Authorities investigate 36 firms for corruption in San Juan River road
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On June 6, the Costa Rican government carried out search warrants at 36 companies that had participated in the construction of a 160 kilometer road along the southern bank of the San Juan River. The next day five more companies were searched. Paper and digital files were removed from the offices. The road construction was ordered by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla without any environmental or feasibility studies. The companies are being investigated in the possible corruption of public officials and the loss of much of the estimated US$40 million spent on the road which has not yet been paved. Government officials are also being investigated by the Organ of Judicial Investigation, according to Jorge Chavarria, Costa Rica’s prosecutor general.

 

Meanwhile, Costa Rican authorities were searching for ways to minimize the damage to the river by the rainy season which has already begun. Transportation Minister Luis Llach met with other officials to plan actions that could correct errors and save the most affected zones. The first task they agreed on was to provide drain pipes for streams that drain into the San Juan so that they do not wash the road into the river, filling it with sediment. Jose Luis Salas, head of the National Road Council (CONAVI) said that 16 kilometers (one-tenth of the road) had been stabilized with the US$1.5 million allocated to the work. The Costa Rican congress has called President Chinchilla to testify. Mireya Zamora, a member of the Libertarian Movement party said, “I understand that some private businesses have participated in this scandal, but I do not doubt that the birth of this mega-sausage included people from this administration.”

Jose Lobo, a biologist at the University of Costa Rica said that the environmental damage to wetlands is not only irreversible but it violates the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands to which Costa Rica is a signatory and to which it recently took a claim about Nicaragua’s dredging of a part of the river to improve navigation. [The San Juan belongs exclusively to Nicaragua.] Because the road is badly designed and too close to the river, he said that it will provoke erosion of sediments. He added, “During this rainy season and the next we will see the greatest amount of erosion, because the road is exposed and unstable and is beginning now to produce a lot of sediment.” Costa Rican environmental lawyer Alvaro Sagot introduced an appeal in the courts to the executive decree of national emergency that allowed the road building, alleging that it was unconstitutional. There was no declaration of war with Nicaragua nor were economic or diplomatic relations broken, he said.

(Informe Pastran, June 7, 8; Radio La Primerisima, June 6, 7; La Prensa, June 6, 8, 11; El Nuevo Diario, June 7)

 

Sections of San Juan River highway collapse

 

The Costa Rican daily La Nacion reported on Aug. 13 that several sections of the highway built by the Costa Rican government next to the southern bank of the San Juan River have been washed away and several bridges have collapsed due to recent rainfall. Local resident Omar Cortes told the media outlet, “They are not doing upkeep and this destruction will continue. To rebuild it will cost the government many millions.” The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation placed a paid ad in the same newspaper denying that the Ministry had abandoned the highway, which has been the subject of much controversy because of the environmental damage that it was predicted to cause and because of recently exposed corruption in the contracting of the construction work. The Ministry said it would continue improving the unpaved roadway with temporary measures to stop erosion until contracts could be completed for finishing the road and for environmental mitigation. But, La Nacion reported that “the stretches of the road that do not present problems are few.”

 

Meanwhile, in related news, Nicaragua presented its written arguments to the International Court of Justice (World Court) at The Hague on Aug. 7. In the case, which Costa Rica brought against Nicaragua, San Jose claims ownership of a triangle of land near the mouth of the San Juan which the Costa Ricans call Isla Calero but the Nicaraguans say is Harbour Head. The court case began in November of 2010 after Nicaragua started a dredging project in an attempt to make the river, which belongs in its entirety to Nicaragua, more navigable. Costa Rica alleged that part of the area affected by the dredging belonged to Costa Rica. Now that Nicaragua has presented its written arguments to counter Costa Rica’s original claims, the government of President Laura Chinchilla can decide if it wants to present counter arguments in written form or proceed immediately to oral arguments. If the latter is chosen, the Court could issue a ruling before the end of Chinchilla’s term in May of 2014. News reports say that Nicaragua included in its arguments information about the damage caused by the construction of the highway on the banks of the River without the required environmental impact study.

(El Nuevo Diario, Aug. 7, 13; La Nacion (Costa Rica), Aug. 13; Informe Pastran, Aug. 13; Radio La Primerisima, Aug. 7)