Frontier friction flares

Costa Rica’s highway project along the southern bank of the Río San Juan has alarmed Nicaraguan environmentalists and revived old border tensions

Centuries’ old border tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua are flaring again in time for the holidays.

This time, it’s over allegations that Costa Rica is attempting to destroy Nicaragua’s Río San Juan by building a highway paralleling the river, within nose-thumbing distance of Nicaragua.

“Costa Rica couldn’t take the river, so now they are trying to destroy it,” charged Nicaraguan guerrilla leader and amateur dredge-boat captain Edén “Comandante Cero” Pastora.

Nicaragua claims Costa Rica’s recent efforts to carve a 120-kilometer highway out of the rainforest on the southern bank of the San Juan River is destroying flora and fauna in the frontier wetlands, tearing up the southern bank of the river and bulldozing the fertile loam into the mighty San Juan.

A group of Nicaraguan environmentalists who visited the river this week to record the damage, filed an injunction yesterday before the Central American Court of Justice, in Managua.

“The damage is already done,” environmentalist Kamilo Lara, who’s spearheading the effort, told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “But we’re still insisting that the Costa Rican government halt further work on the project until there can be some bi-national dialogue and study of the environmental impact.”

Lara says the Costa Rican government, working with uncharacteristic haste, has brought 180 earth-moving tractors and bulldozers to the northern border to clear the roadway paralleling the river. He said the Ticos are working with three construction firms along eight spots on the banks of the river.

In some cases, Lara says, the road is being cut along the riverbank as close as 10 meters from the water—so ludicrously close to the river that any of the flooding predicted by recent climate-change studies will wash out the new highway before the first Tico motorist has a chance to kill himself trying to pass eight cars on a blind turn in the wrong lane.

Even in the best-case scenario, Lara says, the drainage for the highway will spill directly into the Nicaraguan river, increasing its sedimentation buildup and pollution levels.

“I am afraid the results of this are going to be devastating,” Lara said. “Costa Rica wants to build this road to bring tourists to the Río San Juan, but the only thing the tourists are going to see is all the environmental destruction that Costa Rica has caused in the region.”

Crossfire of protests

While Costa Rica blazes ahead with its highway project, the Tico government is simultaneously going on the offensive against Nicaragua for last year’s alleged incursion over the border by Pastora’s dredging mission.

Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a phone interview last month that his government has “irrefutable proof” that the Sandinista government violated Costa Rica’s sovereignty and environmental integrity by pushing its river-dredging efforts south of the frontier and cutting a destructive swath into Tico territory—a claim Nicaragua refutes.

Costa Rica finally presented its case before The International Court of Justice on Monday, in a document titled “Certain Nicaraguan Activities in the Border Region.”  

Nicaraguan authorities, meanwhile, sent a letter of protest to Costa Rica on Nov. 29, “demanding an immediate halt” to the Tico government’s highway project. The Sandinista government argues the highway violates Nicaragua’s sovereignty and its environmental integrity, in addition to international law and bi-national conventions.

“The government of Nicaragua reminds the government of Costa Rica that all projects of this type, due to their implicit characteristics, should have an environmental impact study, which, due to the (project’s) geographic location, should be shared with Nicaragua in accordance to International Law,” reads the missive sent from Manuel Coronel Kautz, Nicaragua’s acting foreign minister.

Nicaragua also notes that The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, better known as the Ramsar Convention, establishes that no government can make a unilateral decision affecting a protected wetland that straddles two nations.

In addition, Nicaragua is preemptively denouncing Costa Rica’s alleged plans to build a series of helicopter landing pads and a pedestrian bridge over Costa Rica’s Colorado River to a disputed holm that Nicaragua claims as Harbour Head and Costa Rica stakes as Isla Calero.

Costa Rica’s foreign ministry responded to the letter claiming its highway project has no affected on Nicaragua’s environment. The Tico government argues that Costa Rica was forced to build the road because of Nicaragua’s handing of the border issue, including the Sandinistas’ continued occupation of the disputed river-delta territory.

For the past year, rotating brigades of the Sandinista Youth have been camped out the disputed swamp island, ostensibly to reforest the area and busy themselves with other environmentally minded tasks. The Ticos accuse them of loitering on internationally disputed territory, which they claim is in “flagrant violation” of this year’s World Court ruling ordering both sides to withdraw their security presence from the area.

Nicaragua, however, insists it has the right to defend its territory. This week the Nicaraguan Army inaugurated the world’s first “environmental battalion” to defend Nicaragua’s natural resources.

