Unprotected Nature Reserves
By Pilar Franco
Mesoamerica has a total of 597 nature reserves, with stunning tropical landscapes. But is that enough to protect the subregion’s biodiversity in the long-term?
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- The existence of 597 protected areas in Central America and southern Mexico is insufficient to preserve this subregion, known as Mesoamerica, which is home to 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity and is inhabited by more than 40 million people, a majority of whom live in poverty.
Although they have been declared reserves, only a few of the areas are actually protected by a legal and institutional framework capable of conserving biodiversity and generating, in the long-range, the goods and services necessary for the development of local communities, according to a number of studies.
The creation of protected areas under these conditions will do little to save forest ecosystems, for example, which are being deforested in the region at a rate of 44 hectares per hour. If that tendency continues unchecked, the region’s forests could completely vanish by 2015, warns the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The deforestation that threatens the Bosawas nature reserve in Nicaragua, the predatory practices that are destroying Honduras’ mangroves on the Gulf of Fonseca, and the destruction of Montes Azules in the Lacandona jungle of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas are just a few of the serious challenges facing the region.
Over the past 30 years, the governments of Mesoamerica (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and the Mexican states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas) declared 597 areas nature reserves, with the aim of curbing the loss of natural habitat.
But half of the reserves are not even staffed, only 12 percent have specific management plans, most are poorly delimited, and research projects are only being carried out in a few dozen of them.
According to UNEP, the lack of steady economic growth in the region makes it difficult or impossible to significantly reduce rural poverty, which in turn will continue putting enormous pressure on natural habitats and weakly protected reserves .
In the view of environmental organisations, the worst enemy of the natural habitat in Mesoamerica, which shares a common cultural identity and natural ecosystem, are environmental policies that fall short in checking the destruction of protected areas.
These issues will be raised at the First Mesoamerican Congress of Protected Areas, to take place in Managua, Nicaragua Mar. 10-14, which will issue a statement on the commitments adopted by the region to protect biodiversity over the next 15 years.
The gathering will discuss measures aimed at fighting the growing fragmentation of natural habitats, one of the main causes of the extinction of species. That is the objective of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC) created in 1997 to interconnect the nature reserves of the various countries and give continuity to the region’s biological diversity.
The MBC project has been assigned a budget of 16 million dollars for the next five years, partly financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).
However, many environmental groups remain sceptical. The participation of civil society in endeavours like the MBC has been shrinking, discouraged “by the absence of effective and enforceable decisions,” Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, president of the Grupo de los Cien Internacional (Group of 100), an umbrella group of environmental organisations, told Tierramerica.
At the first Ibero-American summit of heads of state and government, in 1991, Aridjis and Colombian Nobel Literature prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Márquez presented a proposal recommending the creation of a joint Mexican-Guatemalan eco-archaeological park that would “ensure the preservation of the great tropical jungle of Chiapas and El Peten,” said the activist.
But “the governments themselves do not respect what they claim to be protecting, and turn the decrees into dead letter,” he complained.
That is the case in Montes Azules, in the conflict-ridden Mexican state of Chiapas, which according to Aridjis “is a reserve that has been virtually destroyed” by logging interests, large landowners and local indigenous communities that are not even aware that it has been declared a protected area.
In Nicaragua, if deforestation is not checked, the Bosawas reserve, one of the biggest protected areas in Central America, could lose its status as a world biosphere reserve, as it was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1997.
Silvia Argüello, an expert with the non-governmental Humboldt Centre, pointed to the dangers faced by Bosawas. “There are no controls over the extraction of timber in that area, which in addition forms part of a drug trafficking route,” she told Tierramerica.
Since 2001, Nicaragua has lost 73,000 hectares of jungle, according to official statistics, due to the expansion of agricultural land and the effects of forest fires, hurricanes, drought and flooding.
In the Platano river reserve, in the Honduran departments of Olancho and
Mosquita, environmental organisations are fighting to prevent the disappearance of species like the harpy eagle.
In the Gulf of Fonseca, off the Pacific shoreline of southern Honduras, shrimp-farming companies continue destroying mangroves and other natural ecosystems, which are on the verge of disappearing, Jorge Varela, with the Committee for the Defence of the Gulf Flora and Fauna, said in an interview with Tierramerica
A “less theoretical and more practical” official discourse is necessary, said Varela, who believes dialogue could “help save” the natural habitats of Honduras.
The Honduran government has called together social groups and academic institutions to hammer out, by late February, a common agenda for the meeting in Managua, reported Conrado González with the governmental Honduran Corporation of Forest Development.
The debate on the environment has made progress, and there is now awareness that creating protected areas “does not mean closing the doors to development,” but paving the way for better economic opportunities, Teresa Zúñiga, with the Managua meeting’s organising committee, told Tierramerica.
* Pilar Franco is a contributor to Tierramerica. Thelma Mejía (Honduras) and Nohelia González (Nicaragua) also contributed to this article.