San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Sandinista protesters block Isla Calero visit

ISLA CALERO – After months of observing Isla Calero from a distance or viewing overhead photographs circulated by government agencies, a delegation of members of the press, the Environment Ministry (MINAET) and the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar), visited the disputed piece of swampy land next to the Río San Juan this week.

They were met by dozens of Nicaraguan protesters in boats on the San Juan River. Some stood on the Isla Calero, taunting members of the delegation and the press, in direct violation of a provisional ruling last March by the International Court of Justice at The Hague, in the Netherlands, which ordered civilians, military and government officials from both sides to stay out of the disputed area until a final ruling is issued.

Environmental observers are allowed to inspect the area as long as they give prior notification to the government in Managua.

Harbour Head is Nica

A sign left on Isla Calero by Nicaraguan protesters reads “The Río San Juan and Harbour Head are proudly Nicaraguan.”

Alberto Font

During a second visit on Wednesday, observers again met a hostile group of Nicaraguan protesters who blocked their access to Isla Calero. The incident prompted Costa Rica’s foreign minister, René Castro, to issue a formal complaint the same day before the world court, the U.N. Security Council and with Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos López.

“We felt ashamed by [Nicaragua’s] attempt to keep the scientists from doing their  job by harassing them,” Castro said, referring to the Ramsar observers.”

The first protest against the inspection happened on Tuesday, when a helicopter carrying three Ramsar observers  landed on the

soggy islet. As observers stepped out of the aircraft, protesters greeted them with a megaphone and handmade signs claiming the protesters were Nicaraguan environmentalists protecting “Harbour Head,” as Nicaraguans refer to the area.

About 30 young protesters stood on one side of the long, narrow manmade canal on the islet that has become known as “Pastora Creek,” a reference to Edén Pastora, the revolutionary former Sandinista guerrilla known as Comandante Cero, who headed up the dredging project (TT, March 8, Feb. 11, Feb. 7, Feb. 4). Mud and sediment have begun to fill in the small canal, which Nicaraguan soldiers and workers began digging late last year (TT, Nov. 12, Nov. 5, 2010).

On Tuesday, protesters in three small boats chanted patriotic slogans like, “You can feel it! You can feel it! Nicaragua is here,” and, “The Río San Juan is 100 percent Nicaraguan.” Then they formed a line on the north bank of “Pastora creek,” which is about four meters in width, and began heckling Ramsar observers as they examined damage to the area caused by the dredging project.

Protesters hurled insults at Ramsar observers María Rivera, from Colombia, Manuel Antonio Contreras, from Chile, and Alfonso Rivera, from Canada. Some were simple comments, such as, “You are on Nicaraguan territory.” Other comments are unfit to print. One observer, Rivera, was so upset she cried. 

“We did not expect a reception like that,” Contreras said as he returned to Barra del Colorado, on the northern Caribbean coast where most of the delegation was stationed throughout the day. “They practically attacked us.”

In addition to Pastora’s canal, which stretches almost entirely across Isla Calero but can be leaped over in a single bound, members of the Nicaraguan army cut down an area of dense trees near Portillos Lagoon on the Caribbean coast and deposited sediment dredged from the Río San Juan on the south side of the river.

After a series of protests by the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry in 2010 about the alleged environmental damage caused on the islet and the Nicaraguan army’s refusal to leave the region, Costa Rica decided to take the case to the world court. That court began hearing evidence in January and filed a March order that permitted only members of MINAET and Ramsar to enter the disputed area.

 “This is the first time that officials from Ramsar, MINAET and [the Costa Rican Electricity Institute] will have the opportunity to assess the environmental damage that occurred on the Isla Calero,” said Costa Rican Environment Vice Minister Lorena Guevara. “The intention of the mission beginning today will be used to visit the area where the artificial creek was constructed, the area where trees were cut down, the banks of the Portillos Lagoon and the banks of the Río San Juan. We will also be inspecting the sediment buildup in the area.”

On Wednesday, Castro expressed his gratitude to the observers and members of the media for assisting to the inspection and assured that, besides all difficulties faced during the visit, Ramsar delegates collected enough evidence to prove environmental damage had occurred in the area.

Rommel Téllez contributed to this report.

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