Minister defends road near Nicaragua border

January 20, 2012

Costa Rican Environment Minister René Castro penned an opinion piece that ran in Wednesday’s La Nación defending President Laura Chinchilla’s construction of a road along the Río San Juan, which forms the northern border with Nicaragua.

Castro took charge of the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) for the second time in August 2011 after a stint as foreign minister. He previously helmed MINAET from 1994 to 1998. 

“For Costa Rica it is natural to join to the defense before the international courts a series of sovereign acts like the construction of the road adjacent to the Río San Juan and the assisted restoration of all of Isla Calero,” the minister wrote.

The Río San Juan and Isla Calero have been the scene of constant friction between Costa Rica and Nicaragua since Nicaragua began dredging the river in October 2010 while Castro was foreign minister. In January 2011, Nicaraguan troops entered Isla Calero, resulting in the withdrawal of the Costa Rican ambassador from Managua and a subsequent world court ruling in March 2011 that neither country could place armed personnel on the disputed island.

The Chinchilla administration has faced criticism for ordering the construction of the road, which it declared a national emergency and which was built without an environmental impact study. Before Castro’s article Wednesday, the administration had said the emergency declaration was necessary to provide road access to communities in northeastern Costa Rica previously only accessible by boat.

Allan Astorga, a geologist at the University of Costa Rica, said that since work on the road has already begun without an impact study, a plan is needed with “concrete actions that isn’t limited only to replanting the banks of the river. [The plan] needs to improve the drains, compact filling sediments and improve runoff slopes, among other aspects.”

Astorga suggests not only a plan to mitigate the effects of the road’s construction, but also a long-term land-use plan to guarantee that access along the new road doesn’t lead to new activities, such as expanded pineapple farming, in ecologically sensitive areas.

Environment Vice Minister Ana Lorena Guevara told The Tico Times that a preliminary mitigation plan created by a team of MINAET experts in different fields ranging from forestry and geology to waterways and biology has already been presented to Chinchilla.

“We want to began within a period no longer than 15 days,” Guevara said. 

Guevara said MINAET workers and volunteers would execute the plan, which “doesn’t only include planting trees.”

But an after-the-fact plan doesn’t fix the fact that the road was built without the proper studies in the first place, said Álvaro Sagot, an environmental lawyer and consultant.

“Certainly to control a country through emergency decrees or decrees of the public interest and national convenience is an immoral way to govern,” Sagot said.

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