Threats Churn in the San Juan River*
By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Dec 29, 2010 (Tierramérica) – The San Juan River, centre 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 Centre 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 project (Hidrobrito SA) would require a dam 10 metres high and 400 metres wide to achieve the water level necessary, and would reverse the natural draining of Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua) to the Caribbean, sending it instead towards 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 Environment, 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 the land, aquatic and marine ecosystems, and 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. It would likely affect 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 southeastern Nicaragua, along the San Juan River, covering an area of 3,180 square kilometres.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) declared the San Juan River a biosphere reserve in 2003. The zone encompasses a tropical rainforest, wetlands and lakes, with diverse wildlife, on land and in the water: jaguars, eagles, toucans, macaws, manatees, hammerhead sharks and crocodiles.
It is also considered the area with greatest 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, and the results would allow them to mitigate or correct 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 oil 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 tropical rainforest regeneration.
“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 faecal matter, 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 also 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 Isla Calero, a 151-square-km island 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 suspended.
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 standstill due to the lack of resources to conduct feasibility and environmental studies.
(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)