Setbacks for Nicaragua canal project

The International Court of Justice on on Dec. 16 recognized Costa Rica's sovereignty over a 2.5-square-kilometer disputed territory on the border with Nicaragua, one of the main claims fought over by the two countries at The Hague-based court. "The sovereignty over the disputed territory belongs to Costa Rica," Justice Ronny Abraham stated. The ruling found that an artificial canal opened by Nicaragua in 2010 through Isla Calero, also called Isla Portillos or Harbour Head Island, was within Costa Rican territory and not part of the common border between the two countries. Justices also unanimously found that Nicaragua violated Costa Rican territory by invading Isla Calero with military personnel, by dredging canals in Costa Rican territory, and by violating Costa Rica’s navigation rights on the Río San Juan. Nicaragua was ordered to compensate Costa Rica for damage caused to its territory.

The court dismissed Nicaragua's complaint that the construction of a 160-kilometer road that runs parallel to the San Juan caused irreparable damage to the river. The court, however, found that Costa Rica had violated Nicaragua's rights by failing to conduct an environmental impact study prior to construction of the road. (Tico Times, Dec. 16)

The disputed border has exacerbated tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over the inter-oceanic canal that Managua plans to build through the San Juan Basin. It is now a year since a Hong Kong consortium, the Nicaragua Development Group, officially broke ground on the mega-project, with a target completion date of 2020. However, there are few sign of progress beyond a few dirt roads along the mouth of the Río Brito, meant to be the Pacific gateway to the $50 billion canal. The consortium, overseen by HKND CEO Wang Jing, received a 50-year exclusive lease to build the canal, but its finances have since taken a catastrophic hit. Valued at $10 billion this summer, Wang Jing's personal wealth dropped nearly 85% along with the Chinese stock market decline. Bloomberg named Wang the worst performing billionaire of 2015.

But Telemaco Talavera, spokesman for the Grand Canal Commission of Nicaragua, insists the project's finances are sound. He cites additional studies on environmental and archeological impacts as the reason for the delay. (AFP, Dec. 21; NPR, Dec. 18)