To Be or Not to Be a Territorial Dispute? -- The Curious Case of ‘Vila Thomaz Albornoz’
Updated: May 21
Brazil and Uruguay first agreed on the limits to their borders around 1851. Many years later, one could say that one of the two territorial disputes that currently exist between the two countries officially started in the year 1940, when Uruguay first began to be incisive with its contestations of the limits. As a response to that, Brazil established the village of Thomaz Albornoz in the contested land.
Located inside the city of Santana do Livramento, the village was originally owned by the farmer Thomaz Albornoz before it was given away for the Brazilian government to occupy. The occupation was accomplished through the construction of a primary school and the erection of a water tank. [i] As for the other side of the border, in Uruguay, there is the village of Masoller, where citizens have better access to public services. One commonality between the two villages is their geographic isolation from their respective capitals, with habitants having to travel for hours to reach the nearest urban centers. [ii]
As mentioned, government provided infrastructure is more present on the Uruguayan side, with Masoller sporting a health clinic, a better-equipped school, police stations, and better roads. It is important to note that inhabitants of Thomaz Albornoz often seek medical care on the Uruguayan side of the border. Despite that, commerce tends to be more active on Brazil’s side of the border, leading some to believe that the Brazilian government is seeking to maintain control over Thomaz Albornoz through a strategy of economic occupation. [iii]
According to Tuomas Forsberg, States’ desire to survive not only leads to the contestation of resource-rich territories but also of those territories which, for example, were mistakenly included inside the borders of a neighboring country with which historical rivalries are shared. Interestingly, the territorial dispute in question is that unlike in many other existing disputes, Thomaz Albornoz is neither valuable in terms of resources nor was it involved in any historical conflicts between Brazil and Uruguay. [iii]
II. The Contested Land of Thomaz Albornoz: A Real Territorial Dispute?
Since Uruguayans first contested the territory in 1934, Brazilians have always been reluctant to recognize the claim and have continued to avoid responding to the accusations. More importantly, despite the disagreement between the countries, individuals living at the border, that is, in Thomaz Albornoz village and, on the Uruguayan side, in Masoller village, are known to frequently cross the borders to access goods on one side and medical services, among other necessities, on the other.
While researching national identity at the Brazil-Uruguay border, Ícaro Donatoni Pinheiro noticed that, feeling abandoned by the State, many Brazilian citizens would refuse to be interviewed by him as they would mistake Pinheiro for a government employee. This disinterest coming from Brazil to fulfill the demands of Thomaz Albornoz's inhabitants may show just how little strategic value the land has to the country. [iv]
There are currently several heated border disputes in the world that have either escalated or are expected to escalate into military conflicts. Among them are India and Pakistan’s dispute over Kashmir and the South China Sea Dispute involving Brunei, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In accordance with the literature on territorial disputes, the aforementioned conflicts could be explained by the existence of valuable natural resources in Kashmir and the islands of the South China Sea.
It is true that 22 thousand hectares of territory could make a difference for a small country such as Uruguay. Nonetheless, the contestation's real motivation was the feeling of injustice caused by the wrongful demarcation of the borders. This reasoning is neither more nor less rational than contestations motivated by power-political reasons. Uruguay’s main goal with the contestation could be to maintain international norms, which are especially beneficial to smaller countries and depend on honoring treaties, such as the Brazil-Uruguay 1851 Boundary Treaty. [v]
Whenever territories under dispute are valuable to countries in terms of natural resources, conflicts are much more heated and can be expected to escalate as the parties involved each grow more confident in their chances to succeed. The logic of power-politics adopted by theorists of realism is that the risk of losing the dispute is worth taking once the ownership of the territory and its valuable resources will instantly increase the power of the winning State. Then what of disputed territories that do not bring any significant advantages to their owners?
For many years now, the relationships between Brazil and its South American neighbors have been notably peaceful. If any Brazilian citizen was to be asked about whether their country is currently involved in territorial disputes, chances are that their answer would be “no.” As for those who, for some reason, know about the contestation of Thomaz Albornoz village by Uruguay, they would probably argue that, in fact, due to the absence of conflict, there is not a territorial dispute between the two countries. Although, by definition, this limit contestation could be categorized as a territorial dispute.
Over 80 years of dispute later, regardless of the strong sense of unfairness experienced by Uruguay, the contestation has yet to escalate into a heated dispute. That is mainly because, unlike other countries going through territorial disputes, Brazil and Uruguay have never shared historical rivalries apart from when they were still colonies of Portugal and Spain, respectively. Furthermore, it is evident that citizens from both countries living in the border region are able to coexist in harmony.
