San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A new era along the San Juan

ISLA CALERO, Limón – President Laura Chinchilla, accompanied by ministers, government functionaries and a gaggle of press, inaugurated on Friday a contentious road that runs along the Río San Juan, which forms the northern border with Nicaragua. 

Chinchilla and her administration drew criticism from both Costa Rican and Nicaraguan environmentalists for declaring construction of the road a national emergency last year, which allowed it to be built without environmental impact studies. But last week, officials were happy to show off the works, which include not only the road, but also the extension of electricity to more than 100 families in the region and the construction of three new schools.

“Today,” Chinchilla said on the steps of a newly built schoolhouse at the side of the new road, “the government is here precisely to inaugurate a series of works that has brought development to one of the regions most distant from the center of our country and one of the most forgotten.”

The government has maintained that the 160-kilometer road is necessary not only for the protection of Costa Rican citizens – since armed Sandinista soldiers occupied a muddy strip in the middle of Isla Calero in January 2011 – but also to bring electricity and development to a region that was all but forgotten for much of the 20th century.

The new road – dubbed Route 1856 Juan Rafael Mora Porras – is named after the three-time Costa Rican president whose army stopped William Walker’s North American invasion of Central America in 1856 by capturing the Río San Juan.

“How beautiful would it be if we reach an agreement and make all of this region a region of progress and prosperity, as much on the north side of the Río San Juan as on the south side,” Chinchilla said at a new school built just meters from the road’s starting point near Isla Calero.

The president’s words were a contrast to the tight security around the road’s “point zero,” which, in addition to the newly built school, also hosts a Costa Rican border police station. Coast Guard boats idled in the river during the president’s speech. Border police armed with submachine guns patrolled the shore just a few hundred meters from a Nicaraguan Army outpost huddled on the north side of the river. 

Down by the River

“All this,” said Miguel Ramírez, an engineer with the National Roadway Council (CONAVI), “started with the problems we had with the president of Nicaragua.”

Rio San Juan Road 2

Route 1856 Juan Rafael Mora Porras.

Clayton R. Norman

Ramírez waved his hand at the gray dirt route wending through the low-lying greenery near the Río San Juan, as he talked to reporters on a bus traveling the new road. On the water, boats waving Costa Rican and Nicaraguan flags chugged past each other in the river’s current.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua have engaged in mutual antagonism here since October 2010, when Costa Rica complained about Nicaragua dredging the river. Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of dumping silt on Isla Calero and causing environmental damage. After that, both countries sent armed personnel to the region and began campaigns to drum up international support (TT, March 11, 2011).  

In January 2011, Nicaraguan troops occupied areas of Isla Calero, which Costa Rica dubbed an “armed invasion.” In March, the International Court of Justice ordered both countries to remove armed personnel from the disputed regions.

Before all this excitement, though, the northeast region of Costa Rica’s territory near the border and along the Caribbean coast had seen little development. 

“For the inhabitants of this region,” said Public Security Minister Mario Zamora, “this road is a bridge that facilitates their connection to the country. We have to remember that before, it took them eight or 10 hours walking on footpaths to have contact with the wider Costa Rican society.”

Zamora added that the road also allows Costa Rican security forces to augment their presence in the region, which the minister indicated is used as a route for drugs and arms smuggling.

Walter Navarro, public security vice minister, said the Costa Rican Río San Juan Delta has “never been abandoned by the National Police,” but that the new road helps security forces control the area. Navarro would not say exactly how many border police agents and other law enforcement entities are stationed in the area, but he did say that staffing is “sufficient.”

The government has funneled more than ₡1.4 billion ($2.7 million) in vehicles, rifles, bulletproof vests and other equipment to agents of security forces stationed along the road.

Ramírez said the road cost approximately ₡6 billion ($11.8 million) to build and employed 650 workers from the region. The efforts not only connected residents of the area to the rest of the country, but brought basic services as well, including electricity and new schools to replace dilapidated old buildings. 

Chinchilla said the road would benefit some 2,500 families in the area (TT, Dec. 14, 2011).

“Before this, there were only paths for all-terrain vehicles or horses,” Ramírez added.

Green as the Río San Juan

“Here goes the road,” Ramírez said, as the bus he rode in with reporters rumbled down Route 1856, past banana farms and clapboard houses built on low stilts. “The river’s over there 50 meters. Where’s the damage?”

Indeed, it was hard to see from the bus obvious signs of environmental degradation. When asked about residues or runoff from the project, Ramírez shrugged off concerns. Most of the area sits in a flood plain, he said, and of course there will be some necessary upkeep on the road. But the CONAVI engineer said the construction has had negligible environmental consequences.

