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Costa Rica begins mitigation of Nicaragua’s canal work in disputed area

March 26, 2015

Personnel from Tortuguero Conservation Area began work Thursday to close off a canal dredged by Nicaragua through disputed territory in the delta of the San Juan River.

The mitigation work, in the coastal wetlands area known as Isla Portillos, or Isla Calero (Nicaragua calls it Harbour Head Lagoon), is the latest chapter in an ongoing border dispute between the two countries.

The San Juan River forms a natural border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica stretching west from the Caribbean coast.

The two neighbors have been trading accusations of territorial infringement and environmental crimes along the San Juan River for more than 100 years. More recently, the two countries began arguing a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague in 2010.

Costa Rica originally filed the complaint, alleging that the Nicaraguan Army invaded Isla Portillos, which is in Costa Rica, to build a canal from the San Juan River to Laguna los Portillos on the Caribbean coast.

Costa Rica also alleged that dredging work on the San Juan River would seriously affect the flow of water to Costa Rica’s Colorado River, and would damage protected wildlife and wetlands areas.

Isla Calero, Satellite pictures
Satellite pictures provided by Casa Presidencial in September 2013 showed the excavation by Nicaragua of two canals in a wetland inside Costa Rican territory in an attempt to connect the San Juan River and the Caribbean Sea. (Courtesy of Casa Presidencial)

In counterclaims, Nicaragua alleged that Costa Rica should be held responsible for “the impairment and possible destruction of navigation on the San Juan River” from Costa Rica’s construction of a road along the bank of the river.

In 2013, the ICJ combined the claims into one case. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled to start on April 14.

The international court had originally ordered both countries to “refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve.”

But after Nicaragua continued to dredge canals through the disputed area, the court ordered it to stop, in November 2013, and to keep all of its private citizens and government officials out of the area.

The court also ruled that Costa Rica could take measures to make sure the new canals dredged by Nicaragua didn’t do irreparable damage to the environment.

The Tico Times was unable to reach the director of the Tortuguero Conservation Area or a spokesman for the National System of Conservation Areas on Thursday for details about the work.

A directive from Tortuguero said personnel assigned to the mitigation project would be housed at Barra del Colorado, next to the Colorado River, until the work is done.

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