Fences and Neighbors

DISHEARTENED BY the death toll from armed clashes in Sabah, I’ve sought enlightenment on one question that I thought was key to addressing the issue of world peace: Why do people quarrel over a piece of geography? Prof. Google has led me to some good online sources.

It probably all started somewhere in time when an enterprising creature, or creation, staked out an area of space, chased off intruders, and called it “territory.” Where deadly competition rules and the only sure measure of success is survival, territory amounts to an ingenious strategy for unhampered access to resources and reproductive opportunity (sex). Owning one is more efficient than joining a mad scramble for food every time you want to eat; or for sex every time you feel the urge to breed.

And so it came to pass that territory grew into a passion. Birds do it, bees do it, electric eels do it, almost all do it, including slime molds. Building a territory comes in a manner that is not completely unfamiliar: it’s governed by a tacit rule better known by its French label, fait accompli — it’s yours if you can hold on to it. Defense comes with the territory.

In an impressive anticipation of Westphalia and Torrens Title, certain animals have advertised territorial ownership in unmistakable terms. Frogs, birds and crickets do it through vocal signaling; some mammals squirt or rub off scent as signposts at key spots within their home range. And all these even before the ancient Romans started worshipping a god of boundaries named Terminus.

In the cool economics of nature, it makes for a good balance sheet of energy to let your neighbor be and avoid hostility, a situation we call “my dear enemy.” But this is not where you’ll find the elusive clue to lasting peace. The situation assumes that neighbors are held in balance by matching strengths: weakness is an invitation to aggression.

Ask Jane Goodall. Her extended observations of chimpanzees in the wild have changed beliefs that the primate species are basically peaceful. A gang of chimps demonstrates lethal aggression when it outnumbers its foes, often attacking them with murderous savagery. Otherwise, the evenly matched groups confronting each other by chance would soon break up after a noisy display of aggression. Expansionary raids into other territories minimize risk by picking numerically weak groups, killing its members until none were left. Chimps share 99% of human DNA.

Territoriality is so pervasive in nature that early observers see it as an instinct, an “imperative” that applies as rigorously in the affairs of modern man as in the affairs of animals: “If we defend our title to our land or the sovereignty of our country, we do it for reasons no different, no less innate, no less ineradicable, than do lower animals.”

I’m not sure if it’s a human instinct, but I do know that humans are just as obsessed with territories as other animals are, but expressed in ways that bear the mark of the sapient species.

We invented a territory called “nation, ” went to war for it, and did the nastiest crime under its banner. The world as we know it is shaped and reshaped by human drive for territories, pursued with savagery unimaginable even to the most aggressive of Goodall’s chimpanzees.

Take a quick look at how the modern USA came into being. You start after 1492 with the North American Indians giving up a portion of their original territory to European colonialists under pain of genocide; next, take the account of Great Britain getting driven out of its 13 colonies in the face of the greater American Revolution; then watch how wars, treaties, money and forced eviction of the Indians allowed the US to expand its territory from the 13 original states; and then again listen to the American troops, doing a complete reversal of their anti-colonial roles, chanting, Underneath the starry flag, civilize ’em with a Krag, as they grab territories overseas for colonies.

Combined with racism, Hitler’s belief that Nazi Germany needed a “living space” (new territories) for its survival helped plunge the world into war and gave history the Holocaust that we already know, and us a taste of the banality of evil.

Good fences make good neighbors, writes Robert Frost. My unpoetic mind, refusing to believe, insists he had it all mixed up — it must be the other way around.

Mario M. Galang is a specialist in development and governance issues.

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