“It’s a barbarity what (Costa Rica) has done against the environment there (on the border),” said Nicaraguan Army General Julio César Avilés. The general said the Nicaraguan military is coordinating with other state institutions to keep tabs on the Tico highway project. “This will undoubtedly affect our river,” he said.

Borderland role swap

This year’s version of the frontier flare-up is almost an exact role reversal of last year’s edition.

At the end of 2010, the Sandinista government embarked on a controversial effort to dredge the last 28 kilometers of the Lower San Juan to restore the river’s flow to its 1858 boundaries, when the two countries signed their border treaty. Costa Rica claimed that Nicaragua, in its excitement to dredge the river for the first time in more 150 years, forgot the border’s location and was destroying Tico mangrove.

The resulting spat led to a momentarily tense security-force standoff, followed by two prolonged and ultimately inconclusive diplomatic showdowns in the Organization of American States (OAS) and the World Court.

Taking advantage of the languor of the international justice, Edén Pastora’s river-dredging mission pushed the diesel engines to their limit and completed the project before the judges at The Hague could finish putting on their robes.

Costa Rica, which complained furiously at the time, now appears to be taking a page from the Sandinista playbook: Act first and act fast.

The Tico government says their highway will be completed later this month—just weeks after the project was first noticed by Nicaragua. That’s amazingly fast for Costa Rica, considering the last highway they built took them more than 30 years and still wasn’t done correctly.

Nicaragua’s Lara claims the Río San Juan highway project takes the cake for sloppy and ill-planned Tico public works. He says during his in situ visit he saw several places where the roadwork Costa Rica has rushed to complete in recent weeks has already collapsed.

President Laura Chinchilla, however, is high-fiving her cabinet for a job well done.

“For the first time in 190 years of our independence, Costa Ricans will be able to travel along the border in a way that is not exclusively along the Río San Juan. This is a legacy that we are going to leave Costa Rica and I feel deeply proud,” Chinchilla gushed.

Ironically, the road that makes Costa Rica so proud and Nicaragua so angry, is probably being built by Nicaraguans hired as cheap labor by Costa Rican construction firms.

A long history of un-neighborly behavior

The border tiff over the Río San Juan is primarily over who controls the river’s water flow.

Though the river belongs to Nicaragua, that becomes a rather academic argument in the delta region, where 90 percent of river’s water forks south into Costa Rica’s Río Colorado tributary to complete the last 28 kilometers of its journey to the sea.

The water’s uncooperative flow has been a source of unresolved tension for a long time.

“The main body of water formerly flowed down past Greytown and kept the harbor there open, but a few years ago, during a heavy flood, the river greatly enlarged and deepened the entrance to the Colorado Channel, and since then year by year, the Greytown harbor has been silting up,” writes British author Thomas Belt in his book The Naturalist in Nicaragua. “Now there is a twelve feet of water on the bar at the Colorado in the height of the dry season, whilst at Greytown the outlet of the river is sometimes closed altogether. The merchants of Greytown have entertained the project of dredging out the channel again, but now that the river has found a nearer way to sea by the Colorado, this would be a herculean task, and it would cost much less money to move the whole town to the Colorado, where by dredging the bar a fine harbour might easily be made, but unfortunately the Colorado is in Costa Rica, the Greytown branch in Nicaragua, and there are constant bickering between the two states respecting the outlet of this fine river, which makes any well-considered scheme for improvement of its impracticable at present.”

That was written in 1873.

Despite evolving sensitivities to punctuation (leave it to a 19th century British “naturalist” to write a 103-word sentence), not much has changed on the Río San Juan for the past 140 years.

  • Dennis McCormick

    If Costa Rica wants to build roads, why not fix the roads in and out of San Jose and leave the border pristine for ecotourism?

  • Costa rica lawyers

    I think lara says right.

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  • http://none Hipocrites ticos

    I remember when Wikileaks came out w/ some not very welcome fact in how our government/several us senators really feel about Costa Rica and their so called pro-enviroment/pro-rainforest/pro-river protection scams, ticos were pretty “offended” to say the least. These folks are dangerous, shallow. Costa Ricans are pretty well known in or around central american/south american countries to be nothing but a bunch of liars/hypocrites. Destroying this river will have bad consequences for their economy, their rivers, their people. I never thought I’d say this but Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, a communist bastard seems like a pretty honorable man when being compared to Laura Chinchilla’s admin.