Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | February 15, 2008

On why border research in Central Asia is a difficult task

Prescott is one of the rarest scholars of boundary studies, who devotes a chapter to border research, where he gives advice to other scholars on how and where to collect data for border studies. ‘Information about boundaries may be gathered by studying relevant documents and published works, by analyzing maps of the area traversed by the line, and by undertaking fieldwork in the borderland’, writes Prescott (1978: 58).

Prescott classifies documentary material into three sections. First, he considers copies of correspondence conducted between the negotiating parties as useful sources of information. He notes, though, that these are rarely published, and one can access them in archives. He notes that in ‘the letters and minutes and reports can be discovered the geographical, political, economic, ethnic and legal factors which played an important part in producing agreement on the general location and specific site of the boundary’ (ibid.). In Central Asia (esp. Uzbekistan), copies of correspondence of negotiations on international boundaries are not published and are not accessible for any person outside security services, and even closed for academicians.

The second section comprises of boundary treaties which have been eventually agreed between the states. ‘Most countries will publish their own treaty series in parliamentary records, and many treaties are recorded in the United Nations Treaty Series. The boundary treaties will often include information about the conduct of affairs in the borderland as well as the definition of the line’ (ibid. 58-59). My searches in United Nations Treaty Series as well as governmental/official web portals, and UNDP web pages, unfortunately, proved no records to be found on boundary treaties agreed between Uzbekistan and its neighbouring states.

Prescott includes treaties concerning the decisions of arbitrations as being very fruitful sources of information. ‘Whenever arbitration or judicial processes are involved the countries submit as much evidence as they possibly can, and the records of these activities contain great stores of useful information on the evolution of the earlier boundaries. E.g.: in the Rann of Kutch hearings the two sides presented evidence which occupied 10.000 pages of typescript, and illustrated their arguments with 350 maps’ (ibid. 60). But unfortunately, this is not the case in Central Asia; none of the states in the region approached any tribunal to solve their territorial disputes.

The third class of documents and published works relates to the reports and personal accounts of the individuals who partook in boundary demarcation or in earlier stages. In Britain, apparently, a number of boundary commissioners published their accounts in journals of learned societies, such as the Royal Geographical Society (ibid.). ‘These accounts often include detailed descriptions of the borderland’s physical geography, precise accounts of the nature of indigenous societies near the boundary, and of the attitude of those populations to the presence of the new limit. E.g. , the papers by Nugent (1914) and von Detzner (1913), who were joint leaders of the Anglo-German demarcation team between Nigeria and Cameroon, give a clearer impression of the problems faced and the dislocation caused by the boundary to the economic and political life of local tribes than any other source (ibid.). Going back to Central Asian conditions, publication of this sort would be unthinkable, given the high securitisation or mystification of boundary affairs. Former boundary commissioners have no rights disclosing state secrets regarding boundary location, creation or any other stages and particularities.

Moreover, other valuable sources listed by Prescott include study of maps and conducting a fieldwork. Prescott, interestingly, suggests working with maps in areas, where fieldwork would be impossible: ‘it will never be possible for the scholar to undertake fieldwork in the borderland, because countries such as China and the Soviet Union, or Iran and Pakistan do not allow such activities’ (ibid. 61). It is valuable to study maps available to the negotiators: ‘many of the decisions of negotiators, which subsequently created problems, are inexplicable if analysed on modern maps, but thoroughly comprehensible when related to the maps available during the negotiations (ibid.). Prescott doesn’t mention a truth, though, that Soviet Union never provided detailed correct maps to the wider public. It is a general truth that maps in Soviet Union accessible to the wider population were inaccurate on purpose, to protect its territory from foreign or any other espionage. According to Baud and van Schendel, (1997 in Donnan and Wilson 1999: 53) ‘borders rarely match the simplicity of their representation on maps, which are themselves tools of control and order. In some countries today, mapmaking is still controlled by the military, maps of border areas are not freely available to the public, and on these maps the national territory is greater than the territory the country in fact holds’.

Prescott is assured that the most valuable source of information is gathered through a live conducting of a fieldwork in the borderland and look for the impact of the boundary on the lives of local residents. During the fieldwork on part of the Nigeria-Benin boundary interesting attitudes were discovered: ‘during an interview with the Aleketu, which is a Yoruba chief in Benin, separated from the majority of his tribe in Nigeria, he said, ‘We regard the boundary as separating the French from the English and, not the Yoruba (ibid. 62-63)’. This sort of information is extremely valuable to understand how the boundary is perceived by the local population and fieldwork is the best method to collect such data. However, as he mentioned above, it is absolutely impossible to conduct field research in borderlands of Uzbekistan or other Central Asian states.


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