For Immediate Release, February 25, 2008
Contact: Peter Galvin, (520) 970-1533
PANAMA– Over the past week, conservation groups from Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States met with a delegation from the United Nations World Heritage Centre and World Conservation Union, or IUCN, in Panama and Costa Rica to discuss threats to La Amistad International Park. La Amistad is a World Heritage site shared by Panama and Costa Rica that protects the largest, most diverse virgin rainforest remaining in Central America. It is one of the last refuges for such endangered species as the jaguar, ocelot, Central American tapir, resplendent quetzal, and harpy eagle. According to the IUCN, the floral diversity of La Amistad is “perhaps unequaled in any other reserve of equivalent size in the world.”
The delegation visited La Amistad after receiving a petition filed last April by the Center for Biological Diversity and more than 30 other conservation and indigenous organizations to declare La Amistad as a World Heritage site “in danger,” due in large part to the pending construction of four hydroelectric dams in the site’s buffer zone. The delegation met with governmental agencies in both countries, and discussed threats to the park with non-governmental and private sector parties. In particular, the visit focused on assessing the incompatibility of constructing dams near World Heritage sites and maintaining the sites’ integrity.
Despite attempts by Panama’s National Environment Authority to discredit and exclude a growing coalition of environmental groups from meetings, environmentalists were able to meet repeatedly with the delegation. According to David Samudio, an environmental leader from Cerro Punta: “We were able to coordinate our coalition in such a way as to participate in multiple meetings, including during the final day’s working sessions. Never before have so many environmental groups concerned with the conservation of La Amistad been able to participate with as much cohesion as during this delegation’s visit.” Throughout the week, “Our coalition provided clear evidence that threats such as illegal hunting, logging, and inadequate surveillance have created a disastrous state of management for La Amistad,” said Ezequiel Miranda, president of the Asociación para la Conservación de la Biosfera.
To make matters worse, the construction of hydroelectric dams in the park’s buffer zone will irreversibly affect aquatic species in and outside of La Amistad. Three dams are set to be built on the Changuinola River by U.S.-based AES Corporation and one on the Bonyic River by Colombian Empresas Publicas de Medellin. Both rivers originate inside La Amistad, and the resulting change in the river system will alter the ecology of La Amistad by blocking water passage for many migratory aquatic species and creating large, standing reservoirs. These dams have already begun to wreak havoc on indigenous Naso and Ngobe communities who have lived in the area for generations. Indigenous rights groups are increasingly concerned about human rights violations on the part of the government and the two companies.
Conservation groups have also criticized these dams and other threats to La Amistad for violating environmental laws in Panama. The Center for Biological Diversity has assisted environmental lawyers in Panama in submitting several lawsuits challenging the dams. According to Susana Serracin, an environmental lawyer in Panama: “The companies were given concessions to build based on environmental impact studies that did not comply with Panama’s environmental laws. Among other irregularities, the government approved these studies without the required baseline data on species living in the rivers.” Currently, the companies have paid for some studies on the dams’ potential impact on their immediate surrounding area, but only after they had already built roads to the dam construction areas.
Throughout the week, it became clear that no one has studied the cumulative impact these dams will have on the World Heritage site, its buffer zone, or downstream areas. In fact, during one of the meetings with the World Heritage delegation, an environmental consultant for AES said that he could not speak to impacts on La Amistad, because he knew nothing of La Amistad. “The lack of understanding of the importance of effectively managing a World Heritage site for biodiversity conservation may be the greatest threat to the integrity of La Amistad International Park,” lamented Ariel Rodriguez, president of the Alianza para la Conservacion y el Desarrollo.
Of equal concern, the Panamanian government was able to keep the delegation from visiting areas in and around La Amistad that conservation groups had signaled as critical for combating conservation threats. The delegation did conduct several over-flights of the Panamanian and Costa Rican portions of the Park. However, due to the program they were given by the government, and the short duration of the mission, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN never actually set foot inside the Panamanian portion of La Amistad International Park. “While we are pleased our coalition had time to discuss with the delegation, we are concerned that they left the region without an on-the-ground assessment of La Amistad’s conservation status,” said Linda Barrera, of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The UN delegation will draft a report during the coming months to the governments of Panama and Costa Rica. Following this report, it will work on developing a recommended course of action for the World Heritage Committee during its 32nd session in the summer of 2008. If adequate steps are not taken by both countries to counter the threats to La Amistad, the committee may decide to include it on the List of World Heritage sites in Danger, as recommended by the petition.
The Center for Biological Diversity will continue assisting the efforts of environmental and indigenous groups in Panama to conduct a public awareness campaign and challenge violations of environmental regulations.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 40,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org.