Costa Rica And Nicaragua; A Border Dispute In The Age Of Web Maps

The popular press and media likes nothing better to poke fun at people who seem to ignore their own senses and instead rely on their GPS sat-nav systems, which frequently results in people ending up in the middle of fields, in the middle of rivers or even, in extreme cases, almost driving off of the edge of a cliff.

But the strangest example of this sort of behaviour was in the first reports of recent events on the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua that seemed to implicate Google Maps as justification for Nicaraguan troops crossing the border into Costa Rica and raising the Nicaraguan flag on Costa Rican territory. The dispute seems to hark back to the 1850’s where the contested border between the two countries followed the course of the San Juan River, the course of which has since moved somewhat, as rivers are wont to do. Costa Rica asserts their sovereignty on the disputed land based on the 1850’s arbitrated border which follows the course of the river and Nicaragua asserts theirs based on the fact that the river has moved so some land must be theirs.

The reference to Google Maps turns out to be a bit of a red herring as well, originating from an opportunistic sound bite rather than fact. Granted Google have based their data set on admittedly sparse data, some of it originating from the US State Department, which had got it wrong. But other mapping data vendors, who should know better and who at the time were having a great laugh at Google’s expense on various forms of social media, turn out to be just as incorrect as Google’s.

While this is probably the most extreme example of “but I found it on the internet so it must be true“, the whole story is less about whose map is right, less about blaming map error on an online map and more about how some parts of the world are less well mapped than others. Not all map data is created equal.

The twists and turns of the story are best followed on the original post from Jonathan Crowe’s excellent The Map Room blog and its follow up as well as an in-depth article on the subject from Ogle Earth.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Written by Gary

Husband, Father, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user.

1 Comment

James C

Having been involved in border demarcation dispute in west africa in which among other things “soft” features (such as rivers) had been used to define “permanent” boundaries it doesn’t surprise me that there are other instances. Primary evidence of the boundary as originally defined might be hard to find and harder to interpret but I doubt any court would find that the boundary should or could ‘move’.

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