ON July 5, 1941, the peaceful relations of Ecuador and Peru were ruptured by military conflict over a century-old boundary dispute. Small-scale operations were conducted at scattered points on a thousand-mile-long frontier. Almost at once (July 9) the representatives of Brazil, Argentina and the United States made suggestions for troop withdrawals and peaceful negotiations. In the midst of these preliminaries, and despite "acceptance in principle" of the offer of the three friendly Powers, the Peruvian Army continued its advance northeastward along the Gulf of Guayaquil and eastward beyond the boundary on the Zarumilla River. Reference to the accompanying map will show that this action cut lines of communication between the western interior provinces of Ecuador and the sea. In the same period Peruvian forces also took river outposts in the Oriente, the Amazonian slope of Ecuador.

It was not until August 20 that Peruvian military observers left for the frontier. Five days later the observers from both sides met to compare preliminary findings as to actions in keeping with or in contravention of the agreement of July 15, whereby Peru was to withdraw its troops behind the line of the status quo. Scattered military action, flights over "enemy" territory, troop concentrations, aerial bombings, etc., continued through August and September. The Ecuadorian Army was almost completely disorganized; trade was disrupted; and the problem of the refugee Ecuadorian populations flowing from the invaded territory became a preoccupation of the Guayaquil municipal authorities. Then on January 29, 1942, came from Rio de Janeiro the welcome news that a "Protocol of Peace, Friendship, and Boundaries between Ecuador and Peru" had been signed.

World War II may have stimulated the aggression which was charged against Peru by Ecuador and against Ecuador by Peru. But the World War also led to the Conference at Rio de Janeiro in January 1942. "The bee fertilizes the flower that it robs." One of the results of that conference was the agreement between Peru and Ecuador to survey the boundary and adjust the dispute. Thus the last serious territorial conflict in Latin America is in a fair way to be settled by the procedures, now in progress, of conference, survey and adjustment. The importance of this prelude to final settlement can hardly be exaggerated, in view of the mutual charges of "aggression" which are so strongly condemned when they relate to Europe and which are so destructive of that solidarity now required by the United Nations in the Western Hemisphere as elsewhere.

This triumph of diplomacy and good sense was the result of six months' unremitting and delicate negotiations. When Mr. Sumner Welles went to Rio in January, he had both an intimate personal knowledge of the dispute and long diplomatic experience in Latin America; and he was one of the leading figures of the Rio Conference. It is greatly to the credit of everyone concerned -- countries, governments, personalities -- that a conflict which had proved insoluble for a hundred years, and which had been marked so recently by bloodshed and bitterness, should have been brought to the present promising stage of field surveys and local adjustments, with high hopes of final settlement.

It should be stated explicitly, however, that the boundary dispute is not settled. The Rio agreement only provides a procedure intended to lead to settlement. That procedure, given in the Protocol of January 29, may be summarized as follows:

1)~ Peru will, within 15 days, retire its military forces to the line shown on the accompanying map.

2)~ Brazil, Argentina, Chile and the United States will coöperate by supplying military observers to note the retirement of troops; and the activity of the four Powers "will continue until the definitive demarcation of frontiers between Ecuador and Peru has been completed."

3)~ The Protocol and its execution are "under the guarantee" of the four countries mentioned.

4)~ Ecuador will enjoy, for the purposes of navigation on the Amazon and its northern tributaries, the same concessions which Brazil and Colombia enjoy, in addition to those which were agreed upon in the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation designed to facilitate free and gratuitous navigation on these rivers.

5)~ It is understood that the agreed line will be accepted by Ecuador and Peru for the demarcation of the frontier between the two countries by technical experts on the ground. The parties can, however, in tracing the line on the ground, consent to reciprocal concessions which they may consider convenient in order to adjust the line to geographical realities. These rectifications shall be effectuated with the collaboration of the representatives of the United States, the Argentine Republic, Brazil, and Chile.

