Novel Ways of Settling Border Disputes: The Peru - Ecuador Case

Manpreet Sethi, Research Officer, IDSA


An oppressive Indian summer in 1999 witnessed heightened tensions between India and Pakistan consequent to the latter's well-planned intrusions into Indian territory in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. A clever mix of Pakistani army regulars and mercenaries sneaked into the Kargil sector with the explicit objective of cutting off a large portion of the state from the Indian mainland. While the Indian armed forces proved more than adequate in defending the country, the incidents, however, made one come face to face with the stark reality that we do live in a nation that has not yet resolved all its border demarcation problems with its neighbours.

This also brought home the fact that despite all our pretensions to accepting the virtues of globalisation and modernisation, nations still do tend to ascribe supreme importance to territorial sovereignty and, that unless territorial problems are resolved, neighbours cannot hope to live in unbroken peace. Of course, peace between neighbours might be disturbed by a host of other factors, but disputed territory still stands out as one of the most fertile grounds for breeding mistrust, suspicion and even war. Therefore, border disputes will continue to generate "war-like situations", or even full fledged wars.

Over the last 52 years of their existence, India and Pakistan have concluded a range of bilateral agreements, each underpinned with the hope of eventually settling the contentions issues. Yet, the search for solutions to the persistent problems has often been disrupted by rude dead-ends, sticky stalemates or bloody wars. Nevertheless, for the rational beings on both sides of the border, the quest must continue. This article signifies another such search for solutions—this time by studying successful instances of border dispute settlements elsewhere in the world, and more specifically in the case of Peru and Ecuador, in order to bring to light novel ways of tackling age-old problems.

Of course, it need be admitted right in the beginning that no resolution of border problems of one set of nations can be taken as a formula applicable elsewhere as well. Rather, the historical, political, diplomatic and other nuances of each such conflict render it a unique case. Nevertheless, it must also be accepted that in each solution there could lie certain lessons, a few pointers that could be adapted to suit other countries facing similar circumstances.

Therefore, while it is true that Peru and Ecuador situated in South America are more than half a world away from India and Pakistan, yet it would be worthwhile to study how a dispute nearly a century and a half old could finally be resolved in 1998 to the satisfaction of both. The article proposes to briefly recount the history, dynamics and the circumstances leading to the eventual resolution of the conflict. The article stops short of drawing any specific parallels or highlighting the many differences with the Indo-Pakistan situation. The purpose is only to explore and draw attention to a successful solution to a border demarcation problem. It should essentially be the task of experts on sub-continental relations to assess whether any adaptations, however crude or dissimilar, are feasible or not.

History of the Conflict

The origin of the conflict goes back to the 19th century when Peru and Ecuador had first declared their independence from Spain. As per the rule that governed the coming to freedom of the Spanish colonies in Latin America, each new country was to have sovereign control over the same territorial expanse as it had possessed as a Spanish entity. Ecuador held that its territory extended up to the Amazon river as per the limits demarcated by the audiencia1 of Quito that had been created in 1563. Meanwhile, Peru claimed that its territorial limits corresponded to what it had administrative control over as the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1810 and this restricted the Ecuadorean territorial claims. The area that Peru claimed had been established by the Royal Seal of 1802. But all along, Ecuador had refused to acknowledge or implement this royal directive. Therefore, at the time of independence too, it continued to uphold the sanctity of the territorial division created in 1563 and refused to accord any significance to the later directive. Consequently, the border between the two nations remained a source of discord all through the 19th century and the major part of this one too. Besides, Ecuador also claimed historic rights of access to the Amazon river that passes through Peru, besides a huge chunk of the Amazonian jungles, presently under Peruvian control, but which if ceded to Ecuador, could amount to almost doubling its present size.

In 1941, the first war of this century broke out between the two nations over the huge area east of the Andes mountains. The hostilities ended one year later when the Rio Protocol of 1942 demarcated a new frontier, dividing the territory in dispute down the middle. The new border mostly ran over plains (where demarcation was easy), except for some 80 kms which ran over mountains (where physical demarcation was difficult and never attempted). The rationale behind drawing up this line was that between 1936 and 1938, after their negotiations in Washington, Ecuador and Peru had agreed that they would stick to a border on the basis of areas being effectively occupied by one or the other side. The areas however, where demarcation of territory posed a problem, though only five per cent of the originally disputed area, continued to be contested, especially since Ecuador nursed a feeling of having been wronged by the Rio Protocol. Finally, it denounced the Protocol and both countries presented the case for arbitration to the four countries that had been designated as the guarantors under the Rio Protocol of 1942. These were the USA, Argentina, Brazil and Chile and their representatives remained involved in different mechanisms at various levels to try and reach an agreement. But to no avail.

