France and Italy Argue Over Disputed Glacier Territory

Aiguille du Midi, Mont-Blanc, courtesy of Cristian Bortes/flickr
Aiguille du Midi, Mont-Blanc, courtesy of Cristian Bortes/flickr

Disputed territory on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, raised buried tensions between Italy and France earlier this month after the mayor of Chamonix, in France, blocked off access to a dangerous glacier on what Italians claim as their own territory.

The Mayor, Eric Fournier, closed a gate at the entrance of the Giant Glacier at 3500 meters, saying the route beyond it was unsafe. For years the French and Italian sides have argued about access to the area, which the French consider too dangerous for climbers. The Italians, who installed the gate, say warning signs should be enough to discourage inexperienced climbers. Every year, 30,000 people attempt to climb the mountain and about 20 climbers died in 2014 alone.

“[The French] removed hazard signs that we had put in place after the massive influx of tourists in recent months,” Fabrizia Derriard, mayor of Courmayeur in Italy, told the Independent. “They also closed the gate, which makes it dangerous for climbers who now have to climb over a barrier to get to the other side.”

Both countries disagree about where France ends and Italy starts. France claims its territory extends to the start of the glacier while Italy claims French territory begins 300 meters away.

The Mont Blanc Massif, courtesy of Tom Fahy/Flickr.
The Mont Blanc Massif, courtesy of Tom Fahy/Flickr.

The Giant Glacier is not the only glacier that caught in the middle of territorial disputes. When Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified body from 3300 BCE, was found in a glacier in the Ötztal Alps between Italy and Austria, disputes about which country Ötzi should belong to arose. Though he was found by Austrian climbers, Ötzi was eventually placed in a museum in Italy.

On the border between India and Pakistan, the Siachen Glacier is in disputed territory. One year ago, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the glacier after the two countries exchanged fire over the glacier and took 20 civilian lives.

As dynamic landscape features that melt and shift, glaciers can  create problems if governments have decided to make them serve to delimit borders.  Glaciers also tend to be high in the mountains and can be difficult to access, so they are not always mapped with the precision that international agreements may require. The dispute over the three peaks of Mont Blanc has been going on for 150 years, in a region of the world that is well-mapped and that has strong international institutions. It thus serves as a reminder that other glacier regions may provoke international disagreements, starting with issues as small as the location of a gate.

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