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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

Boundary news

Boundary news Headlines

Boundary dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua involves Google maps

(8 November 2010)

A dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua concerning their boundary around Calero island has continued to escalate throughout October and early November 2010. Costa Rica has requested that the Organization of American States (OAS) mediate the dispute and investigate its claims that troops from the Nicaraguan army may have briefly occupied Costa Rican territory. While Costa Rica does not have an army, it has deployed additional security personnel to this area, joining the existing 150 personnel already situated there. They have been ordered not to enter onto Calero island to avoid further conflict with Nicaraguan troops. The presence of these forces led to Nicaragua filing a counter-complaint that Costa Rica had sent armed police to the border.

Nicaragua has claimed that its use of Google Maps caused the confusion over the location of the international boundary and the claimed incursion by its troops. Google has since met with the US State Department who supply the boundary information and found that there was an error in the location of the boundary of up to 2.7 kilometres from its correct alignment. The company is now updating its maps to correct the error. However, in response Nicaragua has claimed that the existing map is correct and should not be altered according to Costa Rica’s request.

Google depicts the boundary from the Caribbean shoreline along a single line curving southwest to meet the San Juan river. The boundary between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was originally defined in an 1857 treaty that was reconfirmed in an arbitral award in 1888 handed down by US President Grover Cleveland. Following the 1888 award, further problems emerged during demarcation of the boundary, including the eastern extremity just off the Caribbean coast. This short section was defined by one of five subsequent awards presented by another US arbitrator Edward Alexander in 1897. This 1897 award defined the boundary from the Caribbean coastline around the shoreline of a peninsula referred to as Laguna Harbour Head before joining the right bank of the San Juan river. The boundary depicted by Google appears to have cut across the neck of what was referred to as Laguna Harbour Head rather than around the feature. Located in an area of mangroves and marshes, this peninsula may or may not be the feature referred to in news reports as Calero island.

In addition, some 42% of the Costa Rica-Nicaragua boundary follows the right bank of the San Juan river for approximately 129 kilometres, placing the river itself within Nicaragua’s jurisdiction. Recent dredging efforts by Nicaragua in the San Juan river have also led to further protests from Costa Rica which claims these operations could lead to environmental damage on their side of the river. The two states have just recently emerged from a previous dispute over navigation rights along the San Juan river. In 2005 Costa Rica took Nicaragua to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over allegations that Nicaragua was restricting navigation contrary to agreed obligations. The ICJ held in its 2009 decision that under previous agreements non-military vessels from Costa Rica could freely navigate the river for commercial purposes but prescribed the conditions under which Nicaragua could permit that navigation.

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, has visited the border region, flying over by helicopter, and has also met with both presidents from Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Insulza stated that the OAS is there to facilitate discussion, and not to settle the border conflict, allowing the two states to decide how to resolve the dispute.

Source: ‘¿Dónde en el mundo es el conflicto con Nicaragua?’ Carlos Revilla M., Costa Rica Hoy, 8 November 2010; ‘Google corrects faulty maps of Nicaragua, Costa Rica’, Asian News International, 8 November 2010; ‘Google Maps embroiled in Central America border dispute’, Agence France Presse, 6 November 2010; ‘Costa Rica urges OAS to verify alleged Nicaraguan incursion’, BBC Monitoring Americas, 5 November 2010; ‘OAS to Mediate Between Nicaragua and Costa Rica in Border River Dispute’, IHS Global Insight Daily Analysis, 5 November 2010; ‘Costa Rica asks OAS to intervene in border dispute’, Agence France Presse, 5 November 2010‘OAS Secretary General to Travel to Costa Rica and Nicaragua to Facilitate Dialogue’, Press Release, Organization of American States, November 4, 2010,