Putting concerns for Mother Nature before the politics of motherland, a group of Costa Rican activists is challenging their government’s hasty efforts to build a border highway paralleling Nicaragua’s Rio San Juan.
The Tico environmentalists filed an injunction before Costa Rica’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) last Friday. They argue that Costa Rica’s highway project, which is being built as an emergency defense measure to protect the border against an alleged incursion by Nicaraguan troops, would create an environmental emergency by felling trees, damaging protected lands, contaminating the river and making the remote area more accessible to poachers and lumber-traffickers.
Nicaraguan environmentalists agree. In a rare show of grassroots unity between the two countries, environmentalists and activists from both sides of the border will meet Monday afternoon in the Nicaraguan river community of San Carlos to call on their governments to work together to protect the shared environment.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, however, is digging in her heels on the issue that may well define—if not undo—her presidency.
In response to complaints from Costa Rican conservationists, Chinchilla has started to beat the drums of nationalism even louder .
“I ask myself, Why didn’t these organizations raise their voices against the true ecocide that (Nicaragua) committed on Calero? Why didn’t they defend the right of Costa Ricans to navigate the San Juan River each time that has been denied?” Chinchilla wrote in a Facebook excoriation of the uppity Tico environmentalists.
Chinchilla argues that trying to stop the highway project is unpatriotic, an offense analogous to “Denying progress to those who live along the border and renouncing our sovereignty, preciously where we are being threatened.”
The Costa Rican president said her government will continue to “defend our right to develop and live in peace.” And, in her mind, bulldozing ahead on border highway is central to that mission.
Ticos bulldoze green image
Costa Rica’s reckless construction of its 160-kilometer border highway runs precariously and foolishly close to the southern bank of the Río San Juan, cutting through protected wetlands and across floodplains in open defiance of climate change.
The road is Costa Rica’s answer to a year-old border flare over a disputed holm claimed by both countries. Costa Rica claims the disputed swampland as part of “Isla Calero,” while Nicaragua claims it as part of “Harbour Head.” For much of the past year, the land has been occupied by uniformed votaries of the Sandinista Youth, who take turns camping on river island with the determination of homesteaders.
Nicaragua says Costa Rica’s road-building efforts, in addition to violating a sizeable stack of international treaties, conventions and environmental accords, is also undeniable proof that the Tico’s green reputation is outdated and ill-fitting.
“Costa Rica is not the green country that it projects itself to be. On the contrary, this type of action reveals that they do not respect ecology in their country or anywhere else in Central America,” Jaime Incer, environmental advisor to President Daniel Ortega, told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, claims Nicaragua’s actions and attitude is part of a “defamatory campaign” against the land of pura vida. On Dec. 14, Costa Rica’s foreign ministry sent a diplomatic note of protest to the Secretary General of the United Nations, claiming Nicaragua’s “hostilities” and border aggression has obligated the Tico government to build its river-shore highway as an emergency defense measure to sure up its frontier.
Costa Rica claims it is being invaded by 500 Nicaraguan troops—a claim Nicaragua denies.
“Since the month of October 2010, Costa Rica is victim of actions by the Nicaraguan government to rupture (our) territorial integrity. Nicaragua has used its Armed Forces to occupy the northern part of Isla Portillos, and later tried to justify its so-called sovereignty over the territory.”
The letter also accuses the Sandinista Youth of receiving government support to occupy the disputed land in “open violation” of last year’s ruling by The Hague.
“Due to the continued acts of hostility by the Nicaraguan Government, Costa Rica declared a national emergency with the objective of carrying out actions in defense of our territorial integrity,” reads the letter sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
It’s under the framework of this emergency decree, Costa Rica says, that it is building its new highway, not as a scenic tourist drive, rather as a way to mobilize border patrols along the northern frontier to protect Costa Rica’s borders from Nicaragua.
“The objective is to allow the Republic of Costa Rica the full exercise of its sovereignty in the frontier zone to protect its territorial integrity and repel any hostile actions against the nation,” reads Costa Rica’s letter to the UN.
Costa Rica admits the highway is being built without any environmental impact studies, but says its construction is justified under the emergency decree and due to Nicaragua’s “repeated violations of international order.”
Nicaragua, meanwhile, is taking its case back to the World Court and Central American Court of Justice for yet another costly and lengthy round of international litigation.
“No pretext of emergency can be used to put the country above its obligations to international accords,” Incer says. “I can declare anything I want in my country, but if I have ratified international accords and treaties on a bilateral or regional level, that invalidates any pretext I can come up with. This is a clear violation of international law.”
Incer and other members of Nicaragua’s esteemed Academy of Geography and History claim that the Tico highway is not only an affront to Nicaragua, but an assault on Central America’s natural patrimony. The fragile tropical wetlands and forest through which part of the highway will pass forms the heart of Central America’s biological corridor, Incer notes.
“This is part of the famous Central American biological corridor that unites the tropical forests, wetlands and rainforests that still exist in Central America, and it’s one of the most important and vulnerable areas due to the river,” Incer said. “Ecosystems don’t have borders and even though the San Juan River’s watershed has tributary rivers in Costa Rica, the whole watershed needs to be managed as an integral biological body that can’t be altered, especially in an area that is so vulnerable and fragile, with so much rainfall, like the Río San Juan watershed.”
Though much of the damage has already been done—Costa Rica claims the highway will be completed this month—Incer said Nicaragua could be looking at a multi-million international lawsuit to mitigate damages done to the river.
“The river will have to be dredged when this is over. And that’s a very expensive process,” he said.