Central American border dispute fuelled by Google Maps error
Photo: Girish Gupta

Central American border dispute fuelled by Google Maps error

| Nov. 9, 2010 |

Photo: Girish Gupta

A tense standoff between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is being blamed on an error in Google’s mapping software, which led Nicaraguan soldiers to cross into Costa Rican territory and replace a flag with their own.

Despite having no military, Costa Rica is keen to defend the area of its San Juan region and has called for an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS). Officials are also alleging that Nicaraguan dredging of the river is causing environmental damage.

“Look at the satellite photo on Google, and there you see the border,” Eden Pastora, former Nicaraguan military commander and now government delegate to the region, told La Nación newspaper in Costa Rica. “It’s clear.”

However, in a televised address to his countrymen, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla defended his nation: “Dear Costa Ricans, never before have we had to be united when the aggression and provocation test us. Let us be calm and firm, amid the outrage that these events provoke within us.”

Google, while admitting the error in its mapping, has passed the blame to the US Department of State. “We determined that there was indeed an error in the compilation of the source data, by up to 2.7 kilometers,” reads a blogpost by Google Geo Policy Analyst Charlie Hale. “The U.S. Department of State has provided a corrected version and we are now working to update our maps.”

Rival online mapping company Bing, owned by Microsoft, provided the correct border data.

The border between the two Central American countries has traditionally followed the San Juan River. “The corrected version will follow the east bank of the San Juan River going northward,” continues Hale. “This depiction follows the demarcation laid out in the First Award of Arbitration of 1897, which affirmed the Cañas-Jerez Treaty of 1858.”

In 1888, U.S. President Grover Cleveland was asked by the two countries to arbitrate the dispute. Cleveland upheld the Cañas-Jerez Treaty made thirty years earlier, before commissioning a more thorough delineation in 1897. However, the United Nations was forced to weigh into the debate last year as Costa Rican boats wanting to navigate the waterway were struggling against the Nicaraguans’ right to regulate it.

“Once our updates go live in Google Earth and Maps we will be depicting the border according to the most recent and definitive records available,” concluded Hale. “But as we know, cartography is a complex undertaking, and borders are always changing. We remain committed to updating our maps as needed.”