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Instead of Re-Drawing the Map, Let’s Transform Our Borders

With borders around the world constantly in dispute, it's easy to think that the solution might be simple. But it's time we focus on transforming how we think about borders, rather than simply re-drawing them.
Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. (Photo: i_pinz/Wikimedia Commons)

Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. (Photo: i_pinz/Wikimedia Commons)

Should we re-draw our borders? This question keeps coming up whenever societies or groups of people face existential national threats or serious challenges to systems or institutions that organize society. These days, the question surfaces most often in response to anxieties generated by the fear of global conflict, environmental change, and growing populations of migrants and displaced persons. Given that state borders—from a divided Germany to contemporary Israel—take varying forms and mean different things to different people at different times in history, any attempt to re-draw state borders is bound to unleash even more complex problems. A more helpful approach would be to transform borders rather than re-draw new ones or keep existing ones as they are.

In order to transform borders, however, we must first understand humanity’s appetite for them in the first place—which does require us to examine the future of state boundaries. For most people, borders have three critical functions: to help create order by delineating spheres of authority; to protect those living inside clearly demarcated territories from outsiders; and to ensure proper control and management of citizens and natural resources. These functions trace back to the beginning of human sedentary existence, where they gained concrete expression through the building of walls, to today’s iterations, where electric fences and checkpoints proliferate.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, the future of state borders hinges upon fundamental changes on notions of state sovereignty.

Some thinkers predict that the power of globalization will destroy the significance of state borders, leaving behind a “borderless world,” where trade flows freely. That vision has not come to pass: globalization has also resulted in more borders being drawn than erased, such as in the former Yugoslavia, where the allegiance of individual regions with either Europe or Belgrade rendered borders both increasingly significant and dangerously unstable. Whenever the border—a common marker of territory—is under threat or stress, governments do everything in their power to defend it. No wonder that borderlands are often sites of deadly encounters between state security forces and those threatening the sovereignty of states.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, the future of state borders hinges upon fundamental changes on notions of state sovereignty. An alternative future of state borders is possible when the territory under a sovereign state is re-defined to promote inclusivity. Cross-border arrangements seem to hold prospects for a progressive future in which borders continue to exist but derive new meanings and purpose.

Take the creation of transnational regions, most of which try to re-define state borders to create an entirely new space in which people from various states could share some form of common citizenship. No region is perfect, but regional constructions have been proven effective at transforming borders before. For example, in 2014, the European Union has brought 28 states into a jointly managed regional entity where original state borders now appear like subnational ones. Had Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda followed former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere’s proposal in the early 1960s to integrate the three countries into one regional polity, a “new East Africa” transcending colonial borders could have been created.

Here in southern Africa, the regional community has not yet reached the stage of political union, but is embracing cross-border arrangements in the domain of nature conservation. This development points to two promising avenues for transforming state borders. First, they inject nature back into the border discussion. They bring back nature into ideas of borders. The relationship between nature and borders has a long history. Kingdoms were delimited by topographical features to make them—and the authority of kings and queens—look natural and unquestionable. Going back to ancient historical regimes in China and Mesopotamia, rivers and mountains formed the template on which borders were drawn, and these features abound in current maps showing state borders.

At the same time, natural features do not, on their own, form borders. Instead, borders exist because humans create them—often with disastrous results. Second, cross-border efforts at nature conservation can also demonstrate practical steps we can take to transcend colonially inscribed state borders in Africa and other regions. The urgency of environmental changes are waking us up to the reality that melting glaciers and pollution don’t need a passport to alter the landscape or wreak havoc across borders. Because environmental problems call for cross-border efforts for resolution, they offer a microcosm for the study of the political and philosophical difficulties posed by state borders and a potential model for future post-colonial transformation based on both nature and culture.

Nation-states are incredibly complex entities to transform all at once not least because they are pillars of a world system on which notions of world order are built.

One recent and specific example is the establishment of southern African peace parks: cross-border nature conservation projects operating across the borders of two or more states. These projects, such as the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park on the border between South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, demonstrate some of the practical ways by which state borders can be transformed. The Great Limpopo and other cross-border spaces, like Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, empower sovereign nations to allow their borders to cease to function as barriers. These parks free wildlife—initially fenced into one state’s territory—to roam across state borders, making them a transnational asset rather than a national one. The fences come down and wildlife moves undisturbed while each state retains its sovereignty. Thus, a transnational entity is created without undoing the maps of the states involved.

This cross-border idea offers us direction in imagining what state borders might become in the future and invites us to think about conditions under which border transformation could be possible for citizens as well as wildlife. One of these directions should be correcting the errors of the past where humans use natural features to create barriers. These features should now be seen as theaters of opportunity for borderland communities who share rivers, mountains, and the like. It is bizarre, and even a recipe for conflict in places such as Kashmir or the border between Ethiopia and Kenya, to fence off rivers in the name of state sovereignty when water is such a basic human need and right. A second necessary direction is to think carefully about an appropriate scale at which the idea of inclusive borders could be successfully pursued. Nation-states are incredibly complex entities to transform all at once not least because they are pillars of a world system on which notions of world order are built. The cross-border idea suggests possibilities for using micro-regions—small-scale regions that transcend international borders—to build confidence on inclusive borders. It is in these micro-regions that border transformation is likely to succeed and also have material meanings for, and effects on people living at the edge of the state.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.