Costa Rican Environment Minister René Castro supported the decision to build the road without environmental impact studies. In an opinion piece Castro penned for the daily La Nación in January, the minister argued that benefits to inhabitants of the border area and to security outweighed possible environmental damage to the area (TT, Jan. 20).

“ICE [the Costa Rican Electricity Institute] has brought electricity to 99.3 percent of Costa Rican territory,” Castro said. “And the 0.7 percent left is in regions like this.”

At a new school in the village of Fátima, Castro promised to send Environment Ministry (MINAET) experts to the region to mitigate the road’s impacts on the environment. The minister lauded the work of teams of volunteers and MINAET employees who spent their days working on mitigation actions. MINAET will invite other groups of volunteers to spend weekends helping in tree-planting efforts, Castro said. He also said MINAET plans to plant some 200,000 native trees along the length of the border road.

At Fátima, Chinchilla strutted her green stuff, planting one of Castro’s trees with a local student who will attend the new school.

Also at the Fátima school, Vice President Luis Liberman, apparently demonstrating his commitment to sustainable forms of tourism, announced he would lead a bicycle tour of the area to help Costa Ricans get to know the natural beauty of the region.

A New Canal?

This week, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega revived old plans to build an inter-oceanic canal using the river. The online daily reported Ortega’s announcement Wednesday, but the plan for a canal connecting the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean via rivers, canals and Lake Nicaragua has been around since the beginning of the century. In recent years Ortega has dusted off the idea and funneled a substantial amount of cash into developing tourism infrastructure in areas along the Río San Juan (TT, Nov. 19, 2010).

Ortega plans to seek funding for the mega-project from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (Alba), which includes Venezuela and Cuba, and is assigning Nicaraguan Foreign Vice Minister Manuel Coronel Kautz the task of overseeing planning of the project, reported.

Costa Rican Foreign Vice Minister Carlos Roverssi expressed doubts about Ortega’s plans to finance a project of such magnitude.

“We’ve discussed, at least with China, the possibility of them financing this project,” Roverssi said. “And China has told us they have no interest in financing this type of project. We don’t know where Don Daniel [Ortega] is proposing to procure these funds. … This is a huge project, very costly [and it] requires a lot of capital.”

Luis Guillermo Solís, professor of political science at the University of Costa Rica, said because the Río San Juan belongs to Nicaragua – Costa Rica retains navigation rights – it has the right to build a canal, with a few caveats. Namely, the canal cannot violate Costa Rica’s right to use the river freely and without restrictions (see Perspective, Page 11).

Solís added that international law also dictates that Nicaragua consult and advise Costa Rica in a timely manner about any potential works on the river – a point Roverssi hit on.

“If they do it,” the vice minister said, “our rights to navigate the Río San Juan will be affected and there will be an environmental impact on our country for which they will have to have our permission.”

The Nicaragua Dispatch also reported this week that the Nicaraguan government would examine land titles along the northern side of the river. The Dispatch indicated that Nicaraguan Environmental Prosecutor José Luis García accused Ticos of buying up tracts of land on the river under Nicaraguan names for use in illicit activities (TT, Feb. 19).

Still, the new road, despite criticism from environmentalists, is a fairly popular idea in Costa Rica, and the president played up its development.

“It is only natural that the president or any politician is going to use nationalism as a way of galvanizing the country’s opinion at a time of turmoil,” Solís said. “[Chinchilla] was enduring a bit of that at the time [of the inauguration], and I think she did what one generally would have expected she would have done.”

Chinchilla also made overtures to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, saying: “I hope we can truly stop fighting among ourselves and take advantage of these circumstances to commit ourselves and our countries to progress [and] development.”

Solís, who has studied cross-border relations for more than a decade, said there is much more at stake in the Río San Juan region than a few muddy silt islands and bruised national pride.

“In the long-term,” he said, “I hope that both Costa Rica and Nicaragua will understand that the San Juan River basin includes more than a border. It includes one-third of each country’s national territories and more than 10 percent of each country’s population.”

Building cooperation across the river border is the only way, Solís said, to ensure long-term prosperity in the region and to get a handle on issues like illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

“For me, these discussions reflect something that shouldn’t be happening in the 21st century,” said Solís. “It doesn’t make any sense to me that poor countries like Costa Rica and Nicaragua cannot imagine innovative ways to use their trans-border resources for the benefit of both countries. … Otherwise, what we’re going to have is a conflict that will go on forever without the people who are neighbors there, in the region, at the river and beyond the river, having the opportunity to use the resources of the river for their own benefit.”

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