This article originally appeared in
War of the Maps
The territorial dispute between Peru and Ecuador has its roots in the Inca Empire
By Eric J. Lyman
AN INCA LEGACY
Peru and Ecuador agreed to a peace accord in 1998, officially ending a series of border conflicts between the two territories that
date back more than five centuries. After three wars in the previous fifty-seven years and generations of tension, leaders in both
countries hailed the accord as a victory, sparking celebrations in both Lima and Quito. And international leaders involved in the three
years of negotiations that produced the accord declared the unique agreement -- which ceded a symbolic speck of land within
Peruvian territory to Ecuador -- as an example of the type of difficult victory multinational negotiations could yield. The only people in
Peru and Ecuador who seem to be unaware that the situation between the two countries has officially improved are the
Not that the children themselves can be blamed. The fault lies in their schoolbooks, which have long included what some observers
refer to as extreme nationalist propaganda. Maps used in scores of schools in Ecuador, for example, depict that country's territorial
claims in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil as well as small parts of Venezuela and Bolivia, additions that would enlarge Ecuador to eight
times its current size. Though another map in a Peruvian book shows traditional borders, detailing the natural resource riches of the
entire region, it leaves Ecuador almost blank except for drawings of a few spider monkeys -- a take on a typical Peruvian slur that
implies that because Ecuador is a major producer of bananas, Ecuadorians are part monkey.
"It's shocking to think that while both governments have signed a treaty ending the conflict, and they make speeches about good will
to their neighbor (country), the next generation is still learning that the other country is the enemy," says British historian Michael
Tollerton, who is based in Lima. "The people involved seem to forget a very important lesson: What is taught today is lived for a
A Ministry of Education spokesman in Lima wouldn't comment on the issue of the maps used in the school systems in Peru, and
his counterpart in Quito would say only that the schools were doing nothing out of the ordinary. But many observers say the
misinformation in the schools could make the points of the accord both presidents signed much less effective.
"The person who will be president of Peru in forty or fifty years and the person who will be president of Ecuador at that time are in the
schools now, and they are being misinformed," says Dr. Percy Cayo, a Peruvian historian who was involved in the negotiations
between Peru and Ecuador. "The problem won't be solved until the schools change what they teach."
Schools in Peru and Ecuador are slow to change, in part, because of the rampant suspicion each country harbors for the other. A
few days after the peace agreement was signed, Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was having a difficult time selling the political
opposition on the agreement. Fujimori won re-election in 1995 with a campaign pledge not to give up "one centimeter of Peruvian
territory" and to fight what he called "ridiculous Ecuadorian territorial claims." But he ended up ceding some land. Eventually,
Fujimori rallied support based on the idea that an "insignificant concession" would assure that no more blood would be spilled over
the border with Ecuador.
Meanwhile, Ecuador president Jamil Mahuad had little trouble selling his country on the agreement -- mostly because of fears that
the richer, larger, and more powerful Peru would win the next war between the two. Generals in Ecuador reportedly feared Peru's
ongoing arms buildup, which included the purchase of more than a dozen high-tech MiG fighter planes from Belarus in 1996 and a
higher-than-normal concentration of Peruvian troops in the northern part of the country.
"In the end, selling each country on the agreement was difficult because there was a real lack of trust between one population and
the other," says Tollerton. "Neither side could believe the other was acting in good faith."
While most observers stop short of predicting the resumption of armed clashes between the two countries if tensions continue, that
wouldn't be out of character for the longest-running border conflict in a part of the world that claims dozens of them. By some counts
the friction between Peru and Ecuador dates back to well before Europeans set foot in the area, during the final decades of the
mighty Inca Empire. And following the problem to its roots reveals the possibility that if a dying Inca hadn't divided his empire
between his sons in 1525, the twentieth-century wars between the two modern countries might never have been fought.
The Incas ruled an area nearly the size of the Roman Empire,
stretching along the Pacific coast north into present-day Colombia
and as far south as the middle of Chile (from about 6 degrees north
latitude to about 39 degrees south latitude), and along a more vague
eastern border that probably included parts of modern Argentina and
Brazil. Even today the majority of the population in Ecuador, Peru,
Bolivia, and Chile is made up of the descendants of the empire,
which left behind the famous ruins of Machu Picchu and hundreds
of smaller outposts and buildings built so solidly that modern
anthropologists are baffled by their construction techniques.
