Sunday, 7 November 2010

Something worth reading

I admit, I didn't write this article, it's direct copy pasta (with a very slight factual addition) from Geographic Travels, posted yesterday.

Going around the geography blogosphere including sites like, the Map Room, and Basement Geographer is the story of a brief invasion of Costa Rica (which has a population of about 226,000-800,000 Nicaraguans, of an estimated 4.25million total population) by Nicaragua.  This was not a harmless "Switzerland invades Liechtenstein" story as Nicaraguan forces took down a Costa Rican flag and took sediment from a river and dumped it onto Costa Rican soil.  The troops then returned to Nicaragua.  However, a diplomatic row has begun with Costa Rica's president urging calm and vowing "justice" will be done.

What makes this story of interest to the geography blogosphere is that the commander of the Nicaraguan troops blamed his actions on Google Maps and it misplacing the border.
Border comparison in the location where Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica.  Google has it wrong while Bing has it right.  Image from: Search Engine Land.
Google in turn is blaming the error on receiving bad map data from the United States State Department.  The State Department has not released any statement as of the early morning of November 6, 2010.  Meanwhile Google says it is working with the State Department to fix the border.

Such a shame I warned about bad maps being more than simple mistakes but things that could negatively impact diplomatic and military operations.

However, the Nicaraguans are not in the clear.  Their own geographic organization recognizes the disputed area as part of Costa Rica.

Costaricangauzette sent me this map with the red circle showing Nicaragua knows the area of action is Costa Rican.
So what happened?  The fact that the Nicaraguans quickly blamed Google Maps implies they probably did plan the mission with Google Maps and not their own.  I suspect that the Nicaraguans wanted to flex some muscle and thought Google's error showed that they area was disputed and gave them an excuse to be jerks (seriously, do Central Americans militaries need to concern themselves with anything but counter-narcotic and counter-insurgency operations?).

Is it also possible that they thought Google Maps was correct and innocently failed to do any further research?  Yes.  In Iraq I was shown a presentation by an Iraqi geographer who used Google Maps and Microsoft Paint to make his maps.  Sometimes it is amateur hour for those who have the guns.

In summary: "This week a Nicaraguan detachment wandered into a disputed zone along the San Juan River, which divides the two countries. The soldiers took down the Costa Rican flag, replaced it with a Nicaraguan flag and, in what is probably the friendliest thing one can do after invading a sovereign nation, began cleaning up the river."

Not only was this entry very informal, it's quite a down to earth approach to the matter. How could a military rely on Google Maps to plan an attack on another area? Central America is plagued by Guerrilla insurgents/militants and narcotic operations (Yeah, generalisation from Scarface and all that kinda stuff, even though he was a Cuban refugee), surely this isn't the biggest of their worries.

If you're wondering what then Switzerland vs Lichtenstein error was, it was a simple mistake of 170 Swiss Soldiers wandering 1mile into Lichtenstein territory (which was unmarked), they realised the error and therefore headed back into Swiss territory. If you're into pub quizzes, then Lichtenstein is one of the few countries in the world which has more registered companies than population due to the low corporate taxes.

However, there is much debate and viewpoints on this matter. If you're interested, you can read an alternative version at ; including a great analysis and critque by an anonymous reader.

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