The World’s Borders Are Not What You Think - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The World’s Borders Are Not What You Think

The World’s Borders Are Not What You Think

By Laura Secorun Palet

China dominating global natural resources game
SourceThomas Kuhlenbeck / Getty


Because your map is lying to you!

By Laura Secorun Palet

Ever stopped to think about the biggest liar in your life? Is it your landlord (will he ever fix your g.d. bathroom leak?), or your ex-husband who was always “working late,” or maybe the subway conductor who’s always saying there’s an empty car “directly behind” this one? Sorry to break it to you, but these are B-list liars. It’s time to point the finger at the biggest Pinocchio of them all: your atlas.

More than


countries have borders that don’t match standard maps.

So says political scientist and ghost-nation expert David Forniès. This goes for the world’s largest democracy, India, and Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria. All the countries we’re talking about have seats at the U.N. — these aren’t places our little brother made up while slacking off in English class (although he does do that). The reasons include everything from foreign occupation to armed groups. Just think of the headaches a cartographer must face: The Islamic State group, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Kosovo’s independence have all redrawn boundaries in reality, if not on paper. It’s a symptom of a larger trend, says Jeremy W. Crampton, associate professor of  geography at the University of Kentucky. According to him, political geographers no longer think of territory as a bounded area in the control of one government: “Instead, territories are more diffuse.”

It’s not even a single kind of problem. You’ve got ghost nations, whose independence has been largely unrecognized — take Abkhazia, a small state on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. There are also a handful of self-governed autonomous regions like Somaliland and Puntland in Somalia, or the Kurdish-governed northern Iraqi state of Rojava, which has its own army, exports its own oil and yet doesn’t claim to be a state. Disputed borders between countries are too many to count. And then there’s the armed groups with long-standing control over a territory, or even self-proclaimed theocratic states. The government of Mali has not recovered control of the northern region of Azawad, which was declared independent by the Berbers in 2012; Boko Haram in Nigeria has declared Islamic republics, and so have Islamist groups in northern Georgia. Of course, the most infamous recent example of border redrawing has been the Islamic State group, which essentially controls vast areas of Syria and Iraq — but shows no interest in scoring a seat at the U.N. or getting its name on Google Maps.

To be sure, map trouble is not new. Lines, colors and words have always struggled to accurately reflect the world’s complex political realities. Take Kashmir, the region where Pakistan, India and China all have competing claims. Or Palestine, which is likely to appear on most maps as Israel. And do maps even matter? According to Forniès, coordinator of Nationalia, an online magazine on stateless nations, in order to solve any geopolitical problem, “we first need to see things for what they actually are.”

The perfect map may never exist, but geographers like Crampton agree that more should be done with interactive, multilayered and updated maps. Meanwhile Google has slithered out of this rabbit hole by ignoring substate identities and simply showing different maps to different nationalities. If you look up a disputed territory in India, it will appear as Indian, but if you do the same in China, it will be Chinese. (Neat trick, Internet overlords!)

Maybe messy depictions of the world are good for us, like quinoa. They could teach us to be suspicious of anything that seems clear-cut. Does this mean we can leave dishes in the sink too?


Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories