GIS, maps, and borders

Thanks to a student in the introduction to GIS course.

Maps have been used throughout history to illustrate and dispute political borders. Maps first were used for navigation purposes and, among other regions, helped explorers chart the New World. As charting was inextricable from claiming ownership, European powers began using maps to chart borders. Each country produced its own maps, and the maps often purposely drew borders to benefit the mapmaker’s home country. The first such map to employ this technique was produced in 1656 by the French. Since much of the interior of North America was unexplored at this time, liberties were often taken with cartographical features. In the particular map Le Canada ou Nouvelle France, the cartographer places Lake Erie very near the border of Florida, at that time a Spanish possession. This placement maximizes the amount of French territory by squishing the English colonies right up to the coastline. Does this represent an unintentional distortion because of minimal knowledge of a region or a deliberate distortion to maximize ownership? Sometimes it may be hard to tell.

Like other economic powers of the time, the French continued to use this technique of selective border placement. A map published in 1718, Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi, claimed the Carolinas for France, in addition to placing Lake Champlain entirely within French territory. This map also minimizes the amount of territory shown as being controlled by the English, by squishing the colonies against the coast. After years of map-making by the French, the English fought back cartographically by publishing their own map. Their 1755 map of North America showed the borders of the British colonies extended over the Mississippi River. Maps like these continued to be published until the world became accurately charted to minimize scale distortions. Border disputes are another matter entirely and not a matter of navigational skill and cartography but of politics.

On the other side of the world, China and India have had a long running dispute over the province of Arunachal Pradesh, located in North-East India. The territory was ceded to India by Tibet while Tibet was an independent nation. China, however, never recognized the independence of Tibet, and thus claims that Tibet did not have the right to cede the area to India. Although the territory is presently controlled by the Indians, maps published in China extend China’s political boundaries to include the territory, without mentioning there is a territorial dispute. In addition, the Chinese maps also show the Paracel and Spratly islands as being entirely under Chinese control, ignoring the fact that they are claimed by no fewer that eight different countries!

The advent of GIS, remote sensing, and Global Positioning Systems presumably should put an end to border disputes. These tools are sold largely on the basis of their ability to accurately depict where locations (borders) are, characterize what’s going on at particular locations, and allow flexibility when users want to make changes. In theory, these tools should ensure that borders around the world are accurately delineated. Because GIS allows for extensive attribution of features, areas and regions could be characterized by their social, historical and ethnic makeup. Negotiators acting in good faith could create a GIS that determines whether peoples are closer culturally to the Chinese or to the Indians. Areas that are more Chinese could be awarded to the Chinese and vice-versa. A further application of GIS in this dispute could be to use remote sensed and raster images. Negotiators could analyze the topography of the region to decide what areas of the region could be better economically integrated as a part of India or as a part of China. Because the area is quite mountainous, such an analysis could indicate the feasibility of transportation links that could facilitate economic development. Most importantly GIS offers more flexibility than a map in terms of changes. Each side could view changes visually to see how it would affect them; if changes need to be made then they could be made quickly. In the past this was not possible and each time border negotiations occurred, paper maps had to be produced, thus dragging out the process. From all of this, spatial technologies should help avoid border disputes, and when they do occur, also should aid in solving them.

[Of course, borders disputes aren’t solved with new technologies. Borders aren’t rivers or mountains but political, social and historical creations. Greater accuracy and precision don’t make for smoother negotiations but may actually work in the converse: to give greater technological ammunition to each side that his/her case has the stronger argument and is therefore, right. This is one more example of the need to temper technology with political context.—sieber]


International Map of Tibet
Chinese Map of Tibet
Look closely in the south-eastern portions of the map. In the Chinese map, Arunachal Pradesh is part of China. A closer examination reveals that that there are no roads or towns in the region. On the Western map, the disputed area is clearly indicated.

Le Canada ou Nouvelle France
Note the positioning of Lake Erie and the border of Florida.

Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississippi
The text below ‘Carolina’ clearly indicates that it is French territory, although in reality they had no claim to it.

This article discusses how GIS helps solve border disputes.

One Response to “GIS, maps, and borders”

  1. Could i have maps of chinese territory under the colonial powers