Monday, 8 November 2010

Nicaragua and Costa Rica in border row over Google maps

The 'Bing' map with the 'Google' map inset

Google maps has been in the news again, this time at the centre of a dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The events have played out curiously over the last week, receiving huge media attention, and it is not yet clear how it will be resolved.

The dispute centres around the San Juan River, which starts in Lake Nicaragua, and becomes the natural border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica for much of its 120 mile course to the sea. For more than a century, the countries have sparred over navigation and fishing rights on the river, although the issues were largely settled by an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 2009.

The ICJ decision regarded that Costa Rica has navigational rights on the river, but that Nicaragua maintains the power of regulation. In essence, they ruled that in the regions under dispute, the border lay, not in the middle of the river, but on the Costa Rican bank. The river itself is in Nicaraguan territory.

The problem with boundaries based on natural features like rivers is that they can change, sometimes naturally and sometimes due to human intervention. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega started a dredging project in the river in October this year, and it is this that caused the dispute to flare up.
The dredging project aimed to remove the river sediment that makes it hard to navigate the water; it was also however, hoped that deepening the river would redirect the water back up to Nicaragua, after heavy sedimentation had driven the flow into Costa Rican territory for the last 20 mile stretch toward the Caribbean.

The Costa Ricans, unsurprisingly, were not happy about the plan, especially when Security Minister Jose Maria Tijerino revealed photos showing that the river sediment was being dumped on Costa Rican territory. Ortega had communicated his plans to San Jose, of course, but the Costa Ricans accused the Nicaraguans over breaking promises.

We had a guarantee,” Costa Rican Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Roverssi, told reporters Tuesday 26th October. “They were going to conduct only a small dredging that wouldn't affect Costa Rican territory. But what happened is a violation of our national sovereignty … that changes the circumstances.

Farmers on the Costa Rican side have also alleged that a group of armed men have invaded their land, harassed workers and killed livestock.

It is this land invasion that has gotten Google in trouble; it is also the point in which most media coverage starts, ignoring the crucial background to the story. The leader of the dredging project is Sandista revolutionary hero Eden 'Comandante Cero' Pastora, a close ally of the Nicaraguan president. Upon being accused of crossing the border, setting up camp on a disputed island and replacing a Costa Rican flag with a Nicaraguan one, he blamed Google Maps, saying he was in territory that internet giant had said was Nicaraguan. Many commentators have pointed out that it would be worrying if any government was that reliant on Google Maps, and have suggested that the Nicaraguans are using the map to justify a land grab.

Costa Rica put up a fuss, Google admitted the map was incorrect and blamed the US State Department for providing it with information that put the border 1.7 miles away from where it should be. On Friday 5th November Google geopolicy analyst Charlie Hale said in a Google blogpost that the State Department had provided a corrected version and "we are now working to update our maps."

The problem could have been solved there, except that the Nicaraguan government spoke up, saying the current Google map was actually correct. A further issue has possibly arisen too, with unconfirmed sources saying that Pastora has denied the Google connection. Apparently, he says that he was on Nicaraguan territory as prescribed by the Canas-Jerez Treaty of 1858.

The dispute has become so serious that the Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) Jose Miguel Insuza has flown to the region to help solve the conflict. He is expected to report on his progress on 9th November. On Saturday 6th November, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said she was prepared to take the dispute to the UN Security Council if the OAS could not find a solution.

"Costa Rica is seeing its dignity smeared and there is a sense of great national urgency [to resolve this problem]," Chinchilla said after meeting Insulza.

There is no easy answer to this dispute. The 2009 ICJ decision relied heavily on the 1858 treaty, but there was great difficulty in determining the exact meaning of the treaty. It is interesting that both sides have claimed that the treaty will prove their view of the border region to be correct. Hale, for example, said Google was going to use the First Award of Arbitration of 1897, which affirmed the CaƱas-Jerez Treaty of 1858, to redraw its border based on the Costa Rican request, while Pastora has said that the Treaty gives him the right be where he was. The situation will not descend into war – Costa Rica lacks an army – but both sides have increased official presence in the area. What Google will do awaits to be seen.

Sources: Globalpost, AFP, Google Blog, The Galloping Beaver Blog

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