Mesoamerican Biological Corridor: regional initiative for the promotion of forest conservation

Juan Carlos Godoy Herrera 1


The purpose of this paper is to share the Central American experience of an innovative and promising initiative. Based on the definition provided in a policy proposal, its aim is not only to harmonise Central America's territorial priorities in terms of conservation, but to balance biodiversity protection with forest management and productive landscape restoration.


Central America is a region comprising seven countries (Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama). It covers an area of approximately 533,000 km2 and lies between two continental masses and two large water bodies. It includes altitude levels of between 0 and 4,000 metres above sea level; annual rainfall varies between 350 and 7,500 millimetres, with the Pacific the drier side and the Caribbean Sea the more humid. It contains three biomes, 22 ecoregions and more than 300 types of landscape.

Central America has 6,600 kilometres of coastline rich in mangroves, coral reefs and other types of coastal-marine ecosystems. It has approximately 20,000 species of flora (Costa Rica has the largest number), many of which are endemic (the majority found in Guatemala and Panama). As regards wildlife, Central America is rich in terms of vertebrates and has a wealth of invertebrates, all of which have not yet been identified (Vega, 1994).

The region's population currently stands at more than 30 million, with population growth exceeding 2 percent per annum. Deforestation rates continue to be high even though these are lower than in the sixties and seventies. Between 1990 and 1995 the annual rate of loss of forest cover was put at 450,000 hectares. (Rodríguez, 2002).

Central America has had designated protected areas since 1870. However, the conservation movement did not begin until the late 1950s and it was years before the most significant steps were taken to strengthen the region's protected areas: in 1981 Belize passed its Protected Areas Act; between 1983 and 1985 Costa Rica strengthened its system by designating the Amistad International Park and several Wildlife Refuges as protected areas. Guatemala passed its Protected Areas Act in 1989, which led to the establishment of the country's two largest Biosphere Reserves in 1990. Between 1980 and 1988, Panama gave special designation to 14 of the its 20 most important protected areas, equivalent to 95% of the land under conservation (Ygalde & Godoy, 1992).

The most recent data available in 2002 shows that 568 protected areas had been legally proclaimed. This number varies as some experts use data that include areas that are managed de facto (including those covered by administrative arrangements approved by the national protected area authorities). Protected areas cover some 13 million hectares, equivalent to 25-26% of the Central American land mass (Zuñiga, 2002). At present, the Central American Protected Areas System (SICAP) has 200 units classified under IUCN categories I, II and III, covering a total area of 4.34 million hectares (36 percent and 37.1 percent of SICAP's protected areas and total land area respectively). In other words, most of the region's protected areas come under the less restrictive "multiple use" categories. Almost 63 percent of SICAP's land area is classified under IUCN categories IV, V and VI.

According to the data, 29 percent of the 368 protected areas which had been legally designated by 1998 cover less than 1,000 hectares and 67 percent of SICAP protected areas cover less than 10,000 hectares. Only 22 are larger than 100,000 hectares and only four of these cover more than 500,000 hectares.

The countries have included various social organisations in the administration and management of the protected areas. In 2002 there were at least 94 participatory management schemes involving various players, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), universities, local government, grassroots groups (indigenous and campesinos), and private initiative enterprises.

Management through private reserves has helped to conserve resources to varying degrees in the different countries. There are more than 75 private reserves in Costa Rica, some of which have been recognised as Wildlife Refuges under the national system (SINAC). In Guatemala on the other hand, the private reserve concept is recognised under the Protected Areas Act and 51 such reserves have been officially registered under the national system.

SICAP currently has 161 protected areas for coastal resources, eclipsing Panama, where 49 percent of its coastal ecosystems are covered by its protected areas system (SINAP). SICAP has 95 protected cloud forest areas, excluding those in Costa Rica. In Honduras cloud forests account for 63 percent of that country's legally designated areas.

The nineties saw a slight improvement in human development levels, as well as a new round of institutional integration in Central America. First came new environmental institutions such as the Central American Commission for the Environment and Development (CCAD), which led to the Central American Forest and Protected Areas Agreements, and the Centre for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America (CEPREDENAC) (USAID, 1995).

The regional development strategy (ALIDES) was drawn up in the nineties with the main aim of improving the Central Americans' quality of life and achieving political, economic, social and environmental sustainability in the region. Some of the strategy's main characteristics forming part of its terms of reference are:

This strategy prompted the Central American presidents to draw up the regional biodiversity conservation and priority wildlife areas protection agreement in 1992, as a result of which the Central American Protected Areas Council (CCAP) was set up, with its membership comprising the Directors of each country's protected areas service, (CCAD, 1992).

By late 1993, the regional forest conservation agreement had been drawn up and by 1998, the Environment Department of the Central American Integration System (DGMA-SICA) had prepared the Environment Plan for Central America (PARCA). The key areas for international management are: Climate change and the Development of Environmentally-friendly Mechanisms, the Biodiversity Agreement, the RAMSAR and CITES Conventions; international trade, the Environment and Regional Competitiveness; Political, Financial and Technical Cooperation in Environmental Matters; and the Basle Agreement (DGMA, 2000).

