An Update on the Border Dispute Between Chile and Bolivia

April 26, 2016

At the end of September, the International Court of Justice, the primary judicial branch of the United Nations, agreed to take the case between Bolivia and Chile about a border dispute, stating it has jurisdiction over the matter. Since Bolivia ceded territory along the coast to Chile as a consequence of the War of the Pacific and lost access to the Pacific Ocean, relations between the two countries have oscillated between periods of normal and nonexistent diplomatic relations. In 2013, after repeated attempts of negotiations over the border, Bolivia finally appealed to the International Court of Justice in an effort to settle the claim.1  Evo Morales, the Bolivian President, claims that the treaty Bolivia signed ceding territory to Chile, was coerced and Bolivia should regain control over the land.2Bolivia also claims that, since Chile signed the Pact of Bogotá in 1948, agreeing to “respect the jurisdiction of international courts,” the International Court of Justice should be able to settle this dispute.3 Chile objected to Bolivia’s claim stating that the court did not have jurisdiction over the dispute because the borders were solidified by the peace treaty signed in 1904-5 and that an agreement cannot be changed unilaterally by one of its parts. Ultimately, the objection was rejected with a vote of 14-2.1

In the late 1800s, due to ambiguous boundaries created by Spain in the colonial period, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, fought over the territory in between the countries, which is rich in sodium nitrate deposits.1 The War of the Pacific broke out in 1879, over a tax dispute; Bolivia tried to “levy taxes on companies operating in the Atacama region, which were exploiting mineral reserves… [that were] two extremely valuable agricultural fertilizers,” even though this went against previous agreements.4 Chile stood to lose firms important to its economy.4 Bolivia and Chile signed a truce in 1884 and continued to negotiate a peace deal that was finalized in a treaty in 1904. As victors of conflicts are privileged with imposing unfavorable conditions on the losers, Chile gained control of land formerly under Peruvian and Bolivian control, gaining land rich in copper deposits.1 Bolivia lost 120,000 square kilometers of land (about the size of Greece) and 400 kilometers of coastal land, making Bolivia along with Paraguay the two landlocked countries in South America.2 While Bolivia lost its coast with rich deposits of nitrate, copper and other minerals, The Treaty of Peace and Friendship (1904) forced Chile to built the railway between the Bolivian administrative capital of La Paz, and the northern Chilean city of Arica. Moreover, Chile granted free transit for Bolivian goods through Chilean ports and territory.

The contested land is rich in natural resources and has directly contributed to the strength of the Chilean economy, both now and immediately after the land acquisition. The land, in the Atacama Desert, once boasted lucrative nitrate plants. According to the book, Progress, Poverty and Exclusion: An Economic History of Latin America in 20th Century, “this unusual supply-side discontinuity was accomplished at the perfect moment, for Chile gained a world monopoly just as demand increased for nitrates both from the explosives industry and from European agriculture” and “the relatively favorable linkages from nitrates to domestic demand, the domestic economy prospered, aided by policy.”5 After the nitrate industry collapsed, Chile began to mine copper. With “appropriate preconditions, prior institutions and government-business collaboration, foreign-owned and capital intensive mining can facilitate considerable development.”5 Now, this region has large copper mines, making Chile the world’s largest copper producer.6  

Furthermore, this case is not likely to be settled in the near future, given that neither side has given further arguments and the International Court of Justice has not given a timeframe of when the ruling will be released.7 The most the court can do is force Chile to negotiate with Bolivia, but it can not force it to cede land. Therefore, this case is mostly politically symbolic, but its ruling could increase uncertainty. The chance of the court ruling in favor of Bolivia, causing Chile to negotiate, could agitate bilateral relations and increase risk in Chilean investments.4




1) Evans, Nick. "Bolivia Row with Chile over Strip of Land to Pacific Ocean Goes to The Hague." The Telegraph. N.p., 25 Sept. 2015. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. Available at: <

2) Long, Gideon. "Bolivia-Chile Land Dispute Has Deep Roots." BBC. N.p., 24 Apr. 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. Available at: <>.

3) Kozak, Robert. "Chile, Bolivia at World Court Over Border Dispute." Wall Street Journal. N.p., 4 May 2015. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. Available at: <

4) DeAngelis, Martin. "Chile-Bolivia Land Dispute Has Long-term Implications for Mining and Gas." Global Risk Insights. N.p., 22 May 2015. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.  Available at: <

5) Thorp, Rosemary. "Chapter 3." Progress, Poverty and Exclusion: An Economic History of Latin America in the 20th Century. Washington: Inter-American Development Bank, 1998. N. pag. Print.

6) Troy, Phaedra. "Mining in Chile: The World's Largest Copper Producer." BN Americas. N.p., 9 Apr. 2015. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. Available at: <

7) Bahceli, Yoruk. "Chile Laments World Court Decision to Hear Bolivia Sea Dispute." Reuters. N.p., 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. Available at: <


About Author(s)

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Marissa Ferrighetto
Marissa Ferrighetto is an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in economics and is pursuing minors in Spanish and history and certificates in Latin American Studies and leadership. The fall semester of her junior year she studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina and fell in love with Latin America. She is in her senior year and is a contributor to Panoramas.