17-Oct-2018 11:08:27

chile bolivia war dispute sea pacific ocean


The war of pacific (1879-1884) also known by names like “saltpeter war” or “ten cents war” was a war between Bolivia-Peruvian alliance on one side and Chile on the other. Both the sides fought for the control over the coastal territories of the Atacama Desert which is rich in sodium nitrate deposits. Back in the 19th century sodium nitrate was an important ingredient in the manufacturing of explosives and fertilizers. This made the entire region of great value for not only Chile and Bolivia but other powers in the region like USA, Britain and Spain.


The roots of the problem goes way back to 1818 and 1825 when Chile and Bolivia both gained independence from the Spanish rule respectively. According to the Bolivian historical documents, the territory of Charcas which belonged to the vice royalty of Rio de la Plata and later Bolivia included the access to sea. The Chilean side disagreed with this claim. The negotiations went on till 1866 during which both the countries established 24th south parallels their boundary based on “uti possidetis” principle in international law (“uti possidetis, ita possidetis” is a Latin expression which means ‘ you may continue to possess as you do possess’). After this both the countries began to share their revenues and taxes on the territories between the 23rd and 25th parallel. This was succeeded by another treaty in 1874 which entitled Bolivia to collect taxes in the territories of 23rd and 24th parallels, but with the condition that they couldn’t change the rate of the taxes for the next 25 years. This agreement allowed Chile to exploit the nitrate resources freely and slowed the economy of Bolivia.


In 1878, Bolivian Dictator General “HILARION DAZA” violated the 1874 boundary treaty by enforcing a new tax law on Chilean mining organization “Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company”. According to which, the organization now had to pay 10 cents per quintal mineral extracted. When the company refused to pay this new tax Hilarion Daza confiscated its property and publicly auctioned it. This rendered the 1874 treaty completely void and lead to Chile declaring war on both Bolivia and Peru.

Bolivia and Peru had signed a secret mutual defense treaty in 1873. This treaty aimed at maintaining a regional balance of power and national security in the region against Chilean expansionism, which was fueled by Chile’s economic ambitions over the resources in Atacama dessert. This resulted in Chile fighting and defeating the Bolivian-Peruvian alliance after four years of war. At the end Chile annexed the Peruvian Tarapacá department and Arica province, as well as the Bolivian department of Litoral. Bolivia lost 400 sq. km of coastline and has been a landlocked country since then.

Present times

After the war, Bolivia and Chile signed a peace treaty in 1904. In the treaty Chile agreed to compensate Bolivia for its loss of land and agreed to give Bolivia the access to Chilean ports. It also agreed to build a railway from their port of Arica to Bolivia's biggest city “La Paz”. In recent years, Bolivian president Evo Morales has claimed that the 1904 peace treaty was forced on his country. According to him, Chile has been under an obligation to negotiate sovereign access to the sea for Bolivia since the time of the war. President Morales argues that having the access to the sea is crucial to Bolivia’s economic growth. This is the crux of Bolivia’s case to the international court of justice in The Hague since 2013. The international court of justice passed the judgment in Chile’s favor on 1 Oct 2018. The international court did not make a comment on whether or not Bolivia had a right over the disputed coastal boundary. But rejected Bolivia’s claims that Chile is obligated to hold a talk with Bolivian side over the sovereign access to sea.

Amidst this, Chilean side had also argued that Bolivia had plenty of access to Chilean ports which it currently uses for exports and imports. It blamed the current Evo Morales government for using this issue to forfeit its stance in the elections next year.


The issue between Chile and Bolivia could be seen as a fight between two neighbors’ who do not want to compromise. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America and the sovereign access to sea will definitely boost its economy. But we cannot ignore the fact that the country suffers from corruption at its core and bad political as well administrative systems. So even though Bolivia gets access to the sea there won’t be much difference in its economy as compared to now when it is using Chile’s ports. If we look at the opposite side, Chile has exploited the resources available in the area from the starting. Previously, it was the monopoly over the nitrate industry and now it’s over the copper industry of the region. Sovereign sea access would give Bolivia an access to the copper resources too. These copper resources also happened to be the reason for Chile’s economic prosperity.

Chile and Bolivia haven’t hosted each other’s ambassadors in over 70 years. The first step should be to hold full diplomatic talks with each other. One of the suggested solutions to this dispute has been the 13 point plan, which safe guards the mutual interests of both the sides but for now exists only in theory.

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