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Chapter 10 - The la Amistad biosphere reserve

Juan Jose Castro, Manuel Ramírez, Richard E. Saunier and Richard A. Meganck

The proposed la Amistad international biosphere reserve


This paper describes the bases for organizing recent planning for the establishment and administration of the proposed La Amistad International Biosphere Reserve of Costa Rica and Panama. It discusses the successes and failures to date in the efforts to establish the Reserve, draws conclusions from these, and makes recommendations as to how the process might be used elsewhere.

Because of the uniqueness of the area and the international interest in binational conservation areas and biodiversity conservation through the use and implementation of landscape planning, the La Amistad International Parks (PILA) of Costa Rica and Panama as well as the proposed International Biosphere Reserve along their common border have often been discussed (Fábrega, 1993; Arias and Nations, 1993; WRI et al., 1992; Associated Press, 1990; Torres, 1988; Torres et al., 1987; Houseal et al., 1985; Morales et al., 1984). The core area of the proposed international biosphere reserve would consist of the currently existing La Amistad parks of both countries, Volcán Barú National Park in Panama, and the Chirripó National Park in Costa Rica. A number of adjacent indigenous territories, forest reserves, wildlife conservation areas, and protected watersheds represent the buffer zones and multiple-use areas.

Consisting of approximately 200, 000 ha in each country, the PILA covers a majority of the Cordillera de Talamanca, a mountain range rising from near sea level to over 3, 800 m. Because of its location and variation in altitude, the region contains nearly a dozen different Holdridge life zones in Costa Rica (OAS/CI, 1990), and the final proposal from Panama for its portion of the reserve will most certainly add to this total (Table 1).

This landscape dominates the region and forms a physical backbone that ties the two countries together. For millennia, this mountain range has provided a land bridge that even today allows the exchange of North and South American biota. It remains a refuge for a diverse flora and fauna, many of which are rare or endangered (Gómez, 1989; Alvarado, 1988). The high annual rainfall of between 2, 000 and 7, 000 mm, combined with the short and steep watersheds common to the region, creates both serious flood hazards and a potential for hydroelectric energy production. The National Electric Institute of Costa Rica (ICE) considers that the Sixaola River--which forms a portion of the border between the two countries--and its tributaries have 10 potential sites for hydroelectric projects in Costa Rica alone (OAS/CI, 1990). The two rivers in Panama that have the highest hydroelectric potential, the Teribe and the Changuinola, arise in this same area (MIPPE, 1992). Likewise, the occurrence of coal (Chuprine, 1993), gold (Houseal et al., 1985), petroleum (Medina, 1991), and "available" land (Imbach and Alvarado, 1990; ISTI, 1980) is at the same time problematical and possibly auspicious.

Talamanca has contained human occupants for thousands of years, and for Costa Rica it is the area that holds the largest indigenous populations remaining in the country--the largest of which are the Bribrí and the Cabecar, which together amount to a population of nearly 12, 000. Panama also has a number of indigenous communities within the region: 60, 000 Guaymí (divided into the Ngobe and the Buglere); the Teribe (or Naso), who number 5, 000; and a population of Bribrí of unknown size that arrived in Panama from Costa Rica in 1960.

The proposed la Amistad international biosphere reserve

In May of 1982, the governments of Costa Rica and Panama signed an agreement to create the La Amistad International Park. Costa Rica legally established its sector of the park in February of 1982 and the Panamanian sector followed in 1988. However, the history of the proposal to establish an international conservation area along this border goes back to 1974 and the First Central American Meeting for the Conservation of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Sponsored by FAO, IUCN, UNESCO, and the OAS, the encounter called for the establishment of international parks along national borders (IUCN, 1976).

Table 1. Major Holdridge life Zones in the Talamanca Massive of Panama and Costa Rica

· Tropical Moist Forest

· Tropical Wet Forest

· Tropical Wet Forest transition to Premontane Forest

· Premontane Wet Forest

· Premontane Wet Forest transition to Tropical Forest

· Premontane Wet Forest transition to Rain Forest

· Premontane Rain Forest

· Lower Montane Wet Forest

· Lower Montane Rain Forest

· Montane Rain Forest

· Subalpine Rain Paramo

· Lower Montane Moist Forest (Panama)

· Montane Wet Forest (Panama)

That meeting was followed by historic encounters between the presidents of Costa Rica and Panama in 1979 and 1982 in which they instituted a binational commission on natural resources and instructed their respective natural resource management agencies to initiate joint planning and management of the wildlands along their common border (Gobiemo de Costa Rica/Gobiemo de Panamá, 1979). Each of these meetings emphasized two important arguments for the creation of such international parks: to conserve the natural and culture patrimony of a wider region and to serve as models for peace and friendship between neighboring countries.

