopolitical ambitions of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. It began before two of the disputants won their independence from Spain, and it is still active today although the salient issues have changed considerably over the last century.

A number of interrelated concerns combine to distinguish the Atacama Desert dispute from neighbouring territorial questions. Post-independence Bolivian politicians almost immediately characterised the issue as a question of national survival. Faced with a highly disadvantageous geopolitical position, the Bolivian government placed improved access to the Pacific coast at the very top of its early foreign policy agenda. With the discovery of, first, guano and later, nitrate deposits, the actual or potential wealth of the region subsequently influenced the diplomatic claims of the governments of both Chile and Peru. Consequently, the dispute soon involved a wide range of interrelated territorial, economic, and political issues which defied energetic, creative attempts at settlement. Over time the controversy reached beyond the original three protagonists to repeatedly involve other regional powers, including the governments of Argentina, Brazil, and the United States.

This Briefing provides a detailed overview of the Atacama Desert question, tracing the development of the dispute from the early nineteenth century through to the present day. Territorial changes and proposals are clearly illustrated in a series of specially-drawn maps, and Dr St John's commentary highlights the key events and actors in this long and seemingly intractable dispute.

Boundary & Territory Briefings (Vol. 1 no. 6)
South America
Bolivia-Chile, Bolivia-Peru, Chile-Peru
This article is available as a free download.



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