For Immediate Release, February 18, 2008


Peter Galvin (520) 970-1533
Jason Gray (406) 781-4154
Linda Barrera (Panama) +(507) 6731-5722 or 6734-1703

UN Delegation Visits Central America's Largest Rainforest,
Panama's La Amistad, Threatened by Dams

PANAMA– Conservation groups from Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States are preparing to meet with a delegation from the World Heritage Centre and World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Panama 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 IUCN, the floral diversity of La Amistad is “perhaps unequaled in any other reserve of equivalent size in the world.”

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 World Heritage List was based on the fact that it is an outstanding example of ongoing biological evolution and provides significant habitat for threatened species.

The Center for Biological Diversity led a coalition of more than 30 conservation and indigenous organizations to file a petition with the World Heritage Committee in April of last year to list La Amistad as a World Heritage site “in danger,” due in large part to pending construction of four hydroelectric dams in the site’s buffer zone. The dams (three of which will be operated by the U.S.-based AES Corporation and 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 and the Bonyic (a tributary of the Teribe). 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.

On June 26, 2007, the World Heritage Committee decided to take action based on this petition, which it referred to as “well researched and credible,” and is sending a joint delegation of the World Heritage Centre and IUCN to evaluate the level of threats faced by La Amistad.

“The decision adopted by the World Heritage Committee demonstrates a strong commitment to the conservation of World Heritage sites,” said Peter Galvin, conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope this sets a precedent for protecting sites under threat from hydroelectric dam construction.”

The dams also put at great risk indigenous Naso and Ngobe communities that have lived for generations in La Amistad’s buffer zone. With increasing pressure from the government and the corporations, the situation for indigenous peoples has become increasingly perilous, leading in some cases to brutal repression by police forces. On January 3, 2008, more than 50 Ngobe people from the village of Charco la Pava were beaten and imprisoned for protesting the dams and the fact that their village had been destroyed. The use of police repression by the government, according to Susana Serracin, a Panamanian lawyer assisting the Ngobe, “is violating human rights by illegally accosting and incarcerating indigenous people in order to ‘clear’ the area to permit work on the hydroelectric dams to proceed.”

The World Heritage Centre/IUCN visit will occur during the week of February 18, 2008, during which the delegation will meet with government agencies from both countries, as well as other groups concerned with the future of La Amistad. The Center for Biological Diversity will continue assisting the efforts of environmental and indigenous groups in Panama and will be present to assist the delegation in its visit.

In particular, the visit will focus on the incompatibility of constructing dams near World Heritage sites and maintaining the sites’ integrity. “The World Heritage Centre and IUCN need to be made aware of the actual threats these dams pose to La Amistad, and we are looking forward to working with our Panamanian and Costa Rican colleagues to ensure that this happens,” said Jason Gray, a law clerk working with the Center for Biological Diversity. 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 List of World Heritage in Danger, as recommended by the petition.

For now, the threats to La Amistad and the Naso and Ngobe communities remain serious and immediate, as dam construction is still pending. Final decision-making power rests with Panama and Costa Rica, but the strength of the evidence presented in the petition, which will be presented during the World Heritage Centre/IUCN visit, may lead the World Heritage Committee and the international community to stand up and require better protection of this remarkable site of global biological importance.

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 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.

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