Although progress has been slow, the proposal is being actively studied under the combined sponsorship of the two governments, the OAS, and Conservation International. Many other activities related to the proposal are also under way. These vary by country but include efforts by IUCN, the European Community, and UNEP.

(1) The La Amistad Biosphere Reserve/Costa Rica. The Government of Costa Rica formally organized the management of areas surrounding its portion of the PILA when it declared a 612, 570 ha biosphere reserve covering most of its portion of the Talamanca range (the RBA/CR). Made up of 15 different units, the reserve includes two national parks, two biological reserves, a forest reserve, a wildlife reserve, a protected watershed, seven indigenous reserves, and a botanical garden.1 UNESCO declared the area a Biosphere Reserve in 1982, and in 1983 it was accepted as a World Heritage Site.

1La Amistad International Park (Costa Rican Sector), Chirripó National Park, the Hitoy Biological Reserve, the Barbilla Biological Reserve, the Río Macho Forestry Reserve, the Tapanti Wildlife Reserve, the Las Tablas Protective Zone, and the indigenous reserves of Ujurras, Salitre, Cabegra, Talamanca, Tayní, Telire, Chirripó and the Wilson Botanical Garden.

In 1988, because of mounting management problems and conflicts among the many agencies operating within the RBA/CR, a coordinating commission (CCRBA) of representatives of the major institutions having jurisdiction over land use in that area was created (CI, 1988). The commission was to be presided over by the Minister of Natural Resources, Energy, and Mines and included as members the directors of the other two public institutions controlling lands located within the Biosphere Reserve (the National Park Service and the Forestry General Directorate), the National Parks Foundation, the Executive Director of the National Commission of Indigenous Affairs, the Resident Director of the Organization of Tropical Studies, and the CCRBA General Coordinator. Funding for the General Coordinator and additional staff and operating expenses to guide the implementation of the programs and projects came from the proceeds of a five-year debt-for-nature swap coordinated by Conservation International and the Central Bank (CI, 1988). Despite the creation of the CCRBA, problems and potential threats to the PILA continued to increase. As a consequence, in 1989, the Government of Costa Rica requested that the OAS and CI help to formulate an institutional development strategy for the CCRBA. It did so in part because the threats were by no means limited to private decisions and activities. During the analyses for the development of this strategy, for example, 33 major actual or proposed investment projects of various government sectoral agencies were found that had previously been unknown to the managers and administration of the Reserve.

The institutional strategy for the RBA was developed in late 1989 (OAS/CI, 1990), and the first set of development proposals tied to this strategy was prepared and presented to the donor community in late 1990 (CI/OAS, n.d.). Although the formulation of the strategy took less than six months and required no information or data beyond what already existed, it facilitated the design of management plans and identified development priorities. The process emphasized integrated regional planning, sought the leadership of the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Policy (MIDEPLAN), and promoted a number of meetings between public institutions and with private groups and individuals.

Because of its regional landscape focus, the strategy and its projects are recognized as central to development efforts throughout the Talamanca region. The package of proposals presented to donor agencies sought to secure indigenous people's land rights, help solve specific problems of communities located within the Biosphere Reserve, and compensate landowners for expropriated land in the reserve's core area. In consultation with the region's agroindustries and inhabitants, agricultural and forestry policies to improve land-use practices were formulated and recommendations for environmental-impact analyses of a number of development projects within the RBA/CR were made.

Consultations on a continuing basis with local governments, the private sector, national and international NGOs, and indigenous groups are also mandated by the strategy. And, because of the nature of the development activities and the potentially binational character of the project, the use of mediation as the accepted methodology for solving land-use conflicts was and is a major objective.

The integrated nature of the strategy and its vision of consensus building at the local level have helped it to secure funding from international donors. As of 1992 Sweden, Holland, the Global Environmental Facility, the MacArthur Foundation, and the joint efforts of CI and the McDonald's Corporation and the OAS together with UNEP have brought in some US$12 million for work in the RBA/CR.

In addition to prescribing how the objectives of these proposals could be met, the strategy and its process of project formulation met three other important objectives designed to provide order to the management and administration of the Biosphere Reserve. First, it paved the way for coordinating activities with MIDEPLAN and the three regional offices that have jurisdiction over development planning in the area of the reserve. Second, it helped the numerous agencies with activities in the region to recognize both the broader regional context of "sustainable development" and, within that, the need for biodiversity conservation outside, as well as within, the core areas. And, third, it laid out an alternative institutional structure beyond short-term modifications within the CCRBA itself.