The problem persisted leading the countries into war in 1981, 1984 and 1995. In the first of these instances when war erupted in January 1981, a ceasefire was quickly negotiated within a few days under the auspices of the four guarantor nations under the Rio Protocol of 1942. Some minor clashes however continued through 1982 and 1983 and one year later serious fighting once again broke out. In January 1992, discussions on the border dispute were resumed and yet, a number of minor incidents along the border were reported in 1994. The following year the most serious incident took place between the Ecuadorean and Peruvian troops in the disputed border region around the Cenepa river basin. Both governments denied responsibility for initiating the hostilities and issued contradictory reports concerning the subsequent clashes. Intense fighting centered around Cueva de los Tallos, Base Sur and Tiwintza outposts located within the Peruvian side of the undemarcated and disputed border but which were occupied by Ecuadorean troops. The fighting lasted five weeks, had some 3,000 Ecuadorean and 2,000 Peruvian troops deployed to the area at its peak and resulted in both sides losing a total of 78 lives to the hostilities. Peru succeeded in dislodging Ecuadorean troops from two of the posts at Base Sur and Cueva de los Tallos. But Tiwintza remained occupied by Ecuador.

In fact, Ecuador exploited its short interior lines of communication and its commanding position at a height to direct fire from mortars and multiple rocket launchers against Peruvian soldiers attempting to reinforce their positions. Ecuador's Air Force established air superiority and its artillery and jungle infantry dominated the ground. It also used global positioning satellites to pinpoint targets in the immediate area of combat.2 Quito successfully integrated military strategy, operations and tactics with an assertive information campaign at the diplomatic level as well. Owing to the use of modern technology and its advantageous position, it managed to hold on to the post at Tiwintza and this was interpreted as a victory by Ecuador. Conversely, it translated into a major setback for Peru in a long time, in fact for the first time since 1829. This proved to be a huge blow to the pride of its armed forces. To somewhat assuage its hurt ego, in September 1997, the Peruvian military unveiled a new fleet of sophisticated Mig-29 fighter jets bought from Belarus. Soon thereafter, it also conducted military exercise, simulating blackouts in its border cities.

These moves, however, proved to be enough to once again heighten tensions between the two countries and bring them to the brink of another war. In fact, peace between the two was any way pretty precariously poised with minor border skirmishes having becom a norm. A cease-fire had been announced on January 31, 1995 but it had not appeared to have the full support of the Peruvian delegation. Another ceasefire agreement had followed a month later also stipulated the despatch of an observer mission, comprising of representatives of the four guarantor nations to the border to oversee the separation of the forces and the demilitarisation of the region. However, accusations of one side attacking the other continued till May 1995 even as intensive negotiations were undertaken in Brazil to defuse the situation.

In October 1997, Ecuadorean soldiers were accused of launching two mortars at a jungle border post. Anger flared as a consequence in Lima even though the attack caused no injuries or damage. Thousands of protesters marched in anti-Ecuador rallies, allegedly organised by the military to spur nationalist sentiments. One Peruvian military expert then wrote that, "It is obvious the military is trying to present Ecuador as an imminent danger …trying to make the country believe that war is near."3 He attributed this to a "strong desire for revenge within the armed forces that is slowly spreading to the general population." Across the border too, talk of war was rife with some 3,000 Ecuadorean students marching in an anti-Peru demonstration.

Meanwhile between 1995-98, the political leaders of the two countries continued to negotiate directly, and with the representatives of the guarantors, to reach an agreement on the disputed points. Official discussions between the foreign affairs ministers of Peru and Ecuador began in January 1996. But it was overshadowed by the controversy that the two countries were engaged in a campaign to strengthen their military capability by negotiating contracts for the supply of weapons from a number of countries, including China, Argentina, Israel and North Korea. Nothing much came out all through the year except their signing an agreement to provide a framework for a definitive solution on the border issue. In August 1997, the two nations signed an agreement aimed at ensuring transparent mechanisms in arms procurements. Following further negotiations in early 1998 a number of commissions were established to examine specific aspects of a potential agreement, including a trade and navigation treaty and the fixing of frontier markers on the ground in the Cordillera del Condor. Talks continued through 1998 and culminated with the signing of the accord in Brasilia on October 26, 1998.

