Greytown Journal: Camp Harbour Head holds the line

GREYTOWN, Nicaragua—Deep in the jungle on a marshy riverbank that’s contentiously close to the Costa Rican border, the Nicaraguan government has created a Sandinista sleepaway camp for teens interested in environmentalism and national defense.

For a week at a time, 35 teenagers from the far reaches of the country trek by bus and boat to the delta of the Río San Juan, where they bunk in ramshackle cabins perched on wooden stilts on a muddy floodplain overlooking Nicaragua’s neighbor to the south. The “campers”—members of a Sandinista Youth environmental brigade called “Guardabarranco” —spend a full week at the camp, working on environmental projects such as reforestation and river-dredging.

They’re also taught about homeland defense and border protection.

“This is about creating ecological awareness, building nationalism and defense of the homeland,” says head councilor Oscar Garcia, a forestry engineer with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA). 

Camp Harbour Head (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Welcome to “Camp Harbour Head,” the Nicaraguan government’s self-styled ecological and national defense camp for Sandinista teens. The camp is free for all, thanks to subsidies provided by cash-strapped municipal budgets.

This makeshift camp has been operating 24/7 since April 2011, three weeks after the Inter-American Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Nicaragua and Costa Rica to withdraw their security personnel from the disputed border zone. More than 70 “environmental brigades” have passed through here on week-long shifts. The campers first spend a week of training in Managua, and then come to Harbour Head for eight days of fieldwork.

In many ways, Camp Harbour Head is not much different than any other overnight camp: the kids commune with nature, there’s a posted schedule of rotating chores (including the inevitable kitchen and cleaning duties), the mosquitoes are awful, and the dumpy cabin arrangements could only be considered bearable if you’re a giggly teenager who has never been away from home.

The values that the camp tries to inculcate are also not much different. The kids learn to take care of the environment, socialize with their fellow campers, and respect their country. 

Welcome to Harbour Head (photo/ Tim Rogers)

The main difference between this camp and most other sleepover camps is that Camp Harbour Head is located inside an internationally disputed border zone that is being litigated before The ICJ at The Hague. Costa Rica claims the presence of the Sandinista camp is in violation of its sovereignty and the terms of the ICJ’s provisional ruling in March 2011, which says “Each Party must refrain from sending to, or maintaining in the disputed territory, including the caño (canal), any personnel, whether civilian, police or security, until such time as the Court has decided the dispute on the merits or the Parties have come to an agreement on this subject.”

Tico officials claim the Sandinista Youth are being used by the Nicaraguan government as paramilitary yobs who are invading and occupying Costa Rican territory—a 2.5 kilometer area they call Isla Portillo.

The Costa Rican government is confident The Hague will rule in their favor by next year—a verdict that would bring a quick end to Camp Harbour Head.

“We’ve seen Nicaragua’s document and it’s really very weak; there are not sufficient elements (in their arguments) to prove that Isla Portillos belongs to them,” Costa Rica’s deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Roverssi told local press in San José this week. “So we are very hopeful, very positive, and we hope this (ICJ hearing) process is resolved in Costa Rica’s favor as soon as possible.”

Nicaragua, however, says that’s not going to happen. And the Sandinista Youth at Camp Harbour Head have become the front line of national defense, according to head councilor Garcia.

In any event, the border row certainly adds an element of adventure and international intrigue to the overnight camp experience.

Environmentalism as National Defense

To protect the island, the campers are working constantly to keep the channels (caños, as they are known in Spanish) free of debris and sedimentation. As long as the river continues to flow around the island, the waters of the Río San Juan separate it from Costa Rica and protect Nicaragua’s claim to the land, Garcia said. But if the channels silt up, Harbour Head ceases to be an island and starts looking like a peninsular extension of Costa Rica’s Isla Calero, just south of the Río San Juan. 

Edén Pastora’s river dredge (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Former Nicaraguan guerrilla leader and self-styled river-dredge captain Edén Pastora, who is reportedly earning a six-digit salary from the Sandinista government, famously dredged the disputed channels at the end of 2010. Costa Rica protested the move, saying Pastora was carving a new canal into Costa Rican territory to push the river south and usurp Tico territory.

Costa Rica likened Pastora’s river-dredging efforts to a military invasion. Since then, the channels that Pastora cleared have again filled with sedimentation. That’s where the campers at Camp Harbour Head come in.

“The Río San Juan feeds those channels, but because of the sedimentation that has fallen in the river, they have closed up again,” Garcia explained. “These are natural channels, but they have been filled with 50 years of silt and been totally closed. So our job is to clean them and allow the water to rediscover its natural course.”

