Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Threats Churn in the San Juan River

MANAGUA, Dec 27 2010 (IPS) - The conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the San Juan River masks a series of endeavors with the potential to damage this valuable natural resource.

A view of San Juan River. - Courtesy of El Nuevo Diario

A view of San Juan River. - Courtesy of El Nuevo Diario

The San Juan River, center of discord and diplomatic conflicts between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, is seeing its riverbanks fill up with economic projects that scientists and environmentalists say will irreversibly alter its course.

According to biologist Salvador Montenegro, director of Nicaragua's Center for Aquatic Resource Investigation, a hydroelectric project agreed between the governments of Brazil and Nicaragua in 2007 would seriously harm the biodiversity of the San Juan and the nature reserves in the surrounding areas.

Montenegro said the planned Brito Hydroelectric dam (Hidrobrito SA) would require a dam 10 meters high and 400 meters wide to achieve the water level necessary, and would reverse the natural flow of Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua) to the Caribbean, sending it instead to the Pacific Ocean. The project is still going through studies, but would be built in 2015, has a price tag of more than 900 million dollars and, according to Nicaragua's Ministries of Energy and Mining and of Environment and Natural Resources, would generate 250 megawatts of electricity.

In Montenegro's view, the damage to the plant and animal species of the San Juan would be “catastrophic.” The dam would affect the biodiversity of the lake and the rivers, as well as land, aquatic and marine ecosystems, the livelihoods of fishers and farmers living in low-lying areas.

With the flow of freshwater to the Pacific, the coastal zone would lose salinity, potentially harming thousands of marine and coral reef species, including the migration of endangered sea turtles, which arrive there each year to lay their eggs on the beach refuges of Chacocente and La Flor, in the southern Nicaraguan department of Rivas.

The company in charge of the project, Brazil's Andrade Gutiérrez Construction, acknowledged to the Nicaraguan authorities that there would be environmental damage, and proposed alternatives that the government is now studying.

According to the document “Brito Hydroelectric Profile,” which the Brazilian company presented to the government in June, the construction would affect 33 percent of the area of natural vegetation in the Indio Maíz biological reserve.

It is located in the southeast region of Nicaragua, along the San Juan River, covering an area of 3,180 square kilometers.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared the San Juan River a biosphere reserve in 2003. The zone encompasses a tropical rainforest, wetlands and lakes, with diverse wildlife: jaguars, eagles, toucans, macaws, manatees, hammerhead sharks and crocodiles.

It is also considered the largest source of botanical diversity in the country and the entire Central American isthmus.

Furthermore, and according to the Andrade Gutiérrez company itself, the hydroelectric project “would cause changes in water quality and the movement of sediments, with consequences for the aquatic ecosystems and the health of the surrounding population.”

Brenno Machado Nogueira, marketing director of Andrade Gutiérrez in Nicaragua, told Tierramérica that the builder hired an international company to conduct the environmental impact study that would allow them to correct, mitigate and resolve the problems.

But other threats are already looming over the nature reserve.

Antonio Ruiz, executive director of the non-governmental River Foundation, which monitors the socio-cultural and environmental life of the San Juan, filed a complaint in November that the African palm crops were contaminating the wildlife refuges and water sources, and overwhelming the native vegetation.

A study by the Foundation states that the area is undergoing expansion of livestock, logging and plantations of African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) and melina trees (Gmelina arborea) in areas of regeneration of tropical rainforest.

“About 50,000 hectares of broadleaf forest has been lost, and each year deforestation continues at a pace of around 1,200 hectares,” said Ruiz. The destruction of the forest ecosystems since 1983 meant the loss of 60 percent of the trees in the reserve's buffer zone, he said.

According to ecologist Kamilo Lara, the deforestation on the Costa Rican side of the river, as well as the use of agro-chemicals and the discharge of wastewater are endangering the region's largest watershed.

Studies conducted since 2005 reveal a serious level of contamination of the San Juan by fecal mater, sediments and agro-chemicals from fruit companies and cattle ranches on the Costa Rican side of the river, Lara told Tierramérica.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua are currently embroiled in a conflict that San José brought in November before the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, denouncing Managua for alleged territorial invasion and environmental destruction.

In October, the Nicaraguan government, under President Daniel Ortega, had ordered dredging in a part of the river that flows into the Caribbean Sea.

According to the Costa Rican complaint, the Nicaraguan army set up operations in an area that Costa Rica claims as its territory, and where alleged acts of environmental destruction took place.

The Court will hear preliminary arguments in the case on Jan. 11, 2011.

Costa Rica is requesting a legal stay to halt the dredging activities and prevent further damage to Calero Island, 151 square kilometers located in the San Juan River in an area of great ecological wealth.

Managua rejects the charges and argues that the dredging constitutes temporary and “minimal” damage, compared to the benefits of rehabilitating the natural route that species travel from the Caribbean to Lake Cocibolca via the San Juan.

Meanwhile, other plans involving the river have been frozen.

The planned open-pit mine on Crucitas, a mountain in northern Costa Rica, was called off by that country's legal authorities.

And the plan to build an inter-ocean canal through Nicaragua (which dates back to the colonial era) would include part of the San Juan River, but remains at a stand-still due to lack of resources to conduct feasibility and environmental studies.

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