“Maybe for Europeans and North Americans it seems very 19th century, people fighting over boundary lines. But it can become a salient issue in hands of politicians who want to use it for their own political ends,” says Charles Shapiro, president of the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, California.
The conflict dates back to the 19th century, when Peru, Chile, and Bolivia fought the War of the Pacific for control of the mineral deposits of the Atacama desert. The resulting demarcation wasn’t agreed on until 1929, when the United States brokered a settlement between Peru and Chile. But Peru insists the sea border was never definitive, and that subsequent agreements creating a straight east-west marine limit were just fisheries agreements and not formal treaties.
Peru now wants to pivot the line toward the southwest, giving Peruvians more access to the anchovies widely used in fishmeal. Chile and Peru together produce most of the world’s fish meal, the dried, ground fish used as poultry food and fertilizer.
The fight is based in domestic politics, says Mr. Shapiro. “It’s a way to rally domestic support,” he says.
Ahead of the trial, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera visited his Peruvian counterpart, Ollanta Humala, and both stated they would abide by the court’s ruling. But a decision that removes acreage from Chilean control will still be controversial — 73 percent of Chileans said in 2010 and 2011 polls that the government should refuse to recognize any loss of territory at the hearings in The Hague.