Role of Arbitration and the Contours of the Decision

The final solution to the problem was made possible by the four guarantor nations as had been designated under the Rio Protocol of 1942. As has already been stated, they remained engaged in a search for a long-term peace solution. In fact, in every instance when hostilities broke out on the ground, the guarantors worked to put them to a swift end. It has been attributed to their presence and efforts that whenever fighting did take place between Peru and Ecuador, it was confined to the area, remained small-scale and was quickly brought to an end.4

The final resolution of the conflict must also be attributed to their efforts that were increased in July-August 1998 when a new bout of shooting seemed probable even as a new President took office in Ecuador. He, as also his counterpart in Peru, had placed the resolution of the conflict on the top of their political agendas and therefore, the timing was just right to reach some sort of a compromise solution.

The accord confirmed Peru's claim regarding the delineation of the border. It set the frontier along the high peaks of the Condor range, thereby leaving with Peru the area that it had long held. However, it gave to Ecuador as private property, not as part of its territory, one sq km of land inside Peru at Tiwintza to build war memorials for the Ecuadorean soldiers that lay buried after the fierce fighting in 1995. It was stipulated that the area would not have any military or police presence from Ecuador and nor would it have the status of an embassy. Also, those born in the area would have Peruvian citizenship.

In another ingenious move, each side was also instructed to set up two adjacent ecological parks alongside the border, where only "ecological police" and not the military would be allowed to patrol.5 The Ecuadorean park is to comprise an area of 25.4 kms while the Peruvian park would run over 54.4 kms. This step ensured the demilitarisation of the area besides suggesting a unique way of promoting ecological protection of a fragile natural environment.

The peace accord was accompanied by some other bilateral treaties and agreements as well. The most important of these was the trade and navigation treaty whereunder Ecuador was granted navigation rights for conducting trade and commerce on the Amazon river and its tributaries within Peru. Ecuador would also have the right to set up two trading centres there measuring upto 150 hectares each where it could build its own industries, warehouses or import-export centres. It would also enjoy port facilities on them and the treaty enjoined that Ecuadorean ships would be given the same treatment as that meted out to Peruvian vessels. Also, Peru was instructed to rebuild the Sarumilla channel where 65 per cent of the water utilised would benefit Ecuador and therefore, Quito was put in charge of maintaining it once Lima had constructed it.6

The two countries also signed a Border Integration Agreement which included the signing of an accord on the movement of people, vehicles, maritime vessels and aircrafts. A bi-national plan for border development was also concluded. Other accords included those on facilitating electricity and oil pipeline interconnection, promotion of tourism, and cooperation in the fields of education and fishing.

Response to the Package

In both countries, the Comprehensive and Definitive Peace Agreement met with a largely favourbale response. In Ecuador, a survey commissioned by a TV station revealed that nearly 60 per cent of the respondents agreed with the decision and did not see any better alternative. While it was conceded that the treaty fell far short of realising Ecuador's desire for sovereignty over the disputed territory, it did essentially achieve its goal of securing easier access by water to markets and Atlantic ports. Of course, the response of the political parties followed a predictable path. While the opposition described the offer of Tiwintza as "humiliating" and criticised the accord for bringing about a "dismemberment of Ecuadorean territory", the new President Jamil Mahuad, announced that 'We have won a peace that we did not have. "7

During his election campaign, President Mahuad had held out peace with Peru as a way of putting the country back on the path of economic recovery and social well being. It would be worthwhile to mention here that from the early 1990s, political and economic stability had eluded Ecuador. In mid-1996, Adbala Bucaram had won the elections but his largely orthodox economic policies led to a wave of public protests. He was removed only a few months later by the Ecuadorean Congress on charges of being mentally unfit and corrupt. A period of intense political wrangling followed whereafter Alarcon was sworn in as the new President, but no political stability could be secured and elections had to be called for within a year. In fact, in the first half of 1998 the country witnessed a spate of strikes and demonstrations against the rising fuel and transportation costs.

