WHILE the San Juan River has so far served to divide Costa Rica and Nicaragua geographically and politically, it should instead serve as a reminder of why the neighboring countries must work together to improve conditions for their citizens, a group of academics concluded Monday during a conference at Universidad Nacional (UNA) to discuss the river.The discussion came in the face of increased tensions between the two countries regarding Costa Rica’s rights to navigate the river. Costa Rica’s decision in September to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, in the Netherlands, has been met with threats from Nicaragua to increase tariffs on Costa Rican imports, raise visa fees, and call into question Costa Rica’s right to the northwestern province of Guanacaste (TT, Nov. 11).But while leaders of the two countries volley allegations back and forth, they are getting important diplomatic ties caught in the net and risk the “San Juanization” of a relationship that stretches far beyond the river between them, political scientist Luis Guillermo Solís warned during the conference, held at Universidad Nacional (UNA).WITH strong migratory flows and economic ties, the countries cannot separate their realities any more than they can separate themselves physically, Solís said, “so it is fundamental to work in ways that allow a positive coexistence” based on a binational agenda, rather than letting the river dispute define the relationship. Although the dispute puts in jeopardy the well-being of people throughout both countries, it is those living in the neglected, even perilous river basin at the heart of the dispute who will suffer the most, added anthropologist Carlos Borge.“The river is no one’s… it is the drug traffickers’, the coyotes’, the banditos’. Neither Nicaragua nor Costa Rica has done anything to stop a dangerous situation,” Borge said.THE river belongs to Nicaragua. Costa Rica only has navigation rights – how far those navigation rights go, and if they include police boats, is at the heart of the current legal dispute. Regardless, Nicaraguans remain convinced that Costa Rica has its eyes on a takeover, despite weekly, monthly and yearly affirmations from Costa Rican leaders saying otherwise, explained Solís. Equally, Costa Ricans fail to understand the fundamental role the river plays in Nicaragua’s national identity, he said.Sounding at times like counselors in a familial dispute, the group of academics, which also included two historians and an international law expert, explained how collective perceptions of the river have led to conflicting interpretations of the same treaties.For Nicaraguans, the river is synonymous with national hope, progress, and the well-being of all. It includes the dream of a canal that was never realized, explained historian Patricia Alvarenga, a professor at UNA.The river has been part of a Nicaraguan transportation route to the Caribbean since at least the 16th century, she said. BUT in Costa Rica, the river has been largely forgotten, minus a few moments in history, added José Antonio Fernández, director of UNA’s School of History.Because of limited Spanish colonization, people in the Central Valley didn’t even know the river as part of their geography, Fernández said. The river didn’t become commercially important here until 1820, when it beganbeing used as an export route to the Caribbean for gold and, later, coffee.Just over a decade after the 1858 Cañas-Jeréz treaty was signed, which defined Nicaragua’s ownership and Costa Rica’s navigation rights, the river stopped being essential for Costa Rica when a direct rail route was built to the country’s Caribbean, Solís explained.“Strategically, the river doesn’t have the importance that it is assigned,” he said.“We can live without the river.”Despite this reality, Nicaraguan concerns that Costa Rica plans to take over the river are escalated because the country has “lost” more land than Costa Rica in border disputes with its three neighbors and Colombia, which claims islands off Nicaragua’s coast, Solís said.DESPITE Nicaragua’s historical and cultural ties to the river, the few people who actually live in the region remain largely forgotten by the governments of both countries.Potable water coverage is only 51% on the Costa Rican side, and half that on the Nicaraguan side; electricity coverage on Costa Rican is 70%, and less in Nicaragua; illiteracy and poverty rates are much higher than average.Most people in the area work in informal labor, “things that are illegal in both countries…trafficking of wildlife, illegal wood… illegal ranching,” Borge said. The limited police presence does little to stop the trafficking.“If this conflict intensifies, it is not the governments who will be punished, but rather the people who live on the border, and the immigrants… The damage will be to the people who most need to be helped,” Solís said.THE latest San Juan dispute started in 2001, but the conflicts between the two countries are ongoing.“Costa Rica has three seasons: rainy, dry, and conflict with Nicaragua,” Fernández said.An imprecise delineation of the land border between the countries promises to bring more future disputes, Solís added – another reason to create a binational agenda that goes beyond resolving the San Juan dispute.“There should be permanent dialogue… for cooperation in the long term, not just in moments of crisis,” Solís said.Such an agenda can be pushed with the help of the Costa Rica-Nicaragua Binational Commission, which was launched in 1991 and promotes collaboration among executive, legislative and municipal government officials.THIS agenda should include immigration issues, Nicaragua’s debt, other border issues, tourism and industrial development, security and environmental concerns, Solís said.“Division is out of style,” Fernández agreed. “All around the globe, nations talk of integration. A border doesn’t have to be what stops people; instead, it can be what brings people together.”Borge sees the border region as the perfect opportunity for the two countries to begin cooperation.With wet tropical forest and beautiful scenery, the region possesses great potential, particularly for tourism, payments for environmental services and fishing, he said. Both countries have rights to access these markets, but neither can go at it alone, he said.“Either we agree to open the market together, or we won’t see any business for either one,” he said.