But the empire, considered advanced in its ability to care for its
citizens and in engineering and medicine, was in a state of turmoil
when the Spanish arrived. The Incas were in the wake of a bloody
civil war between the northern and southern parts of the kingdom,
which lasted from 1529 to 1531. In its weakened state, just 106
soldiers and 62 horsemen from Spain were able to conquer a
kingdom with a well-trained army numbering into the tens of
The original capital of the Incas lay in the now Peruvian city of
Cusco, which means "navel" in the Inca language of Quechua. The
Inca leader Tupac Inca Yupanqui threw the first stones in the long
history of clashes between the two territories some time between
1480 and 1483, when his armies marched north from Cusco and
defeated the Scyri, leaders of the kingdom ruling what is now Ecuador.
When Tupac Inca Yupanqui died, in 1494 or 1495, his son Huayna Capac, the last Inca to rule a united empire, succeeded him.
Under Huayna Capac's rule problems started to brew in the parts of the kingdom farthest from Cusco -- especially in the north, the
former Scyri territory. To mollify that part of the empire, he established a secondary capital in the northern city of Quito, which grew in
influence and wealth and became so opulent that Huayna Capac lived his final months there. On his deathbed in 1525, his final
command was to divide the kingdom between his two sons -- with the younger Atahualpa based in Quito and the elder Huascar
based in Cusco. In an act that seems ironic in the light of what eventually developed over the following centuries between the two
sides of the empire, Huayna Capac sought to tie the kingdom together symbolically by having his heart buried in Quito and the rest
of his body entombed in Cusco.
Atahualpa grew inpatient ruling only half of his father's kingdom. In 1529 he marched south with an experienced army and fought his
elder brother's forces for two years, quickly plunging into the middle of what is now Peru and, in 1531, occupying Cusco -- just
months before Spanish conquistadors landed in what is now northern Peru. Once the Spanish arrived, Conquistador Francisco
Pizzaro allied his forces with the defeated armies of Huascar. Pizzaro slaughtered thousands of Inca soldiers, captured and tortured
Atahualpa, and marched into Cusco within mere months of setting foot on the continent.
The Spanish found so many riches in Cusco -- gilded gold statues, gold-plated buildings, fountains filled with silver nuggets and
rare gems -- that for decades after the conquest, a great find by an explorer was said to be worth "a Peru." In that context it is not
surprising that the first Spanish capital on the Pacific coast was established on what became Peruvian soil, when the Spanish
founded Lima in 1535. In 1544 the Spanish set up the Viceroyalty of Peru, which included most of the former Inca Empire, including
all of modern-day Ecuador.
As the centuries progressed less dramatic events occurred that further contributed to the present border dispute between the
modern countries of Ecuador and Peru.
• In 1563 the Spanish governor in Lima ruled that the Viceroyalty of Peru was too large to administer and defend directly from Lima.
Following the vague division used by the Incas, he set up the Audiencia of Quito, which technically answered to Lima but was
relatively autonomous. The ruling didn't draw an exact border but did list some of the cities that formed the limit of the area under the
authority of the Quito province, mostly because they had easier access to Quito than to Lima. However, eight out of the thirteen
towns listed now lie in modem-day Peru. The 1563 document was the first issued under Spanish rule to make a division between
the two territories.
• In 1718 this division was made stronger when control of the Audiencia of Quito was transferred from Lima to Gran Colombia,
based in Bogota. This change holds some importance in retrospect -- it removed the territory that became Ecuador from the rule of
the territory that became Peru for the first time since the defeat of the Scyri in the 1480s -- but it was a relatively unimportant
administrative move at the time. Under the united rule of Spain, the border between the two territories simply didn't materialize as an
• In 1802 an edict from King Charles VI of Spain declared that the territory of Nueva Granada (later known as Ecuador) would be
made up of the territories from where the tributaries to the Amazon River "cease to be navigable." This definition is clearly based on
some earlier decision that has been lost to history. The edict itself is important, however, because it was the basis for many of
Ecuador's extraterritorial claims to the disputed area over the following two centuries.
• During the wars for independence from Spain in South America, Peru won its freedom in July 1821. Ecuador followed suit in May
1822 (though it wasn't officially recognized as a country until 1830). No official border was outlined, though there are a series of
minor Spanish documents from the period that adjusted borders throughout the continent as former colonies won their
independence -- adjustments that kept as much land as possible under the control of the Spanish crown. The only one that refers
directly to the situation between Peru and Ecuador, a treaty called Larrea-Gual published in 1826, is of little help. It simply states that
the border between the two territories would be the same "as those of the Viceroy of Peru and Nueva Granada had before their
independence" -- referring to boundaries that were not clearly defined.
