By Edward, Olivia
Geographical , Vol. 81, No. 5
I'd rather not talk about that ... Maybe we could leave that bit out ... I'm not sure I should say anything more on that subject ... Off the record I could say ...'
Interviewing Martin Pratt is a rather difficult task. As head of the International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU), he advises on border disputes around the world, and consequently, much of his work is top secret.
The IBRU, the world's first boundary study centre, was established at Durham University's geography department in 1989, and is now a self-funded business that advises everyone 'who bumps into a boundary and realises they don't know much about it'.
'I often say we have one foot in academia and one foot in the real world,' says Pratt, who spends half his time in the UK and the other half overseas running training courses or using his geographical and archival knowledge to advise clients ranging from oil companies to NGOs and governments.
With its work often taking in some of the most heated disputes on the planet, including many in Africa and the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, one might expect the IBRU offices to be littered with flak jackets and snapshots of staff smiling beside guerrilla leaders, not to mention a general air of derring-do hanging in the hallways. But Pratt laughs at the suggestion. 'We try to avoid the danger,' he says. 'We tend to get parachuted in as experts. Meetings tend to be at quite a senior level in a comfortable environment.' Indeed, the office--where five fulltime staff work--is rather ordinary, with just the odd exotic item, such as a large dried Sudanese gourd, and the occasional foreign map hinting at the overseas work they do.
Much of this work focuses on pinpointing the location of a boundary ('the line of no thickness where one state ends and another begins', explains IBRU research associate John Donaldson, compared to 'borders', which can be either a line or a region). And that isn't always as simple as it sounds. 'We talk about boundary recovery,' says Pratt. This process can range from interviewing villagers on the Cameroon-Nigeria frontier about where they thought the boundary was located to trawling through thousands of documents in UK archives in connection with disputed islands off Borneo. 'It's a sort of detective work, piecing together evidence and trying to build up the most accurate picture we can.'
'Most boundary disputes tend to be based on the fact that the original boundary was inadequately defined,' says Pratt, citing as an example the armistice line in the Israel--Palestine conflict, which was literally the line between the two warring sides when they stopped fighting in 1948, but is now the basis for any future peace settlements.
'In Jerusalem, it was drawn on the hood of a Jeep, in the middle of a gun battle, while the two commanders were ducking bullets,' says Pratt. 'They used a grease pencil (a sort of crayon), which meant that when the lines were translated onto a large-scale map, they were up to 30 metres wide. So, immediately, people were asking where the actual line was supposed to be. And the Israel-Palestine conflict being what it is, they then spent the next 30 years arguing about it.'
Computers have made newer boundaries more accurate, but these sometimes clash with the paper-drawn lines. 'There's a great story about the continental shelf boundary between the UK and Norway,' says Pratt. 'It was agreed in two parts. One was in 1965 using paper charts and the second half was in 1978 using mathematical algorithms. And at the point where they were supposed to meet, there was a gap of about 331 metres.' Almost inevitably, that gap contained an oil field. 'It's sometimes said that the UK lost hundreds of millions of pounds because of that "error".'
New visualisation techniques have also helped countries agree on new borders. …