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The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor
by Craig Metrick

Hello. My name is Craig Metrick. I have recently completed a study of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC). Included here is an introduction to that study. The MBC is a controversial topic, in part because of its unprecedented size and scope and also because of its methods for achieving its goals of conservation and sustainable development. Serious concerns exist about whether the MBC is a viable option for attaining sustainable development in Central America because of the enormous amount of money and international cooperation it will require. In addition, local and indigenous groups contend that the intrusions on their lands and culture to establish conservation projects are ill-concieved and in many cases illegal. Despite these doubts and the MBC's immaturity I believed a narrative of the historical, present, and fututre conditions and considerations shaping the MBC was overdue. Whether or not you agree with the precepts and vision of the MBC and its decision-makers, tens of millions of dollars have already been committed and projects continue to be proposed and funded.

(Where appropriate I have included links to other websites with information on topics discussed here. Some are direct, or as direct as possible, links to organizations or documents while others offer background information or examples of points I have raised. These may not be definitive examples or original information sources but they were chosen because of availability and demonstration of the variety of activities the Corridor encompasses).

Approximately 3 million years ago geologic activity, in what is now Panama, parted the ocean to reveal a land bridge between North and South America. The bridge caused dramatic changes in evolution and geography, the effects of which are still being assessed today. The Gulf Stream was created by the separation of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, thereby making the climate in Western Europe much more hospitable. Locally, the event allowed the exchange of plant and animal species between two previously isolated continents.

Known as the Great American Faunal Interchange, this period of natural history had enormous influence on the present species composition of North, Central, and South America. Many species of large mammals followed the lush vegetation south from North America. Predators (including humans) soon followed their prey changing the landscape forever. Central and South America, did not have much previous experience with the effects of larger predators and prey on ecosystems. Plants, predators, and prey, were left to evolve together. The result is a series of complex ecosystems, in a delicate balance with their inhabitants and each other, where ~7-8% of the world's species live in just .5% of earth's land area.

The unique geography and history of Central America has contributed significantly to the region's political development. References to Central America usually include Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, Belize, and (all or part of) Mexico. These sovereign nations, separated by mountains, rivers, and some contentious political boundaries, share a great deal of history. Despite their differences, the countries share a common ancestry and experiences such as European invasion and colonization and political and military manipulation throughout the Cold War. Today, though representing varying degrees of democracy and political stability, Central America is a relatively impoverished region, faced with the dilemma of rapidly diminishing natural resources, foreign debt, inflation, and other economic woes.

In the 1980's Dr. Archie Carr III of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation and colleagues in the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) sought to reestablish a natural corridor through the range of the Florida Panther (South, Central and North America). This project became known as Paseo Pantera (Path of the Panther). The United States Aigency for International Development contributed funds to strengthen and expand the management of major protected areas in the region. As Central America's natural resources were being degraded and more people plunged into poverty, attention was directed towards a more comprehensive regional project to address both conservation and development needs. The concept of a Mesoamerican Biological Corridor was endorsed by the region's governments as an opportunity to reconcile the need for peace, environmental protection, and economic development.

As conceived, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor will stretch from the southeast of Mexico along the Atlantic coast of Belize and Guatemala. It will continue down the Atlantic Coast of the isthmus and spread into the interiors of Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Corridor will wind down the Atlantic coast of Panama and finish (for now) in the Choco region of Panaman and Colombia. Despite its name, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is not just a conservation project. National commitments to the Corridor (drafted, funded, and implemented with the assistance of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNDP, UNEP and the World Bank) include a wide range of goals and methods. Some nations are intend to development of areas outside the planned corridor to divert populations from fragile ecosystems and others are pursuing the promotion of alternative economic activities (i.e., traditional agroecosystems and carbon sequestration) for those people living within and around the designated corridor area.

A large number of the people living within the proposed Corridor belong to indigenous populations. Many of the core Corridor areas have traditionally been inhabited by native peoples. Intense controversy has occurred when governments have imposed restrictions on land use, such as the establishment of a protected area, on native lands. Therefore, several provisions in regional and national Corridor projects have been developed to increase the role of indgenous peoples in the process. These initiatives include indigenous profiles and capacity building initatives undertaken by the World Bank, to assess the location, population, and situation of native peoples. Other initiatives are taking place on a national level, such as developing laws to allow indigenous peoples to pursue a legal claim to land. In addition, several issues currently on the agenda of the international conservation community, with links to indigenous peoples issues, promise to be important aspects in the progress of the MBC. Among these are the proliferation of participatory mapping exercises, bioprospecting and benefit sharing, traditional agroecosystems, as well as ecotourism, are issues attracting attention, funding, and proposals for development. It is too early to tell exact;y how these projects and programs will impact indigenous populations and subsequently the consolidation of the Corridor. However, by evaluating lessons in the history of the region and international development some hypotheses can be drawn. The results of the Corridor will depend on the intentions and will of decision makers to follow through with promises of a participatory process and information sharing, awareness of the Corridor and the willingness of indigenous peoples to accept the Corridor program, and reinvestment in park management and natural resource protection.

The Meso American Biological Corridor (MBC) has been described as the largest and most complex sustainable development project to date. The initiative was formally endorsed by Central American nations in the 1992 XII Reunion de Presidentes Centroamericanos Convenio Para la Conservacion de la Biodiversidad y Proteccion de Areas Silvestres Prioritas en America Central and the Alliance for Sustainable Development in the Americas, signed in 1994. As early as 1989, however, the governments of Central America established the Comisión Centroamericana de Ambiente y Desarrollo (CCAD). The CCAD is a regional institution (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama, with Belize and Mexico as observers) responsible for coordinating all regional environmental and sustainable development activities.

There are also regional projects involved in the implementation of the corridor. Coordinated by CCAD, US AID funded the Paseo Pantera project (now known as PROARCA, Regional Environmental Project for Central America) which provides support to CCAD. In addition, the GEF has approved a UNDP/UNEP proposal for the "establishment of a program for the consolidation of a Mesoamerican Biological Corridor." These projects focus on the long-term establishment of the corridor by providing support for information gathering/dissemination, planning and institutional capacity building.

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