MundoAndino Home : Andes Bolivia Guide at Mundo Andino

Atacama border dispute

The Atacama border dispute was a dispute between Chile and Bolivia in the 1800s that ended in the transfer to Chile of all of the Bolivian Coast and the southern tip of Bolivia's ally Peru through the Treaty of Ancon with Peru and the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1904 between Chile and Bolivia after the War of the Pacific (18791883). Some consider the dispute is still ongoing as Bolivia still claims a sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean. The conflict takes name from the Atacama Desert on which lies the disputed territory. From the Chilean annexation of the Bolivian coast in 1879 the Puna de Atacama dispute arose due to Bolivian transfers of land to both Argentina and Chile, this spin-off dispute was settled in 1899.


The origins of the dispute came from the borders established in the Spanish empire that just defined the Atacama desert as the northern border of the Kingdom of Chile. Bolivian and Chilean historians disagree on whether the territory of Charcas, originally part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, later of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata and ultimately of Bolivia, included access to the sea. Supporting their claims with different documents, Bolivians claim that it did while Chileans disagree. When Simon Bolivar established Bolivia as a nation in 1825, he claimed access to the sea, disregarding overlapping claims by Chile, which had gained independence 7 years before.

The border dispute between Bolivia and Chile grew slowly during most of the 1800s over the Atacama corridor, a part of the Atacama Desert which now forms northern Chile. The Atacama Desert is bordered by the Coast Range on the west and the Andes on the east. The geography of the area was a very large factor in determining how the border dispute began. Because of the mountains, the area has rains only 2 to 4 times a century, making it one of the driest places on Earth.

After the independence of Chile (1818) and Bolivia (1825) none of the following governments of both countries cared about defining its borders.

National boundaries in the Atacama region had still not been definitely determined when nitrate, silver and copper deposits were discovered in the area. Both Bolivia and Chile established competing claims for the territory. Other countries' interest was drawn due to the importance of nitrates in the production of fertilizer and high explosives; Britain, Spain and the United States had a strategic and economic stake in controlling the resource granting their support to the different parties. Chile's influence grew in the disputed zone as miners, some of them backed by Chilean and foreign companies, started to advance northwards establishing mines and port facilities. Most economic exploitation of the coastal region was being conducted by Chilean companies and British interests, under the aegis of Chile's more robust economy and more stable institutions.

Boundary Treaty of 1866

National borders in the region had not been clearly agreed until 1866; the two countries had negotiated a treaty Tratado de limites de 1866 entre Bolivia y Chile that established the 24th parallel south as their boundary, and entitled Bolivia and Chile to share in tax revenue on mineral exports out of the territory between the 23rd and 25th parallels. A second treaty in 1874 superseded this, entitling Bolivia to collect full tax revenue between the 23rd and 24th parallels, but fixed tax rates on Chilean companies for 25 years.

The War of the Pacific

On November 27 of 1873 the Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company signed a contract with the Bolivian government in which it would have authorized to extract saltpeter duty-free for 25 years. In 1878, The Bolivian Congress and a National Constituent Assembly found the contract incomplete because it had not been ratified by congress as required by the Bolivian Constitution of 1871. Subsequently, the congress would approve the contract only if the company would pay a 10 cents tax per quintal of mineral extracted.

Chile claimed that the border treaty of 1874 did not allow for such a tax hike. The company complained the increased payments were illegal. The company mounted significant pressure and demanded that the Chilean government intervene.

When the Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company refused to pay, the Bolivian government under President Hilarion Daza threatened to confiscate its property. Chile responded by sending a warship to the area in December 1878. Bolivia announced the seizure and auction of the company on February 14, 1879. Chile, in turn, threatened that such action would render the border treaty null and void. In 1873 Peru and Bolivia signed a defensive alliance Treaty with an article that kept it secret.

Shortly after becoming aware of the alliance treaty between Peru and Bolivia, Chile declared war on both countries on April 1879. Within four years Chile defeated the joint war efforts of Bolivia and Peru. It ultimately led to the Chilean annexation of the Peruvian Tarapaca department and Arica province, as well as the Bolivian department of Litoral, leaving Bolivia as a landlocked country.

In 1884, Bolivia signed a truce that gave control to Chile of the entire Bolivian coast, the province of Antofagasta, and its valuable nitrate, copper and other mineral deposits. A treaty in 1904 made this arrangement permanent. Chile build a railroad connecting the Bolivian capital of La Paz with the port of Arica and guaranteed freedom of transit for Bolivian commerce through Chilean ports and territory.

1904 Bolivia-Chile treaty

Chilean proposal of 1975

In 1975, the Chilean government of Augusto Pinochet made a proposal to Bolivia consisting in a swap of a narrow continuous corridor of Chilean land from the sea to the border between Chile and Bolivia, running parallel to the border between Chile and Peru, in exchange of a piece of the same amount of Bolivian territory.

The proposal involved former Peruvian land and according to the treaty of Ancon, Chile could not give former Peruvian territories to other nations without Peru's agreement. The dictator of Peru Francisco Morales Bermudez was opposed to these changes but proposed to make Arica a territory governed by the three states. Chile responded that it could not accept this complicated shared sovereignty. Some have argued that the Chilean proposal was made only as a gesture to Bolivia, as Chile knew it would not come to fruition. Later that year, Bolivia severed diplomatic relations with Chile. Both countries still only maintain consular relations.

Recent history

Bolivia still wishes an Atacama corridor, which Chile rejects, yet grants unrestricted traffic to all kinds of Bolivian merchandise through that territory. Today the territories ceded by Bolivia and Peru count for an important part of the Chilean state's income, as the state owned company CODELCO exploits some of world's largest copper deposits located in that area.

During the Bolivian Gas War the dispute rose again, as most Bolivians, including the now president Evo Morales, opposed the future export of Bolivian gas through Chilean territory, which the Government and foreign companies wanted. In 2004, the anniversary of the 1904 treaty, Bolivian claims were reignited, and the words gas-for-sea became the slogan of people who opposed exportation. The dispute became evident when the Chilean president Ricardo Lagos faced the Bolivian president Carlos Mesa in the Organization of American States, and Mesa spoke about the topic in front of all the presidents of the Americas, the Chilean president reacted offering diplomatic relationships between the two countries here and now , which was declined by Mesa, who actually was not seeking an offer but intended to bring international interest to the situation.

Recently Michelle Bachelet in Chile, the first woman to be president in her country, and Evo Morales, the first president of indigenous origin in Bolivia, have made efforts to improve the relations between the two countries.

See also

Anti-Chilean sentiment

BoliviaChile relations

Puna de Atacama dispute

Didn't find what you were looking for.
Need more information for your travel research or homework?
Ask your questions at the forum about History of Bolivia or help others to find answers.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Atacama border dispute

Disclaimer - Privacy Policy - 2009