Six months before South Sudan officially declared its independence, becoming the world's newest nation on 9 July, eight people met in an boardroom in Glasgow to plot one of this fledgling country's most defining features – its borders. The people at that meeting in Glasgow were not freshly appointed South Sudanese officials, members of Africa's governing bodies, or international diplomats. In fact, many of them had never even been to Sudan. Instead, these boardroom attendees were British cartographers, experts in geopolitical policy, and members of the Collins Geo division of Harper Collins, the publishing company responsible for creating and selling one of the most authoritative reference maps in circulation, The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. The atlas and its related products are used as key reference tools by governments, the United Nations, the World Bank, aid agencies and classrooms across the globe
They would attempt to define South Sudan's borders for a new issue of the atlas to be published in September – a task easier said than done. They would need to draw up a finalised map of South Sudan to meet their publishing deadline in May, despite the fact the country itself would not yet officially exist. They would need to commit to a boundary line between Sudan and South Sudan, despite the fact that areas of that border continue to be violently disputed.
"Where a new boundary is created, and a new country, there will always be small-scale disputes along it. There will always be villages along that boundary line – it happened after the Second World War – where people don't really know which country they belong in. But the boundary line needs to go somewhere and as large-scale mapping is not a top priority in Sudan at the moment, the administrative lines are as accurate as we can get."
To achieve that level of accuracy, Ashworth and the committee rely on a team of around six news-gatherers to monitor constantly the geopolitical developments to help to inform their decisions, and ultimately, the authoritative depiction of nations. They carefully examine the projections of the UN, international governments, aid agencies, geopolitical experts on the ground, and specialist academic institutions such as the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University.
Despite this vast amount of fact-finding, Peter Barber, head of maps at the British Library, once said that a map is, essentially, a lie. "...every map is subjective, and always will be," he explained. "You have to select what you put on it."
Mick Ashworth agrees. "Maps are a very powerful tool for presenting an agenda and propaganda," he says. "People often believe maps more than what they see in the real world. But we are aware of that, and we are aware that if we get things wrong, or don't represent things in the way that they should be, then we will hear about it."
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