For Immediate Release, February 22, 2008


Peter Galvin (520) 970-1533
Linda Barrera (Panama) +(507) 6734-1703

Environmental and Indigenous Groups Meet UN Delegation in Panama

PANAMA— Conservation groups from Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States met on Tuesday with a delegation from UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and World Conservation Union, or 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 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.” This week, it sent a joint delegation of the World Heritage Centre and IUCN to evaluate the level of threats faced by La Amistad. The delegation met with governmental, nongovernmental, and private-sector parties about the conservation status of La Amistad on Tuesday. “We are pleased that we were able to express our concerns and present our strong evidence that La Amistad is faced with serious threats,” said Linda Barrera, a law clerk working with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The government has unsuccessfully tried to refute our claims and discredit our efforts, but the hydroelectric dams and other threats put La Amistad International Park at immediate risk.”

Following the meeting with ANAM, the environmental and indigenous groups organized a widely attended public forum to further inform Panamanians about the World Heritage Centre/IUCN visit and about the threats to their natural heritage. The entire World Heritage Centre/IUCN delegation also attended the forum. Presenters emphasized the importance of La Amistad, both for biodiversity conservation and for indigenous Naso and Ngobe communities who have lived for generations in La Amistad’s buffer zone. Two parataxonomists from the Naso community explained their studies on aquatic species of the area, and the devastating impact the dams would have on the fish and the communities who depend on them. “These dams will completely block the river passage of migratory fish, many of which are important not only ecologically, but for our diet as well,” said Hugo Sanchez and Marcio Bonilla, the Naso parataxonomists.

With increasing pressure from the government and the hydroelectric 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. According to Susana Serracin, a Panamanian lawyer assisting the Ngobe, the government “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 delegation is currently visiting the dam areas in La Amistad’s buffer zone, although it appears the government might restrict their visit to certain limited zones. Following the visit, Panama and Costa Rica 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 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 and will be present to continue discussing with the delegation.

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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