Unclaimed Lands Are Still There for the Taking

Bir Tawil, between Egypt and Sudan, was claimed recently by a man in Virginia. (Photo: Пакко/Wikmedia Commons).

Until a Virginia man claimed the ungoverned and uninhabited territory of Bir Tawil, an 800-square mile strip of desert between Egypt and Sudan, most people were probably under the impression that all the lands on Earth were controlled by one country or another. It's a bit of a surprise that one of the last remaining unclaimed places is not some remote and wild island in a far corner of the world's oceans, but a territory in the middle of a continent between two of North Africa's largest countries.

"Terra nullius," the Latin expression used in international law to refer to unclaimed land, is still a viable concept. Looking back through history, there are plenty of instances of people claiming territory simply by occupying it. Although occupying land might give you a legal argument for owning it, without recognition from surrounding countries and international organizations like the United Nations, your claim won't mean much.

Jeremiah Heaton, the American who became the self-proclaimed "king" of Bir Tawil in 2014, has said he is planning to approach Egypt, which has de facto control over the area, about recognizing his sovereignty and helping him use the land for some sort of charitable agricultural project, though he's also entertaining offers from private corporations to set up a regulation-free zone in the Bir Tawil borders.

In 2015, Vít Jedlička, a Czech politician and activist, claimed a parcel of land between Serbia and Croatia along the Danube River and declared it Liberland. Liberland is intended to be something of a libertarian haven, hence the name. Taxes are paid voluntarily, and there will only be a handful of laws to govern the 2.7 square mile country. It has not been recognized by the United Nations.

It's not riches they're after

The truth about Bir Tawil and Liberland and most other similar places on Earth is that they have remained unclaimed because there is simply no reason to claim them. Without farmland, oil or other natural resources, no country or individual has any practical motive to take control.

However, this doesn't diminish the romantic allure of claiming and presiding over a modern day kingdom. Inspired by tales like "The Swiss Family Robinson" and the true story of "Mutiny on the Bounty," people have grown up fantasizing about the adventure of establishing a new civilization.

At the very least, stories like the one out of Bir Tawil feed those kinds of adventure daydreams and get people to ask the question: Are there any other lands that have not been claimed?

Marie Byrd Land seen from an airplane
Marie Byrd Land in Antarctica was named after explorer Richard E. Byrd's wife. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The largest unclaimed territory on Earth is in Antarctica. Marie Byrd Land, a 620,000-square-mile collection of glaciers and rock formations, lies in the western portion of the southernmost continent. Because of its remoteness, no nation has ever claimed it. With temperatures that never even get close to going above freezing, this is hardly the perfect location for launching a paradisiacal kingdom.

The U.S. might have made a claim to Byrd Land before the 1959 Antarctic Treaty; however, this claim was never made official. Today, Marie Byrd Land falls under the treaty, and because the document bans any new expansions or claims, actually taking any sort of legal control over this territory would be nearly impossible.

That leaves the oceans.

Because of satellite pictures and the exhaustive exploration of the world's waters, finding undiscovered islands that have not yet been claimed by any nation is very unlikely.

Necker Island
English business magnate Richard Branson owns Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. kansasphoto/flickr

That said, wealthy individuals have bought plenty of private islands. In all these cases, however, the island is part of a larger sovereign country, and the people who live there or visit are subject to the country's laws. Famed businesspeople like Richard Branson, who owns a small landmass in the British Virgin Islands, and Red Bull billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, who recently bought the Fijian isle of Laucala, are examples of this phenomenon.

Perhaps an island newly formed by volcanic activity would be the best chance for someone to invoke terra nullius and become a ruler of his or her own utopia. However, the amount of time, money and diplomatic skill required to establish an officially recognized nation are enough to make the idea of ruling a real kingdom nothing more than a fantasy for most people.