For Immediate Release, June 26, 2007 (June 27, 2007 in New Zealand)
Peter Galvin, (520) 907-1533
Jason Gray, (406) 781-4154
World Heritage Committee Commits to Protecting Panama World Heritage Site
International Body Takes Action Based on Petition
From More Than 30 Environmental and Indigenous Organizations
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand– The World Heritage Committee, during its 31st session yesterday, decided to take action based on a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and more than 30 other organizations in the United States, Panama, and Costa Rica to ascertain the level of threats faced by La Amistad International Park, a World Heritage site shared by Panama and Costa Rica.
The World Heritage Committee, a group of 21 countries representing the 184 countries that are party to the World Heritage Convention, is part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and is responsible for implementing a 1972 treaty to protect natural and cultural areas of outstanding universal value. The committee designated the Costa Rican portion of La Amistad in 1983 and listed the park as a single World Heritage site in 1990, after Panama nominated its portion of La Amistad in 1989. The decision to add La Amistad to the list of World Heritage sites was based on the fact that it is an outstanding example of ongoing biological evolution and provides significant habitat for threatened species.
La Amistad, Spanish for “friendship,” protects the largest and most diverse virgin rainforest remaining in Central America and 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 World Conservation Union, the floral diversity of La Amistad is “perhaps unequalled in any other reserve of equivalent size in the world.”
The petition was submitted in April 2007 in order to list La Amistad as a World Heritage site “in danger,” due in large part to the pending construction of four hydroelectric dams on the site’s border. The dams (three of which will be operated by the U.S.-based AES Corporation, one of which will be run by the Colombian-owned Hidroecologica del Teribe, S.A.) are set to be built on two important rivers originating inside La Amistad: the Changuinola River and the Bonyic River (a tributary of the Teribe River). The resulting change in the river system will alter the ecology of La Amistad by blocking water passage and creating large, standing reservoirs.
Said Ezequiel Miranda, a community leader living near La Amistad: “These projects would be detrimental to indigenous cultures which have historically been affected by proposals for supposed ‘development.’ ” In fact, the reservoirs will flood several villages along the Changuinola River, effectively displacing several hundred Ngobe indigenous peoples. And the dams would have massive negative impacts on many diadromous species of fish and shrimp living in the rivers, which migrate between fresh- and saltwater to complete their life cycles. The dams will end this migration. Click here to read the “technical paper” supporting the La Amistad petition. An “in danger” listing would require the governments of Panama and Costa Rica, in consultation with the World Heritage Committee, to adopt a plan for corrective measures to restore La Amistad’s outstanding values. Listing would also permit the World Heritage Committee to allocate financial assistance from the World Heritage Fund.
The World Heritage Committee referred to the petition as a “well researched and credible report” and expressed concerns over the pending construction of the four hydroelectric dams on La Amistad’s border; its decision could encourage the Panamanian government to cancel the dam projects and deal with other threats to the park. The committee regrets that the construction of the dams was not communicated to it and has requested Panama and Costa Rica to allow a joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN visit to the site in order to ascertain the level of threats. In particular, the visit will focus on the incompatibility of constructing dams near World Heritage sites and maintaining the sites’ integrity. Following the visit, the two countries will be asked to develop a report on the conservation status of the site for the 32nd session of the World Heritage Committee in 2008. If adequate steps are not taken by both countries, La Amistad may join the World Heritage “in danger” list, as recommended by the petition.
According to Peter Galvin, conservation director with the Center for Biological Diversity, “The decision adopted by the World Heritage Committee demonstrates a strong commitment to the conservation of World Heritage sites. We hope this sets a precedent for protecting sites under threat from hydroelectric dam construction.”
Linda Barrera, a Panamanian citizen and law clerk for the International Environmental Law Project, which authored the petition, said: “This is a positive step in the right direction because it encourages community groups supporting this petition that their efforts were not in vain. Somebody was listening, and hopefully it will lead Panama to reevaluate its policies and decision relating to better conservation for La Amistad.”
For now, the threats to La Amistad remain serious and immediate, as dam construction is still pending. While final decision-making power rests with Panama and Costa Rica, the strength of the evidence and of the World Heritage Committee’s decision are encouraging to those who would see the dam projects halted. According to Ezequiel Miranda, “The committee made the most appropriate decision to safeguard world heritage which not only benefits Panamanians, but also benefits the quality of life for all humans and living beings on the planet.”
Both Spanish and English versions of the La Amistad World Heritage “In Danger” petition are available. Please click here for the English version and here for the Spanish.
The World Heritage Committee draft decision is also available. Please click here. The final decision, which adopts the draft decision as written, will be made available at a later date.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 35,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org.