In the wake of such political and economic turbulence, the resolution of the conflict was put across as one way of achieving lasting peace so that the nations could channelise their resources into solving their domestic problems that were, ironically enough, so similar in nature. President Mahuad captured the spirit of this sentiment when at the signing of the peace agreement he said, "After so many decades of each side trying to win the wars, today the two countries are winning peace."8

Meanwhile, across the border in Peru too, there was a sense of relief since the deal had essentially acknowledged the limits of Ecuador where Peru had long held they should be. Even so, some questioned the need to make even the limited concession over Tiwintza. In fact, this did provoke some violent demonstrations and led to some public buildings being set on fire.9 However, the government justified the concession made over Tiwintza as a largely "symbolic and generous" gesture that did not amount to a "cession of territories".10 In fact the Peruvian President, low in the polls after having completed nearly two years in office, had put a peace deal with Ecuador on the top of his political agenda. Once the peace agreement did come through it was hailed as a major achievement of his administration and it was slated as shoring up his chances in the run up to a possible re-election bid in 2000. Fujimori described the agreement as akin to crossing the threshold of an uncertain past into a bright and promising future. He extrapolated, "Peru can now move into the new millennium under conditions that will allow it to take maximum advantage of its central location in the sub-continent, developing the potential of its Pacific projection and assuming its leading role in the Andean community."

More recently, in May 1999, the Presidents of the two countries came together at the same border that was disputed not so long ago to dedicate a boundary stone—the last to be laid down on an earlier contentious stretch of the Amazon jungle. President Mahuad said on the occasion, "We are putting an end to disputes, closing wounds to start a new, healthy life."11

Potential Impact of the Peace Agreement

The comprehensive peace agreement that included bilateral initiatives other than only a border settlement is expected to bring about far reaching improvements in the lives of the citizens of both countries. Not only have security concerns been defused through the resolution of the question of the land border, but mutual confidence is also on a high with the establishment of mechanisms to guarantee Ecuador's access to the Amazon and by opening their common border to trade and development. Besides, the idea of establishing ecological parks has not only circumvented the threat of security but also put forth an ingenuous way of preserving the unique biodiversity of the remote jungle region.

Included in this broad based initiative are also guidelines to enhance the general border regime. These include agreements for easier cross-border traffic of land vehicles, passengers, ocean-going and river vessels, and airplanes. Three new border crossings are foreseen at Zapotillo-Alamor, Carriamanga-Ayabaca and Zumba-Namballe besides the two existing ones at Aguas Verdes-Huaquillas and La Tina-Macará. The national border centers are expected to make crossing the border easier. Also it is anticipated that an accord on border festivals and fairs will help to promote cross-border trade, cultural exchanges and tourism.

As part of the peace talks, the governments had also established a binational Border Integration Commission. It met in four plenary sessions in Washington and organised the three binational working groups to design the accords that would meet the challenge of developing and improving standards of living in the backward and underdeveloped border regions.

With the new trade and border links opening up, businessmen estimate that trade between the two countries would surge three-fold from the present level of $300 million to nearly $900 million. This would help the weak economies in both nations besides also having a bearing on the eventual resolution of the countrys' social problems. The accord envisages an immediate suspension of a large number of tariff barriers and the dismantling of all trade barriers by 2001 with a view to strengthening inter-state trade ties and accelerating free trade. It is anticipated that such measures would help to create a dynamic and barrier free trade flow between the two. The settlement also paved the way for about $1.5 billion in international loans to develop the border regions of both nations. Help from other countries has also been forthcoming. The following tables reflect the nature of binational and national infrastructure development projects and the kind of money being invested in them.

Table 1. Binational Program for Infrastructure Development

(Estimated Investment in thousands of US$)

Projects Public Funds Private Funds Total

Puyango-Tumbes 575,000 100,000 675,000

Tumbes-Machala axis city plan 50,000 50,000

Road connection 388,700 380,700

River basin management 12,000 12,000

Reforestation Not defined

Natural resource evaluation Not defined

Navigational hydro-morphological studies Not defined

Table 2. National Infrastructure Development and Improvement Programs

Peru Ecuador Total

National border services centers 4,500 4,750 9,250

Sustainable development projects 36,422 20,000 56,422

Physical infrastructure projects* 149,078 165,250 314,328

Small project financing fund 10,000 10,000 20,000

* Including dams and irrigation projects; power generation; docking, port and landing facilities, airports, land ports and rural roads.