6)~ The Governments of Ecuador and Peru agreed to submit the Protocol to their respective Congresses and seek to obtain approval thereof within a period of not more than thirty days.

The antecedents of the dispute are now of historical interest only. Among other things they involve what we may call the classic ignorance of geography that has been responsible for most other boundary disputes in the new lands of the Western Hemisphere. Wrong geographical descriptions, embedded in treaty texts and in earlier colonial decrees and definitions, provided wide scope for later disputes. Then the progress of settlement came in to make its own contribution to confusion, with colonists of one nationality or another going up or down a border river carrying the national flag and insisting upon the "protection" of soldiers. Moreover, the cartographic distributions of population resulting from settlement are at variance with old uncertain lines; for settlements conform to real rivers and to resources as they are currently known to exist. If gold or oil are discovered, politically stimulated and subsidized colonization will surely follow. Trading interests and development company prospectuses and concessions heighten the national interest. It is only a question of time when "rights" based on documents are superseded by those alleged on the basis of settlement, however attenuated, and by "wrongs" charged to officials of both sides.

When the states of Latin America were formed following the Wars of Independence, they agreed in general to follow colonial boundaries. But the southern boundary of Ecuador, a state formed out of the southern part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, had overlapping definitions. A royal cedula, dated 1802, complicated matters because it dealt with rivers and territories in unexplored parts of the eastern slope of present-day Ecuador and the language of the cedula remained extremely difficult to interpret. Added to the difficulty was considerable uncertainty as to the validity of the cedula as well as its meaning following the Wars of Independence. Spanish colonial law ruled that a cedula did not become binding until it was successfully applied. In this particular case, the wide extent of the territory involved, the limited number of settlements, and the impossibility of defining a line on a broad unmapped frontier, made it difficult for Peru and Ecuador to agree upon a definitive boundary. Ecuador has sent expeditions into the forests of the east, organized an institute for the study of Amazon history and geography, and laid claim to an Amazonian outlet. Peru has countered with settlements, investments, extension of military posts and the improvement of navigation facilities.

As time went on, documents increased in number and in points of contradiction. The commercial and political conflict between the two principal cities, Quito and Guayaquil, has troubled the course of negotiations for many years and is a matter of common comment on the streets of both cities today. At one time Jaén voted for union with Peru and Guayaquil stood for autonomy. Ecuador was unable to put up a solid front against the claims of Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Civil wars weakened the state. From 1830, when the territory now called Ecuador separated from "Grand Colombia," to 1883 ten different constitutions were adopted.

The sum of the matter, so far as legal rights are concerned, is that each side can make out a plausible and to some degree a juridical case for its claims. To resolve the contradictions of claims it is necessary in nearly all cases anywhere to engage in what we may term "horse trading." The alternative is war over territory that is often not worth the price.

The present century has witnessed growing hostility between Ecuador and Peru as explorations disclosed resources of increasingly obvious value. On August 1, 1887, the two countries signed an Arbitration Convention which named the King of Spain as arbitrator. Both sides submitted their claims. They were as wide as the contradictions of the documents, that is to say, they were as wide as possible. It was not until 1910, following many vicissitudes and changes of conditions, and to the accompaniment of threats from both sides that they would not accept an unfavorable decision, that the arbitration negotiations failed and war was averted only by a narrow margin. Since then it has been clear that neither side would give in, the dispute having become a prime factor of national politics. No government of the day felt that it could afford to give way even to a slight degree without falling. In 1936, negotiations were taken up in Washington, President Roosevelt having been requested to use his good offices to bring the delegates of Peru and Ecuador into a working relationship. After two years the Washington conferences ended in failure and the parties drifted steadily toward a state of open hostility.