Oscar Garcia (photo/ Tim Rogers)

In addition to the normal sedimentation carried down river, the recently constructed Costa Rican river highway has had “a tremendous effect on the river,” the MARENA official said.

“We are going to have to be cleaning this constantly. Once the river is fully dredged, it will flow strong enough to keep the channels naturally clean, but right now we need the efforts of the youths,” the councilor said.

The Sandinista Youth at Camp Harbour Head support the program fully. They view their efforts to reforest the island and clean the river channels as vital to defending Nicaragua’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“We are doing our part to purify the air by reforesting to keep Nicaragua green,” says Josefer Santamaria, a sturdy-looking 24-year-old teenager from Chontales, whose age and size made him the natural leader of the group. “My message to Costa Rica is, ‘Stop deforesting the area and allow us to recover the nature through reforestation.”

A gringo on Harbour Head

The ongoing border conflict and ICJ ruling hasn’t done much to help Harbour Head flourish into a tourism destination.

Other than the 35 Sandinista campers, there is no one there. In fact, after visiting the island, a friendly Nicaraguan solider came looking for me in the hotel to copy down my personal information and inform me that the area off limits to nosey foreigners like me. Which is exactly why I wanted to check it out. 

The campers line up (photo / Tim Rogers)

As we approached Harbour Head Island in our panga, it was anyone’s guess how our unannounced visit would be received. The Sandinista Youth gathered on the banks of the river as our boat bumped up against the muddy bank and I jump off onto the island to greet them cheerfully. They were clearly not used to getting many callers in these parts.

Camp councilor Garcia was affable and welcoming, and immediately put the leery campers at ease.

Garcia was the only adult present on the island during our visit, but he said two other government functionaries were en route from Managua and would be arriving shortly to give him a hand with the supervision. Sitting on a log on the edge of the river, Garcia patiently explained how the camp worked. He told me about the nursery they had build just south of the camp to reforest the island, which he says was once rich in precious hardwoods that were felled for timber and cattle. To me the island seemed mostly like a silty sandbar, but Garcia says that further inland the island once supported mighty trees. In any event, reforestation seems like a worthy endeavor.

On the day of our visit, the reforestation work had been put on hold on account of the rains, which had saturated the floodplain and made planting impossible. So it was a free day for the teenagers, who made the most of their recreation time by jumping in the river, playing checkers and flirting with one another.

The guys goofed around and showed off for the girls by shouting and doing flips into the river off a sign post at the end of the dock. The girls pretended not to notice, but seemed secretly thrilled that the showboating was for their benefit. 

Grim living conditions (photo/ Tim Rogers)

The girls’ cabin—a woebegone, multicolored wood-plank structure adorned with a Che silhouette and graffiti from the thousands of youths who have already passed through Camp Harbour Head—could best be described as “crack den chic.” It looked like the kind of place found in neighborhoods police don’t go into.

But the girls staying there seemed positively content with their housing arrangement as they hung wet clothes higgledy-piggledy on porch banisters to take advantage of the afternoon sun after a morning of rain.

Next door to the girls’ shanty, a group of older teenage boys quietly played checkers outside the small building that served as the kitchen, storage room and Garcia’s sleeping quarters. On the other side of the kitchen, a larger structure served as the boys’ sleeping quarters, which was equally spartan but breezier than the girls’ pad. 

goofing around (photo/ Tim Rogers)

A fourth building, a rickety hovel that looked like it was ready blow down and fall into the river, appeared thankfully to be unoccupied. Perhaps it was built just to make the other structures look charming in comparison, or maybe it had been condemned by Harbour Head housing officials. I didn’t ask.

Despite the concerns of Costa Rica authorities, I found no indication that the kids staying on the island were anything other than normal teenagers who were excited to be away from home and appreciative of an overnight camp experience to socialize with like-minded youth, learn about the environment and see a different part of their country.

 “We get to get away from home for a week and develop a family relation with people we have never met before,” says Satamaria.

While the government’s true intentions for the Sandinista Youth camp might not be as innocent or “green” as advertised, Camp Harbour Head—it would appear— has evolved organically into a positive experience for underprivileged teens. One can only hope that politics won’t ruin it for them.

Read part I of the series here. 

  • Ken

    Unfortunately, I find this repulsive. There’s no getting around the fact that Nicaragua is violating The Hague’s preliminary ruling by operating these camps, or that it is using kids and the rhetoric of environmentalism to take this aggressive action. This is dirty politics. Look, I sympathize with Nicaragua’s position on this border dispute, but this illegal occupation of contested land is wrong, wrong, wrong.

  • betyerbottomdollar

    “working on environmental projects such as reforestation and river-dredging”

    jajajajaja!!! Since when is planting tree farms and dredging rivers considered environmental projects?

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