• In 1829 Peru tried to annex Ecuador with a brief and futile invasion. Peruvian military leaders claimed that Ecuador should be part
of Peru, because the territories were part of the original Spanish viceroyalty and because Ecuador to that point had failed to be
recognized as an independent republic. These same military leaders managed to forge a political federation with Bolivia (which had
been part of the same Spanish viceroyalty of Peru and Ecuador), but that federation crumbled in 1839 when Chile invaded from the
• In 1832 Peru and Ecuador signed the Treaty of Pando-Novoa, the first of only two accords approved by both governments. The
agreement is basically a statement of cooperation but briefly refers to the issue of the shared border in article 14, stating that the
towns of Tumbes and Jaen and the area of Mainas -- areas later claimed by Ecuador on the basis of the 1563 ruling -- were within
• In 1841 Ecuador's parliament asked Peru to help establish a bilateral committee that would settle the issue of the border between
the two countries. An informal committee was established, but talks broke down quickly when Ecuador claimed that the village of
Jain, the area of Mainas, and the bulk of Loreto, Peru's largest department (state), were Ecuadorian. This was Ecuador's first official
claim on these areas, based, in part, on the 1563 and 1802 rulings. When talks broke down Ecuador sent troops into the disputed
area, but they were repelled by a surprisingly strong Peruvian military presence. Negotiators failed to reach an agreement in the
wake of the armed clash, and both countries continued to occupy the small slivers of foreign territories they won.
• In 1858 Ecuador attempted to sell one million square meters of land near the Bobonaza River to satisfy a debt to British creditors.
Based on conflicting land claims to the area, Peru blocked the sale, bringing international attention to the dispute for the first time.
• In 1860 the Treaty of Mapasingue, handed down by the Vatican, decreed that the borders between South American countries would
be based on where they stood in September 1829, again referring to an ill-defined border between Peru and Ecuador. This treaty
was designed to eliminate a series of border squabbles then erupting in various parts of the continent. Peru and Ecuador never
• With Peruvian troops occupied fighting the War of the Pacific, which pitted Peru and Bolivia against Chile between 1879 and 1883,
Ecuador stationed troops in Peruvian territory along the disputed part of the border, according to some sources. The troops
reportedly occupied that land for a generation after the war, giving Ecuador another claim to the disputed region.
• The Treaty of May 2, 1890 attempted to draw the line between the two countries, again by assigning to Peru or to Ecuador a series
of villages claimed by both countries along the border. The municipalities of Tumbes and Jain were placed in Peruvian territory;
Quijos and Canelos in Ecuador. The treaty also gave Ecuador access to tributaries of the Maranon River, access that became one
of the main issues of the border wars in the twentieth century. The treaty, which was not ratified by Peru, was based on an earlier
one from 1883 ending the War of the Pacific. That treaty resulted in Chile annexing Peruvian and Bolivian territory near their shared
border, but was not aimed at establishing a northern border for Peru.
• Amid threats of armed conflict, King Alfonso XIII of Spain offered to arbitrate the problems between Peru and Ecuador in 1910, but
Ecuador, fearing that the king favored Peru's claims to the region, refused to participate. A confederation of Brazil, Argentina, and the
United States threatened to intervene if the threat of hostility didn't subside, and the issue remained relatively dormant for three
• A committee made up of representatives of Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, and the United States met in Washington D.C. in
1923, 1938, and 1939 to try to hammer out an accord, but the talks were fruitless.
• As nationalist tendencies flared up again, Peru defeated Ecuador in a short border war in 1941, probably started by Peru (both
sides claim the other started it).
• In 1942 the Protocol of Rio de Janeiro established the map that has generally been accepted by the international community.
Generally, this treaty expanded Peruvian territory at the expense of Ecuadorian territory. According to some historians, it may have
been part of a U.S.-backed plan to mollify Peru -- where there is a large Japanese population -- in an effort to present a united front
against Japan on the eastern side of the Pacific Rim in the months following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
This long and complicated history has played into the dispute that influences how both countries depict themselves on maps today.
In the years following the 1972 war, Ecuadorian claims on the disputed territory started to manifest themselves in peculiar ways.