This alternative institutional structure was offered because it was felt that conditions would soon demand a structure different from that of the CCRBA to administer the rich variety of resources extant in the landscape and to coordinate and cooperate with the more than 100 private and public agencies and formal groups active in Talamanca. Under this alternative the CCRBA would evolve from focusing almost exclusively on protection of the RBA/CR core areas to having a more broadly based mandate somewhat equivalent to that of a "regional authority" charged with the sustainable development of the Talamanca Landscape. The direction of the "authority" would be rotated among the major actors within the Biosphere Reserve, and additional public and private institutions of both national and local jurisdiction would become members of the Commission as interest in the reserve grew. As a matter of fact, this process of evolution is under way and has led to many of the functions of CCRBA being taken over by Iriria Tsochok, a private foundation committed to sustainable development in Talamanca (Boletín Talamanca, 1992).

(2) The La Amistad Biosphere Reserve/Panama. Because of differences in policies, government priorities, and procedures, activities to establish the La Amistad International Park and biosphere reserve in Panama were initiated later than those in Costa Rica and proceeded under a different format. In addition, much more of the area of PILA/Panama was privately held, and negotiations on acquiring these lands postponed establishment of the International Park until early 1988 (Alvarado, 1988).

The Panama sector of the La Amistad International Park is managed by INRENARE (a public natural-resource-management agency) with support from ANCON, an environmental NGO. In 1989 the OAS and CI were requested by the Government of Panama to help support the establishment of its portion of an eventual "La Amistad International Biosphere Reserve."

Under the auspices of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Policy (MIPPE), the OAS, CI, and all major stakeholders were invited to attend a series of meetings in which the geographical coverage and institutional makeup of the proposed biosphere reserve were discussed. The results of these meetings were put into one proposal, which is currently being commented on by the public and private agencies in Panama for later submission to UNESCO for official recognition as a Biosphere Reserve, and a strategy has been drafted for submission to Government so that national- and international-level management activities can be initiated.

As proposed, the future biosphere reserve in Panama (RBA/Panama) consists of parts of the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí and includes the La Amistad International Park, the area of the proposed Teribe Indigenous Reserve, Volcán Barú National Park, the Palo Seco Watershed Protection Forest, the area of the Guaymí indigenous territory, the Islas Bastimento Marine Park, and the Fortuna Forest Reserve.

Many of the problems confronted in establishing and managing the RBA/Panama are similar to those found in Costa Rica. One such problem was the conflict created by the granting of a concession to Texaco to explore for petroleum in Bocas del Toro--an area that covers much of the proposed biosphere reserve and portions of the PILA (Medina, 1991). Another is the initiation of a road through the Volcán Barú National Park which would help advance the agricultural frontier into the Park as well as to allow access to privately held areas.2 Binational meetings were held to exchange experiences and ideas both on these problems and on those revolving around fund-raising, media coverage, and binational cooperation.

2 Letter from the Panama Audubon Society to the Public Works Commission of the Legislative Assembly objecting to the "Proyecto de Ley No. 30: Construcci6n de Carretera Nueva entre Boquete y Cerro Punta, Provincia de Chiriquí."

Other conflicts have been brought into the discussion and a more productive dialogue seems to have been initiated. Previously, as a result of national debate surrounding the proposed Guaymí District, the Guaymí General Congress had vigorously opposed any studies or execution of projects in the area of the proposed district, including that of creating a biosphere reserve, and the establishment of the La Amistad International Park. After consultations with representatives of this group, a formula was worked out for their full participation in the discussions on the proposed surface coverage, makeup, and administration of the RBA/Panama.

Despite the similarities of objectives and process, the work in Panama has been different because the RBA/Panama does not yet exist. As a consequence, a major objective of the effort was to make the establishment of the biosphere a reality. The overall objective, however, has not been forgotten: to bring the organizational and management status of the future biosphere reserve up to that of the Costa Rica portion so that the area along both sides of the border may be administered with coordinated objectives, similar criteria and management methods, and a comparable level of investment activity.


Several years of work in the Talamanca region with the governments of Costa Rica and Panama and their institutions and people have highlighted a number of considerations that must be accounted for when undertaking such a planning effort. Change, information flow, political will, and financing are four of the more important of these.