Table 3. National Programs for Social Infrastructure Building and Environmental Improvement (in US $)

Peru Ecuador

Health 24, 833 25, 143

Education 24, 786 20, 132

Drinking water and sewerage 50, 785 41, 384

Urban development 54, 881 58, 924

Electrification 26, 000 16, 014

Telecommunications 1, 810 12, 000

Native communities,

environment and reforestation 56, 905 66, 404

Also, with tensions dissipating, it is expected that the two would have less need to purchase military equipment, a national security imperative until a few years earlier. In fact, until 1997-98, Peru was the largest importer of arms in South America at $ 1 billion a year. It was also exploring the purchase of Su-27 or Su-30 fighters, T-72 tanks and type 214 submarines.12 With the peace agreement in place, however, the two countries can better allocate their scarce resources to their beleaguered economies. Meanwhile, Peru also needs funds to rebuild its infrastructure destroyed in the El Nino related storms in 1998. The Rand Corporation has estimated that the annual defence spending of the two would decrease from between 0.5 per cent to 4 per cent in the very first year after the implementation of the accord. This would be particularly beneficial given that the economies in both countries are not very satisfactorily placed—Ecuador suffered as the prices for its oil exports plunged, and Peru experienced similar agony over the low prices for its copper exports.


The resolution of the conflict between Peru and Ecuador came about as a result of a number of factors that made the situation more favourable for striking a compromise. Most importantly, political will to set the age-old problem behind the countries and concentrate on other more important issues of nation building contributed to the solution. The guarantors supplied the solution but ultimately the credit must go to the two presidents of the countries in question to approve of the decision and to have it passed by their respective legistatures. Some amount of opposition was anticipated and it was only natural that political parties should have tried to show the dark side of the agreement. However, the public in general exhibited a sense of relief and was happy to have the governments look after other urgent problems of governance and infrastructure building.

Of course, once the agreements had to be implemented, practical problems did begin to crop up. The most thorny ones in the context arose regarding the need to clear the landmines that each country accused the other of having planted and therefore, held them responsible for. According to some sources, Ecuador had put down some 60,000 landmines out of a total of a 100,000 that are believed to have been planted in the disputed border zone since the 1941 war.13 The agreement, however, stipulated that the demining operations must take place as part of a bilateral plan and with the help of other friendly countries. Japan and USA have been especially forthcoming with financial assistance in this regard.

The case of Peru-Ecuador conflict resolution is demonstrative and needs to be better analysed and studied from this perspective. It symbolises a cost effective alternative to waging wars for resolving inter-state conflicts. It hardly needs reiteration that long standing border disputes are not easy to resolve since nationalist passions run high and mindsets are well entrenched. However, the Peruvian and Ecuadorean Presidents displayed maturity and sagacity in pushing for and accepting a compromise peace solution. While it cannot be denied that some amount of suspicion and mistrust, especially in the military establishments of both countries could persist, however, the younger generations are prone to be more concerned about the economic performances of their countries. Also, as the economic benefits or tangible signs of progress in the border areas begin to become visible, the dividends of the peace accord would get to be better appreciated.



1. An administrative unit created by spain in some of its territories in South America.

2. Gabriel Marcella, War and Peace in the Amazon : Strategic Implications for the United States and Latin America of the 1995 Ecuador-Peru War, (Washington D. C.: Department of National Security and Strategy, 1995)

3. David Koop, "Peru and Ecuador may be preparing for war", The Seattle Times, October 29, 1997.

4. "Peace in the Andes", The Economist, October 31, 1998, p.45.

5. It might be interesting to note here that President Fujimori was not in favour of a single binational park.

6. "Ecuador President Hails ruling on border dispute with Peru", Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), AL/3367, October 26, 1998.

7. Ibid.

8. Anthony Faviola, "Peru, Ecuador sign pact ending border dispute", Washington Post, October 27, 1998.

9. "Protests against Guarantors ruling on peace with Peru leave three dead", SWB, AL/3368, October 27, 1998.

10. "Fujimori says Peru has not relinquished sovereignty to Ecuador", SWB, AL/3367, October 26, 1998.

11. "Peru and Ecuador Leaders Seal border treaty", The New York Times, May 14, 1999.

12. Philip Finnegan, "Arms Race fizzles as Political Climate Warms", Defense News, April 12, 1999.

13. See < en espanol/noticias/html>