River dredging creates unwanted dispute with Nicaragua

The open secret that a Nicaraguan firm and Nicaraguan soldiers were trespassing in Costa Rica became public Tuesday. Costa Rican officials have known about the incursions since Oct. 8, when the son of a farmer complained to the Fuerza Pública. They have taken little action.

Arrow points to the mouth of the Río San Juan where the dredging dispute is playing out. Photo: A.M. Costa Rica-U.S. Central Intelligcence Agency graphic

Only Wednesday did security ministry employees fly over the site of the complaint, the extreme northeast corner of the country. The ministry declined to release photos and tapes taken during the trip.

José María Tijerino, the security minister, described the trespassing merely as a 12-inch tube carrying sediment dredged from the river onto Costa Rican soil. The local farmer’s complaint said that Nicaraguan soldiers entered his property, took and killed cattle and pigs and blocked further entry. The allegation is that Eden Pastora is supervising the work. He is a former guerrilla leader and is believed to be at the dredging site.

The activities were an open secret because the site is so remote that getting there is difficult. It is near the point where the Río San Juan empties into the Caribbean. Reporters have not been able to reach the area, and some have been warned against doing so.

The Río San Juan is the border between the two countries, but due to treaty agreements, the international line in most places is the south bank of the river. The river itself is Nicaraguan territory. That country prohibits Costa Rican policemen from traveling on the river while armed. That is why police have not been able to reach the site on a boat. The river is guarded by the Nicaraguan army.

Costa Rica has long been involved in international disputes with Nicaragua over the river. A recent World Court case validated the right of free transit for Costa Ricans and tourists who come from Costa Rica.

The unique aspects of the river are feeding fears in northern Costa Rica that what is happening at the river mouth is much more then a dredging operation. Some fear that Nicaragua is trying to change the course of the river to gain more territory, perhaps with a negative impact on the Río Colorado, which really is a southern mouth of the river system totally in Costa Rica. That area and the community of Barra de Colorado is known for its tarpon fishing.

The disputed land is owned by the Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Telecomunicaciones. The Reyes family maintains a concession from the government to farm the property,
which is several hundred hectares. The property is adjacent to Parque Nacional Tortugero and the Caribbean coast. The initial complaint came from this family.

Tijerino and acting foreign minster, Martha Núñez, held a press conference Thursday night at the foreign ministry. They said that the country had filed a formal protest with the Nicaraguan ambassador in Costa Rica.

The land where Nicaraguan troops are reported to be is an island on the south side of the river. At that point the river makes a sharp bend to the north. There is concern that the dredging is a cover for punching through the land there for direct access to the Caribbean. That would have a significant impact on the river flow and the flow of the nearby Río Colorado.

Tijerino did not explain why his security ministry helicopter did not land at that point to gain first-hand information on what was talking place. Clearly Costa Rican officials are trying to avoid a confrontation with Nicaraguan troops.

The country has been protesting Nicaragua’s plan for more than a year. Officials insist that Nicaragua has the right to make improvements on the river only if they do not affect Costa Rica.

Pastora told a Managua television show in August that the central government wanted to remove barriers to navigation at the mouth of the river. Dredging is planned at other points on the river, too.

He said that the job involved dredging the first 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) from the Caribbean upriver. He told the show that the river channel had vanished and that the river water was being diverted into the Rio Colorado.

The Río San Juan was once considered a competitor of Panamá as a transcontinental canal. The river has been navigable from the Caribbean some 180 kilometers (112 miles) to Lake Nicaragua. A small canal from the northwest side of the lake could easily reach the Pacific. There is a fort on the river at the aptly named El Castillo that was designed to protect the country from invading ships.

Costa Rica has sent several other notes to Managua expressing concern. There was no explanation why officials did not have representatives at the river mouth to keep watch over the dredging operations.

The Costa Rican land along the river has few roads and the main method for travel is on the river. Some have said that the country has not acted strongly so that passage rights of Costa Ricans would not be restricted as revenge.

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