Hotspot - Borders

Costa Rica's foreign minister attends hearings at the International Court of Justice in April Costa Rica's foreign minister attends hearings at the International Court of Justice in April International Court of Justice
25 May
2015
Klaus Dodds looks at the complex dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the San Juan River

Rivers, seas, oceans, deserts, and mountains have often formed natural borders and boundaries between civilisations, empires and, more latterly, nation-states. Nicholas Spykman (1893–1943), the Dutch-American geostrategic writer, once wrote that, ‘Geographic facts do not change, but their meaning for foreign policy will’.

Nowadays, geographers would almost certainly take a different view. We would be more cautious about what constitutes ‘geographic facts’ which can at times alter dramatically; one only has to think about what devastating events such as floods, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions can do to landscapes and communities.

But we also need to recognise what human and non-human communities can do to alter environments. Palestinians might note how Israel’s security walls, settlement construction and land reclamation has transformed ‘facts on the ground’. Other human activities can also be significant when carried out in borderlands. Rivers, mountains, deserts and seas can in various ways be altered, reclaimed, tunnelled, drained, and constructed upon often in the name of national security and sovereignty.

One practice that might not get much attention is dredging. Dredging can operate in a fundamental way to change ‘geographic facts’ and sometimes can be so controversial it ends up being ‘heard’ at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

On the Nicaraguan–Costa Rican borders, there is a disputed area around the San Juan River. On the Nicaraguan side, there are claims that Costa Rica’s border road network has caused excessive sedimentation that requires Nicaragua to dredge in order to keep the river accessible and navigable. At the ICJ, it was argued that up to 250,000 tons per year of sediment might be entering the disputed area of the river (where the San Juan converges with the Colorado river) and causing a reduction in depth.

As a form of geographical engineering, dredging not only transforms geographical environments, it also shapes geopolitical relations between states

Conversely, Costa Rica’s delegation contested those claims and noted that Nicaraguan forces had invaded Costa Rica’s border territory and created artificial canals that were responsible for damaging vulnerable wetlands. Both sides have assembled an array of geographical, geological, and visual evidence and professional geographers have been hired as expert witnesses; one example is Professor Colin Thorne of Nottingham University who is acting for the Costa Rican government.

The ICJ proceedings in 2015 are the culmination of a process that started in 2010. Since then both sides have traded accusations but it is a complicated case involving 19th century treaties, contested histories of dredging (which changed the flow of water at the fork of the San Juan and Colorado rivers), international legal precedents and, most recently, an earlier 2009 ICJ judgment on the disputed river section, which said that the disputed section of the San Juan was recognised as being under Nicaraguan sovereignty but that Costa Rica enjoyed perpetual navigation rights (with conditions).

What do we learn from this intriguing case? As a form of geographical engineering, dredging not only transforms geographical environments, it also shapes geopolitical relations between states. It has become for both governments a highly nationalistic issue and both have dispatched their armed forces to monitor ‘their’ river borderlands. Silt, sand, and dirt have become more than merely matter; they embody and inform national debate about what the other side is up to.

To compound matters still further, illegal immigration from Nicaragua to Costa Rica contributes to the geopolitical atmospheres; both silt and people are objects on the move and in Costa Rica there is growing evidence of anti-Nicaraguan sentiment. Pace Spykman, geographical facts can change and so can foreign and security policies.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction.

This Hotspot was published in the June 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine, and featured on the Geocast episode Hotspot: Borders.

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