The rivers of the Ecuadorian Oriente, as the eastern slope is called, run southeasterly to the Marañon and the Amazon through heavily forested country. The settlements are small and negligible in commercial output; but commerce converges at Iquitos, a city of 40,000 population, at the head of steamer navigation on the Amazon and a center of activity for a region the size of Texas. Flowing northward to the Marañon and the Amazon are the Peruvian rivers Yavari, Huallaga, and the great Ucayali, open to navigation by launch. The importance of the lands along these rivers, and of their traffic, has been one of the factors making Iquitos a city chiefly of Peruvians. An oil concession east of the Ecuadorian Cordillera, in a region in which large investments have already been made, had been granted by the Ecuadorian Government. The development of petroleum resources is particularly important because the republic is both small and poor, and had been dependent largely upon a one-crop export (cacao) in securing foreign exchange for the satisfaction of import requirements. Ecuador now exports a higher percentage of the crude petroleum output of her Pacific littoral than either Colombia or Peru. If the Oriente extended to Iquitos, the problem of access to markets would be solved. The use of oil trucks on motor-roads-to-be, of pipelines, or of railways westward to the Pacific, are alternatives which would place a heavy burden on the industry. Article six of the Protocol attempts to provide Ecuador with "free and gratuitous navigation" on the principal eastern rivers.

The tropical forest that clothes the western slopes of the Andean Cordillera in the boundary zone thins out halfway to the western coast. In the valley of the Zarumilla River it merges into low thorn and open woodland, alternating with grassland. The livestock industry is important, and charcoal, fruits, vegetables and gold are also exported. There is petroleum at Talara, Peru, and the field extends northward partway to Tumbes, the small commercial center of northern Peru. The petroleum possibilities of the Zarumilla region, though unknown, are not overlooked.

The whole structure of naval defense on the Pacific littoral of South America was based until recently upon a few antiquated steel ships. A decade ago a little new armament, chiefly planes and tanks, was acquired by both Chile and Peru. Guayaquil, a principal port, is practically defenseless. Though motor roads now connect the chief cities, interior communications are still too poor, or motor cars and oil trucks too scarce, to permit the concentration of power quickly at any given point. There are few strategic key areas and all are highly vulnerable. The national budgets of Ecuador and Peru will not stand a rearmament program. Each has a tight economy, with too little diversity to absorb the shocks of war. The centers of production are too dispersed and small to support any suitable plan of defense. Fighting on credit is a devastating business; and even the threat of war sends exchanges tumbling and disrupts the export trade. It took Peru nearly 50 years to recover from the chief effects of the War of the Pacific. Bolivia and Paraguay will hardly recover in a shorter time from the effects of the recent Chaco War.

Nowhere is there a greater need for an outside moral authority in the settlement of boundary disputes. That authority has come into being slowly but surely. It is the moral authority of other Latin American countries. The United States insists on its own willingness to act in friendly concert of counsel, but is unwilling to bring "pressure" to bear. In some of the affairs of life, international and otherwise, form is indistinguishable from substance. Latin American individuals and peoples set great store by form, both in approach and in actual negotiation. All nations desire to save face. The business of diplomacy is to find a way to do it. If it were not for the face-saving process, governments would fall as fast as they were formed in time of national tension, particularly when territory is involved; for territory is still one of the most delicate subjects of negotiation, doubtless largely on account of its tangibility.

The economic aids which diplomacy can now enlist are more diverse in character, more indirect and more effective, than earlier forms of pressure used to be. To buy critical goods or refrain, to make credits or not, to supply shipping or send it elsewhere -- these are only a few of the background items. If they are employed by all and understood by all, and if their effect is open, they help leave national pride intact. They do not have the rude impact on national sensibilities of a boundary relocation. They also point the way toward the distant international goal of general peace based on economic well-being. Territories and boundaries will be of less consequence in a future world in which economic advantages and disadvantages depend less upon national sovereignty than upon coöperative international arrangements. It is an unquenchable hope of the peoples of the world today that necessary elements of force can be pooled in the interest of all. In this way, outside moral authority may acquire the support which it now needs if it is to bring the world nearer to a state of reasonably assured peace.

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  • ISAIAH BOWMAN, President of the Johns Hopkins University; former Director of the American Geographical Society; co-author of "Limits of Land Settlement," author of "The Pioneer Fringe" and many other works
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