(1) Change. Large-scale physical change regularly occurs within the Talamanca region. For example, on April 22, 1991, a strong earthquake shook the eastern slope of Talamanca triggering landslides, creation of unstable debris dams, flooding, loss of infrastructure (Figures 1 and 2), injury, loss of life, and forced migration into the more sparsely occupied areas of the region by a significant portion of the local population (CRERT, 1991). This earthquake was not an isolated event. Talamanca lies at the confluence of the Cocos, Caribbean, and Nazca plates, and as a result of their movement the region has averaged a major earthquake every 2.25 years in the three and a quarter centuries since local records have been kept. All of the more recent events have been accompanied by the loss of housing, infrastructure, services, and jobs. And all have stimulated human migrations throughout the area of the proposed biosphere reserve. Houseal and Weber (1989) have described the pressures leading to other such changes, all of which have threatened conservation activities in Talamanca. These include the construction of hydroelectric dams, oil and gas pipelines, roads, transmission corridors, and refineries as well as the activities of ranching, agricultural plantations, logging, and mining.

(2) Information flow. Involving local people and institutions in all phases of the planning of natural resources is vital to the survival of protected areas, development in their buffer zones, and the conservation of biodiversity outside of those "gates." Keeping NGOs, the local press, community groups, and schools abreast of the progress in planning and implementation helps to avoid criticism based on incomplete or false information. This latter point is particularly important if financing agencies are to get the complete picture of a project's impact and not a partial or negative view. A core of informed and involved people at the local level is excellent insurance for a project's survival. Looking at a "landscape" for its integrative and scientific values is only one way of seeing the problems of biodiversity conservation. Another is its value in identifying the pool of potentially conflictive decision-makers who must somehow become involved in a search for consensus on what the "best" decisions are.

(3) Political will. A lack of political will is often cited as the cause of planning failure. The planning efforts in La Amistad were fortunate, however, since if the creation of the La Amistad International Park and the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve had anything in its favor, it was sustained "political will" at the highest levels of government in both Costa Rica and Panama. In addition to the presidential declarations and sectoral agreements signed by the respective ministers, six binational technical commissions were established and are still functioning: health, agriculture and animal husbandry, natural resources, commerce and industry, public works and transportation, and municipalities. Interest on the part of presidents, however, does not necessarily mean a smooth process of planning. Despite this "political will," interagency conflicts will remain and these conflicts must be identified and considered if not resolved if a plan is to be successful.

(4) Financing. Efforts by numerous interested parties to gain required financing for the establishment and management of the RBA have been relatively successful. However, despite the existence of a well-studied integrated strategy and a list of project proposals that have been studied in detail, funding these proposals remains difficult. For better or worse, all donor institutions have their own agendas and ideas of what needs to be done and these may not fit a local strategy created to solve local problems. Funding groups also have their own boards of directors, constituencies, donors, and interests. Finding common ground between these and the local users of the landscape remains a difficult task.

Figures 1 Results of the April 22, 1991, Earthquake in the Bocas del Toro Region of Panama / Photos: Juan José Castro

Figures 1 Results of the April 22, 1991, Earthquake in the Bocas del Toro Region of Panama / Photos: Juan José Castro


The work to design the institutional, administrative, and management strategies and to secure funding for the development projects necessary to support the process of "sustainable development" in Talamanca is not finished. Nevertheless, several important lessons have been learned that can be applied elsewhere. They include lessons on the following topics:

(1) Peace parks. International protected areas along borders contribute to reducing border tensions and issues of access by rural inhabitants to resources. Commonalities in management problems on both sides of the border may eventually require a binational approach to long-term management of these protected areas and the surrounding buffer or multiple use areas.

(2) Planning as a process. A coordinating commission is often a necessity at the outset of the planning process in order to reduce interagency competition for the control of resources, to involve local people, and to serve as a centralized authority for the receipt and distribution of technical assistance and project development funds. But planning cannot be done by a committee. Iteration must be a part of any participatory planning process so that the objectives can become focused.

(3) Financing. A foundation may be a valuable mechanism for coordinating and stabilizing financing planning and management. The next logical step is that national and local foundations active in Talamanca form a coalition or consortium in order to coordinate their activities, as a means of facilitating long-term financial stability of the entire RBA.

(4) The reality of interagency conflicts. High-level political support is fundamental for moving the concept of an international park and overcoming the tendency of sectoral agencies to subdivide park planning and management functions into areas covered by each specific mandate.

(5) Conservation outside the gates. Protection of core areas and the concept of biodiversity conservation in La Amistad have positively affected the management of adjacent areas.

(6) Using the available data. The collection of a vast amount of new data is not necessarily required to prepare an initial management strategy. The important thing is to establish the reserve, design a draft management strategy, and then begin to refine it with new data, more sophisticated strategies, etc.


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