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Environ damage continues; court ruling pending

December 3, 2010

New photos from Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry illustrate that Nicaraguan soldiers have nearly completed a canal that could threaten protected wetlands near the San Juan River, along the disputed border between the two countries.

Nicaraguan soldiers have been clearing trees to carve a swath for the canal since at least Nov. 17, and the artificial waterway appears to already be draining water from the Río San Juan into the nearby Portillo lagoon (TT, Nov. 26, Nov. 19, Nov. 12, Oct. 29, Oct. 22).

Costa Rican geologists warn that siphoning water from the river – which collects salt water because of its connection with the Caribbean Sea -– could threaten local wildlife habitats by draining excessive salt water into the lagoon. Local fish species have adapted to low salinity levels in the lagoon, but more salt could kill them.

The waterway could also cause excessive sedimentation in the Portillo Lagoon, which could kill fish and ruin a drinking water source for birds.

Allan Astorga, a geologist who has been conducting environmental impact studies of the area, told The Tico Times that the canal is still relatively narrow and that the impacts are still small.

But the photos, Astorga said, still paint a worrying picture. 

“It’s an indication that the damage is increasing,” he said. “If [crews] make it bigger, the impact will be greater and greater.”

According to Costa Rican law, the felling of trees without permits and impact studies is illegal. Costa Rican officials have not received sufficient studies detailing the impact of the manmade channel.

Also, officials with Costa Rica’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), which manages nationally protected land, estimate that many of the trees that have been removed are approximately 250 years old, which qualifies the area as a mature forest under Costa Rican law. Damage is therefore legally considered irreversible, which is an environmental crime subject to stiff fines, including the cost of repair, according to Costa Rican law.

A Foreign Ministry press official told The Tico Times that Costa Rica does not yet plan to reforest the area, and is relying on court proceedings already in progress to resolve the issue.

Costa Rica filed a complaint on Nov. 18 before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands, alleging that Nicaraguan soldiers had committed an environmental crime on Costa Rican soil.

Costa Rican officials also said the presence of Nicaraguan soldiers in the area has made access to the wetland potentially dangerous for anyone who wants to enter and study the area.

“I think the main conclusion we can draw right now is that this environmental damage is expanding and it will continue to expand,” Astorga said.

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