Weather maps in the Quito newspapers, for example, included the parts of Peru claimed by Ecuador. During Ecuador's 1996
elections, returns were updated on the television news for each of the regions of Ecuador, with regions voting in favor of eventual
winner Abdala Bucaram colored blue and those being carried by challenger Jaime Nebot colored red. A large section of northern
Peru, including Iquitos, Peru's fifth most important port and sixth largest city, was colored with red and blue stripes. Even though the
residents of those areas were Peruvian citizens and voted in Peruvian elections, the television announcer read off the list of regions
and concluded by saying, "Of course, results from the striped regions are not expected for this election...."
In that context the 1998 accord aimed at ending the dispute had to be unique in several ways, and it was. The agreement awarded
Ecuador a symbolic, one-hectare patch of land called Tiwinza, about five kilometers from the border. The area has absolutely no
strategic value and is so remote, reaching it without a helicopter requires a treacherous five-day walk from the closest village amid
crocodiles, snakes, and quicksand. Ecuador has the right to build a one-lane road to Tiwinza and to build a monument to the
casualties of the series of border wars, and is responsible for maintaining the monument and the road. Soldiers cannot be
stationed on the road or at Tiwinza or used for their upkeep. Peru is responsible for guaranteeing the security of Tiwinza.
From an outsider's perspective, surrendering a small and worthless speck of land to prevent future wars may seem like a bargain.
But the history in this case is so passionate, the perception of bargain is impossible. "It is strange that problems between Peru and
Ecuador are so emotional," says Dr. Gustavo Pons Muzzo, one of Peru's best-known historians. "Chile was Peru's most violent
adversary. Chileans occupied Lima in the War of the Pacific, burned part of the city, and would have destroyed it all if it hadn't been
stopped by Europeans protecting their business interests. But relations with Chile are not as emotional as those with Ecuador. It's
an emotional state that is handed down from one generation to the next."
Tollerton speculates that the long-shared history of the two countries may
be to blame. "The hatred between brothers is often the most intense," he says.
Pons Muzzo says that governments of both countries must dedicate them-
selves to ridding themselves of the negative legacy of that long, shared history.
He joins other historians in calling on governments to update educational
texts and to start public relations efforts to educate adults. "Clearly, we have
to update the texts," Pons Muzzo said. "We have economic cooperation accords,
we have a peace treaty. Will another war start up? Probably not, but until we
have popular opinion, the process will be hindered."
Cayo, who participated in the negotiations with Ecuador, has made a hobby of
collecting school maps and is working on a book that will focus in part on the
issue of how maps used in schools help shape national opinions and policy.
He has three dozen maps collected from schools in both countries, showing
skewed versions of the truth and other forms of xenophobic propaganda.
He says the fact that these maps are still in use in many cases is proof that
the will to finally mend the differences between the two countries is limited.
"If a country is going to do something, it should do it right," he says. "But the
fact that the schools continue to produce misinformed young people shows
that it isn't being done right. Ask an older person in Peru or Ecuador about the details of the problems between the two countries
and you will -- perhaps understandably -- get a version that puts his country in a good light. Our problems during the negotiations
came from that: few negotiators had the objectivity to know what really happened. The troubling thing is that if you ask a young
person in either country the same thing, someone learning these things now, the answer doesn't change much."
Eric J. Lyman is a Rome-based freelance writer who specializes in topics about Latin America and Europe.
Cayo, Percy. Peru y Ecuador: Antecedentes de un Largo Historia (Peru and Ecuador: Chronology to a Long Conflict). Lima: Universidad del Pacifico,
Centro de Investigacion, 1997.
Hemming, John. Conquest of the Incas. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
Martinez, Estrada. Breve Historia del Ecuador y Sus Limites (A Brief History of Ecuador and Her Borders). Buenos Aires: Prensa Nacional, 1987.
Prescott, W.H. Conquest of Peru. Chicago: The Book League of America, 1944.
Tobar Donoso, Julio, and Alfredo Luna Tobar. Derecho Territorial Ecuatoriano (Ecuadorian Territorial Rights). Quito: Imprenta del Miniterio de RR.EE.
y la Universidad Catolica del Ecuador, 1994.
Williams, Mary. The People and Politics of Latin America. New York: Ginn and Company, 1930.
• In 1972 the armies of the two countries clashed again. No
important treaties were signed as a result of the conflict, which Peru
is considered to have won.
• In 1995 Ecuador crossed the border established by the Protocol of
Rio de Janeiro. Though no clear-cut winner emerged during the two-
month conflict, Peru suffered the bulk of the casualties and material
• In 1998 a peace treaty officially ending the 1995 war, only the
second agreement ratified by both countries, was officially signed.
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