Even if Thomaz Albornoz village is not valuable to Brazil and because Uruguay cannot ignore the non-compliance with international norms, it is unlikely that either side will deliberately decide to yield ground. Nonetheless, especially after looking at other existing territorial contestations, one could say that the Brazil-Uruguay disagreement does not constitute a de facto territorial dispute. The normative justification introduced by Fosberg could only have been applied had the dispute been more violent in nature. [vi]
Thus, important here are the facts that the dispute over Thomaz Albornoz is not motivated by power, that it has not been violent, and that it has lasted for a relatively long time. Moreover, the persistence of the so-called territorial dispute shows that Uruguayans may attribute non-material value to the contested land, such as maintaining the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty found in international law. [vii]
According to an article written for the Brazilian newspaper “Folha de São Paulo” by Fábio Zanini, as of 2019, among 120 total families living in Thomaz Albornoz, 40 were of Brazilian nationality. Not only has Uruguay maintained a strong presence in the region, but inhabitants from both sides of the border have been coexisting and hold positive images of and, to a certain extent, depend on each other. [viii] The inability to agree on to whom Thomaz Albornoz should belong has not generated feelings of animosity or rivalries between the two nationalities. A fact that holds true for most of the Brazilian and Uruguayan citizens living in the border region.
Territorial disputes are known for being motivated by States’ desire to increase power. However, countries often choose to enter territorial disputes for normative reasons too. That is, moved by a need to survive in an international system where rules protect smaller States from their more powerful counterparts, countries may choose to contest injustices, not for emotional reasons but because, rationally, they are able to understand the importance of upkeeping international law.
It is unclear, however, whether the Brazil-Uruguay disagreement in question fits the definition of a territorial dispute given that, for the 86 years that the region has been contested, Uruguay has made no advancements, and the only strategy adopted by Brazil has been uti possidetis or, in this case, the occupation of the contested territory with the creation of Thomaz Albornoz in 1985. [ix]
Lastly, the absence of a historical rivalry between Uruguayans and Brazilians indicates that there are not strong enough domestic incentives coming from the population to push their respective countries towards an actual conflict over Thomaz Albornoz. The only issue here is that Brazil's lack of interest has left the inhabitants of Thomaz Albornoz unassisted or even abandoned.
[i] Brum, Maurício. “Brasil ou Algo Assim: A vida numa região da fronteira contestada pelo Uruguai.” Folha de São Paulo, August 2013, https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/materia/brasil-ou-algo-assim/. Accessed March 14, 2021.
[ii] Pinheiro, Ícaro Donatoni. “Questão da Identidade Nacional na Fronteira Brasil-Uruguai: A Influência da Mídia Televisiva na Identidade Nacional na Vila Albornoz (Br) e Massoller (Uy).” 2017, http://dspace.unipampa.edu.br/bitstream/riu/2462/1/%c3%8dcaro%20Donatoni%20Pinheiro%202017.pdf. Accessed March 14, 2021.
[iv] Forsberg, Tuomas. “Explaining Territorial Disputes: From Power Politics to Normative Reasons.” Journal of Peace Research, November 1, 1996, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022343396033004005?casa_token=CAZrsuHxRRgAAAAA:ufOBv0yW-V8WcoL6vm9zF6ZGMRJWkDpyELwu22squna96BlHE4ssu6ZSycfkGf046dX9v1Nos-9c. Accessed March 14, 2021.
[v] Pinheiro, Ícaro Donatoni. “Questão da Identidade Nacional na Fronteira Brasil-Uruguai: A Influência da Mídia Televisiva na Identidade Nacional na Vila Albornoz (Br) e Massoller (Uy).” 2017, http://dspace.unipampa.edu.br/bitstream/riu/2462/1/%c3%8dcaro%20Donatoni%20Pinheiro%202017.pdf. Accessed March 14, 2021.
[vi] Forsberg, Tuomas. “Explaining Territorial Disputes: From Power Politics to Normative Reasons.” Journal of Peace Research, November 1, 1996, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022343396033004005?casa_token=CAZrsuHxRRgAAAAA:ufOBv0yW-V8WcoL6vm9zF6ZGMRJWkDpyELwu22squna96BlHE4ssu6ZSycfkGf046dX9v1Nos-9c. Accessed March 14, 2021.
[viii] Zanini, Fabio. “Adormecida, disputa de fronteira do Uruguai com o Brasil faz 85 anos.” Folha de São Paulo, June 23, 2019, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/mundo/2019/06/adormecida-disputa-de-fronteira-do-uruguai-com-o-brasil-faz-85-anos.shtml. Accessed March 14, 2021.
[ix] Dorfman, Adriana, Borba Colen França, Arthur, and Marla Barbosa Assumpção. “Fronteiras Sul-americanas: História, formas e processos contemporâneos.” Anuário Unbral das Fronteiras Brasileiras, 2016, https://www.lume.ufrgs.br/bitstream/handle/10183/150150/001008410.pdf. Accessed March 14, 2021.