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Costa Rica, Nicaragua border dispute could involve control over oil reserves

March 20, 2011

The territorial dispute that has Costa Rica and Nicaragua facing off in the International Court of Justice could have implications for control over potential petroleum and natural gas reserves in the Caribbean, according to the daily La Nación.

The area believed to contain oil and gas reserves is known as Block 11, and was discovered in the 1980s by Costa Rica’s National Oil Refinery (RECOPE). The block covers 523 square kilometers underneath the Caribbean Sea.

The dispute before the world court centers on an area known as La Isla Portillos, a coastal stretch of marshland both countries claim as their own.

According to geology experts interviewed by La Nación, a ruling on possession of La Isla Portillos could also lead to a ruling on maritime border limits, because the two countries have not reached an agreement for a maritime border treaty. That, in turn, could define who controls Block 11.

Arnoldo Brenes, legal advisor for Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry, said that the maritime border should be drawn from Punta Castilla, which both countries have recognized as the territorial border.

According to La Nación’s investigation, in 2002, Nicaragua published a map of petroleum blocks that demarcated border markings, which Costa Rica later disputed. Those markings would include Block 11, which is located some 26.2 kilometers from the coast.

On March 24, 2010, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos sent a note to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressing his disappointment over a border definition made by Costa Rica.

Relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua have soured since last October, when officials in San José denounced counterparts in Managua for usurping land on La Isla Portillos by undertaking a dredging operation on the Río San Juan, a border river.

Costa Rica filed a case against Nicaragua before the world court for alleged environmental damages on Costa Rican territory, and for an alleged military and civilian “invasion.” Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of building a canal to connect the San Juan River with a lagoon at Los Portillos. Both bodies of water belong to Nicaragua.

Officials in Managua have said that all the work in the area has been done on Nicaraguan land, and that military officials in the area were on operations to combat drug trafficking.

On March 8, the court issued a provisional ruling that ordered, among other things, both countries to keep military and police authorities, as well as civilians, out of the disputed area.

A final ruling could take three to four years.

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