La Amistad Biosphere Reserve
Dam Building Near World Heritage Site Affects Wildlife and People
Developers target area surrounding largest rainforest in Central America for hydroelectric dams. Endangered and endemic species as well as indigenous peoples affected.
The Talamanca mountain range, bridging southeast Costa Rica and northwest Panama, where discoveries of new species of salamanders made the news in 2007, is an unusual place. Plants and animals of both North and South America are found here. Several indigenous peoples live within the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve as well. But demands for hydroelectric power and access by road to other resources put the area’s inhabitants at risk.
The Biodiversity of La Amistad
La Amistad International Peace Park is adjacent to the Palo Seco Forest Reserve and is a major water source for the San San/Pondsak Wetlands, a designated Ramsar site. Many species of fish which require saltwater at some stage of their lives make their way into and out of the Reserve as part of their life cycle.
Within the Reserve are multiple ecosystems, not just rainforest. Cloud forest, a special type of high elevation rainforest covered in cloud most of the time, and paramo, a scrub plant, grass and small tree ecosystem occurring above the tree line, are both found here. As is the largest tract of virgin mixed oak forest in Costa Rica. More than 30 percent of the park’s plant species are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else.
Ocelot, puma, jaguar, Baird’s or Central American tapir, squirrel and spider monkeys all make their home here. In total 215 mammal species can be found with the Biosphere Reserve. The bird life is also abundant with harpy ,crested and solitary eagles, Resplendent Quetzal and bare-necked umbrella birds, in addition to nearly 60 endemic species. Reptile and amphibian species number over 250, two of them new salamanders, have been recorded. It is suspected that further surveying will find more as this is area has a very high density of amphibians.
Several indigenous peoples live in the Changuinola River basin. Three of five of Panama’s indigenous tribes are found in La Amistad.
Risks to La Amistad Biosphere Reserve and the Changuinola Watershed
Throughout the world the same litany of threats recurs over and over again. Slash and burn land clearing for agriculture and cattle farming destroys the integral biodiversity of an area. Hunting and other commercial exploitation of exotic species strip away another layer of the ecosystem. In the La Amistad areas, road building to access mineral and coal puts another pressure on the system.
The need for energy is driving the latest threat. Hydroelectric dams are planned for the Changuinola and its tributaries would cut off eleven species of diadromous fish from feeding or spawning grounds. Indigenous lands would be flooded and further incursion into pristine ecosystems for construction and maintenance will add to the loss of biodiversity.
The Center for Biological Diversity is leading efforts to stop the planned dam construction. Relocating the project to an already disturbed watershed and reviewing alternative energy sources are options for providing power without destroying La Amistad and San San/Pondsak. And RARE is working to build awareness and support for protecting La Amistad within local communities, including the indigenous tribes most likely to be affected. With several organizations, both local and international, exploring ways to ensure the protection of the park while finding ways to help improve the lives of the people of the area, perhaps an answer can be found.