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International Environmental Law Project (IELP)

Park in Costa Rica and Panama petitioned as “in Danger” under the World Heritage Convention

June 26, 2007

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On June 26, 2007, IELP, under the direction of Clinical Professor Erica Thorson and on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, prepared a Petition to list La Amistad International Park in Panama and Costa Rica as a World Heritage site in Danger due to the imminent construction of four hydroelectric dams and increasing problems with human encroachment. Based in large part on the support of two local indigenous groups, the Naso and the Ngobe, and two visits to Panama by the leading student authors, Jason Gray (‘08) and Linda Barrera (‘08), the Petition garnered the support of over 32 non-governmental organizations from Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States.

On June 26, 2007, the World Heritage Committee reviewed the Petition and agreed with the threat assessment and arguments proposed by IELP. It has asked the governments of Panama and Costa Rica to invite an investigatory joint-mission of the World Heritage Centre/World Conservation Union (IUCN) to evaluate the threats posed by the dams and human encroachment to La Amistad and to prepare reports on the conservation status of the Park for discussion at the World Heritage Committee meeting in 2008. If the conservation status of La Amistad has not improved, then the World Heritage Committee could follow the final recommendations of the Petition and list La Amistad as a World Heritage site in Danger.

The Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage of 1972 was established to protect the world’s outstanding examples of natural and cultural heritage. For instance, natural areas might receive designation as World Heritage because they harbor significant habitat for threatened and endangered species. The Convention set up a List of World Heritage, which currently includes 851 properties. In addition, the Convention established a List of World Heritage in Danger, which includes World Heritage properties facing ascertained or potential dangers which are amenable to correction by human action. Designation on the “in Danger” list can lead to increased international assistance and financing from the World Heritage Fund to remove the dangers and improve the conservation status of the site.

La Amistad was designated as World Heritage in 1990 (the Costa Rica portion was designated in 1983 and was combined with the Panamanian portion in 1990) because it contains the largest remaining intact forest in all of Central America. According to IUCN,its floral and faunal diversity is “perhaps unequalled in any other reserve of equivalent size in the world.” La Amistad International Park sustains over 115 species of fish, 250 species of reptiles and amphibians, 215 species of mammals, and 600 species of birds. Among these exists an incredible ensemble of threatened, endangered, and endemic species. Based on these characteristics, La Amistad received World Heritage status because it fulfills every criterion for natural sites, as determined by the Operational Guidelines of the World Heritage Convention.

However, the threats to La Amistad are serious enough, and imminent enough, to warrant a listing as “in Danger.” First, four hydroelectric dams are proposed along the border of the Panamanian portion of the Park. These dams will alter the hydrology and ecology of the site. In particular, they will extirpate various species of diadromous fish and shrimp, which migrate between the Caribbean Sea and the rivers within the Park. Because of the variety of migration patterns of these aquatic species, mitigation via fish ladders or other designs is not possible. The dams will block future migrations, effectively eradicating these species from the rivers of La Amistad.

Second, several indigenous communities live on the boundary of the Park. The dams and associated infrastructure have been a source of conflict between these groups and the Panamanian government. Third, human encroachment has increased throughout the Park. Forest has been cut down inside the World Heritage site to accommodate cattle ranches and farms and poaching is known to occur. Finally, management activities have been insufficient to improve the status of La Amistad vis-à-vis these threats.

For the sake of the Naso and the Ngobe and the many NGOs in Panama and Costa Rica fighting to protect La Amistad, as well as for the common concern of world heritage generally, IELP hopes that the governments of Panama and Costa Rica invite the World Heritage Centre/IUCN team to visit in good faith with an eye toward protecting the outstanding universal values of La Amistad International Peace Park.

Additional Information

Petition to the World Heritage Committee: Talamanca Range - La Amistad Reserves/La Amistad National Park

CBD Press Release: World Heritage Committee Commits to Protecting Panama World Heritage Site

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