Editor’s note: This article is part of the in-depth series “Nicaragua Rewind,” a look at whether the Central American country is repeating its troubled past under the second coming of Sandinista President Daniel Ortega. It is presented in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
HARBOUR HEAD, Nicaragua — Deep in the jungle, on a marshy riverbank under dispute with Costa Rica, the Nicaraguan government has created a sleepaway camp for teenagers loyal to President Daniel Ortega’s leftist Sandinista party.
For a week at a time, 35 striplings from the far reaches of the country trek by bus and boat to the delta of the San Juan River, where they bunk in ramshackle cabins perched on wooden stilts overlooking a muddy floodplain.
The “campers” — members of a Sandinista Youth environmental brigade called Guardabarranco — work on projects such as reforestation and river dredging.
They’re also taught about homeland defense and border protection.
“This is about creating ecological awareness, building nationalism and defense of the homeland,” says head counselor Oscar Garcia, a forestry engineer with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.
Welcome to Camp Harbour Head, which has been operating nonstop since April 2011, three weeks after the International Court of Justice ordered Nicaragua and Costa Rica to withdraw all personnel from the disputed border zone until the court determines its rightful owner.
Costa Rica claims the alluvial land as its own, calling it Isla Portillos. Nicaragua insists the island is on its side of the border and is called Harbour Head. The youth camp is located right in this faultline between two uneasy neighbors.
While the court weighs evidence presented by both sides, Nicaragua is asserting its claim to the land by occupying the island with rotating cadres of Sandinista Youth. For the past 82 weeks, an equal number of partisan-affiliated “environmental brigades” have passed through Camp Harbour Head.
The campers first spend a week training in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, and then come to the disputed island to conduct their “fieldwork.”
Though the camp does not appear to be used for any type of paramilitary training, the Costa Rican government says its continual presence is provocative, antagonistic and in complete disregard for international law.
The existence of Nicaraguan teens on the disputed island has contributed to the worst border conflict between the two countries since the 1980s, when anti-Sandinista insurgents known as the contras used this remote jungle frontier to launch attacks against the first Sandinista government.
“This constitutes a brazen lack of compliance with the International Court of Justice’s provisional measures,” Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo told GlobalPost.
Castillo notes that the court’s March 8, 2011 ruling states: “Each party must refrain from sending to, or maintaining in the disputed territory, including the ‘caño’ [water channels], any personnel, whether civilian, police or security,” until the court issues a decision or the two countries come to an agreement.
By sending officially sponsored partisan youth brigades to the disputed border zone, Castillo says, “The Sandinista government is making a mockery of the court.” He repeated his government’s denouncement of Nicaragua during his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Oct. 1.
Costa Rican officials say they are confident The Hague will rule in their favor, and hopefully soon. “Costa Rica doesn’t want to waste time with this; we want a verdict as soon as possible,” Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla told local media in late September. “If justice is applied, Costa Rica will win the case.”
That verdict would mean an instant death sentence to Camp Harbour Head. Ortega says Nicaragua will respect the court’s ruling.
Nicaragua, meanwhile, is confident of its own victory. It claims that Costa Rica — a country without an army — is acting like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Nicaragua thinks Costa Rica has been slavering over this prime real estate for the past two centuries, starting in 1824 when Costa Rica annexed the Nicaraguan province of Guanacaste. Nicaraguans still grumble about that incident.
“Nicaragua is the only country in the world that has lost territory to a smaller and weaker nation,” said former Sandinista guerrilla leader Eden Pastora.
He led the Nicaraguan government’s effort to dredge the San Juan River in 2010 to “restore its historic flow” around Harbour Head island.
The San Juan River, a 120-mile Nicaraguan waterway, delineates the eastern half of the border between the two countries. But excessive deforestation on the Costa Rican side has led to increased sedimentation in Nicaragua’s river, which has silted up the delta and pushed the mouth of the San Juan further north, claims President Ortega. Nicaragua, therefore, wants the river — and the border — to return to where it was in 1858, when the border treaty was originally signed.
“It is our patriotic duty to defend Nicaragua. We all need to unite against Costa Rica’s plans,” said Gen. Julio Cesar Aviles, the Nicaraguan army’s top general. “Never again,” the general stressed, will Nicaragua allow Costa Rica to take “one inch” of its national territory.
Environmentalism as a strategy for national defense
To defend the island and preserve Nicaragua’s geographical integrity, the Sandinista campers toil daily to clean the channels of water surrounding Harbour Head. As long as Nicaraguan waters of the San Juan River continue to flow south around the island, the land belongs to Nicaragua, Garcia says. But if the channels silt up, as they are prone to do, Harbour Head ceases to be an island and starts looking like a peninsular extension of Costa Rica.
Pastora has caused border tensions for most of his adult life, first as the leader of the Sandinistas’ southern front rebels in the 1970s, then as a contra leader in the 1980s, and now as a river-dredger in his golden years.
He caused another international stink two years ago when he started to dredge the channels around Harbour Head. Costa Rica protested the move, accusing Pastora and the Sandinistas of carving a new canal into Costa Rican territory to push the river south and usurp Tico territory.
While the dispute wends its way slowly through the world court, the channels Pastora cleared have started to flow more slowly as they again fill with sedimentation. That’s why the campers’ work at Camp Harbour Head has suddenly become so important to Nicaragua’s national defense plans.
“The Rio San Juan feeds those channels, but because of the sedimentation that has fallen in the river, they have closed up again,” Garcia explained. “These are natural channels, but they have been filled with 50 years of silt and been totally closed. So our job is to clean them and allow the water to rediscover its natural course.”
Costa Rica recently constructed a highly controversial highway parallel to the San Juan River. That made the situation worse by dumping even more loam into the river.
“This has had a tremendous effect on the river,” Garcia said.
“We are going to have to be cleaning this constantly,” the head counselor added. “Once the river is fully dredged, it will flow strong enough to keep the channels naturally clean, but right now we need the efforts of the youths.”
The Sandinista Youth say they are up to the task. They view their efforts to reforest the island and clean the river channels as vital to defending Nicaraguan sovereignty.
“My message to Costa Rica is, ‘Stop deforesting the area and allow us to recover nature through reforestation,” said Josefer Santamaria, a sturdy-looking 24-year-old from Chontales, whose age and size make him a natural leader of the group.
“Costa Rica is destroying the ecology of the area with its highway construction and all their contamination of the river,” added female camper Lisette Roda, 17. “We are working to fix that.”
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