Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Oil interests behind Costa Rica-Nicaragua case

The current dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica has been constructed in a number of ways. First of all, it was the story of Nicaragua the aggressor, moving by stealth onto undefended Costa Rican territory, aided by dodgy maps produced by Google.

Then the story of environmental damage came about, and questions arose about whether Nicaragua was trying to claim more land by dredging – and therefore rerouting to a certain extent – the San Juan River.

But now, as the case sits with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, a new narrative is emerging; one where Isla Calero is not being seen as valuable in its own right, but rather as an opportunity for both sides to make claims to potentially oil-rich maritime territory.

According to the Argentinian daily, La NaciĆ³n, the dispute is really about access to the Caribbean coast and where each territory's claim ends on the coast. The preliminary judgement issued by the ICJ on 8th March states:

'Costa Rica asserts that Nicaragua is seeking to divert the flow of the San Jan river to what the State erroneously describes as its “historic channel” by cutting a canal which would join the seaward course of the river to the Laguna los Portillos'.

In other words, because the boundary between the two neighbours is understood to be the right bank of the San Juan river, Costa Rica claimed that Nicaragua was trying to cut this canal in an effort to grab some of Costa Rica's land.

La Nacion says this is to increase their access to Block 11, an area discovered in the 1980s by Costa Rica's state refinery, the Refinadora Costarricense de Petroleo (RECOPE), which covers some 523 sq km of the Caribbean Sea.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua currently don't have a formal maritime boundary agreement and so oil exploration off of their coasts has been problematic. Where the land border terminates is crucial to determining maritime territory claims, and this perhaps explains why there has been such a fuss over such a small marshy area.

If the line is drawn from where Costa Rica believes the border to be, Punta Castilla, then Block 11 falls completely within Costa Rican waters. If the boundary follows Nicaragua's claims, they own part of the block, and can therefore claim some of its oil.

Nicaragua published a map in 2002 which featured petroleum blocks - including Block 11 - and border demarcation markings. Costa Rica disputed the map. According to Bloggings by Boz, in 2008 Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega gave two contracts to an unnamed US firm to explore the area for oil, to which Costa Rica, unsurprisingly, protested.

Last March, the dispute also came to involve UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, when Nicaragua disputed a note sent to Ban by Costa Rica regarding the border definition. The situation really kicked off in October, when Nicaragua moved onto the Isla Calero, citing drug trafficking concerns, and sparking the dispute that has resulted in the ICJ case currently underway.

The ICJ made its preliminary judgement on 8th March, which ordered both countries to keep military and police authorities out of the disputed area. It did not, however, order Nicaragua to completely stop its dredging programme. The court will likely take three or four years to reach its final verdict.

Sources: Tico Times, Inside Costa Rica, ICJ, Blogging by Boz

For more information, please see the Menas Borders website, here.

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