The MBC as a platform for conservation

The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC) has a political agenda, based on a vision of the common good of the various countries involved in the initiative (the seven Central American countries plus Mexico which joined later). The agenda was signed and became an official initiative in 1997 during a presidential summit.

The statement issued at the conclusion of that summit described the MBC as a "territorial planning system consisting of natural protected areas under a special regime whereby core, buffer, multiple use and corridor zones are organised and consolidated in order to provide an array of environmental goods and products to the Central American and global societies, offering spaces for social harmonisation to promote investments in the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources".

Following that statement, each country of the region set about designing the MBC and this led to a regional proposal. The MBC is based on the protected areas already existing in each of the countries and on proposals for new ones. Most of these areas were selected and legally declared as protected areas during the last four decades because they contain species of flora and fauna that are endemic or in danger of extinction, samples of unique natural ecosystems, and landscapes that either appeal to the public or produce goods and services of use to society, such as water (Miller et al., 2001).

The MBC also includes a number of corridor zones which link the core protected areas. Most of these were selected for their forestry potential (forests lying outside of the protected areas, steep and stony areas, rivers and water bodies which could benefit from conservation measures, places offering shelter and refuge to large vertebrates, etc.), or for the effective tree cover they provide (forests under logging, coffee plantations with shade, etc).

An analysis carried out in 2000 showed that the full MBC proposal covered 321,103 km2, of which 48.7% are legally declared protected areas, 3.9% are areas proposed for protection and 47.4% are corridor zones (where, in addition to crop, livestock and forestry activities, ecological measures or other forms of conservation are being carried out on private land). This analysis also showed that the MBC as currently proposed could protect 10 ecoregions in critical condition (7% of the area), many of which are on the Pacific side, 8 endangered ecoregions covering 28% of the area (Osa in Costa Rica and Peten in Guatemala), 4 ecoregions in a vulnerable state (53% of the area), many of which are on the Caribbean side, and 8 ecoregions in a relatively stable state (some parts of Amistad and Damien), accounting for 12% of the area (Corrales & Zuñiga, 2001).

Generally speaking, care has been taken to protect mountain ecosystems, such as peaks and volcanoes with cloud forests and low tropical rainforests. However, many areas with endemic species or unique ecosystems are not well represented in Central America's Protected Areas System.

Under the MBC's regional strategy for forest development and consolidation:

In trying to attain these goals, the region faces a set of restricting circumstances. In the multiple use protected areas, forest management is fraught with difficulties. The corridor zones lying between the various protected areas, either within individual countries or straddling countries, are regions where agro-landscapes and, increasingly, urban and periurban areas predominate, with the almost total loss of tree cover.

Forest management within multiple use protected areas is adopting improved practices with a view to obtaining forest certification (FSC). The communities granted concessions to work these multiple-use forests are extracting timber (mahogany and cedar) and other non-timber forest products (ornamental plants and plants for culinary uses). Some forests in the corridor zones are also being managed in line with these criteria. It may be that the former now tend to have better ways of monitoring the health of the ecosystem than the latter.

Most of the proposed corridor zones in the MBC are privately-owned lands (land owned by individuals or by the community) that sustain the economy of millions of Central Americans, including the indigenous peoples. In these areas, the MBC is the best way of slowing down the expansion of the agricultural frontier. Here, agro-forestry practices incorporating arboreal components, including fast-growing tree plantations (wood), play a vital role. Industrial forest plantations have made only a small contribution to the establishment of the MBC in the past five years.

Although some studies do exist, we do not yet have a regional assessment of the reduction in forest fragmentation. The MBC seeks to maintain biodiversity by maintaining biological connectivity through conservation measures on private land (private reserves and ecological measures), to promote environmentally-friendly production alternatives (certified forest management), to facilitate the development of productive activities in an effort to restore the landscape (including the development of forest plantations and the use of trees on farms), and to put forward incentives to ensure that the main building blocks of the MBC (including payment mechanisms for environmental services) are socially and economically feasible.

As a result of the region's increased climatic and social vulnerability, there are a dozen or so projects in support of the restoration of strategic catchment areas, especially those areas which have suffered a loss of tree coverage in recent times in the wake of the many natural disasters which have occurred in the region.

For the MBC initiative to succeed, steps must be taken to increase participation and investment in forest management. In recent years people's participation mechanisms have been developed in Central American countries. These have involved conservation area consultative councils or mangement committees in individual areas. In all the cases where there has been no prior awareness-raising, civil servants have resisted the opening up of these pathways to participation. In many cases this resistance has been justified by past experience, where land has been taken over and the agricultural frontier expanded.

Thanks to the encouragement provided by regional projects, bi- or tri-national committees for protected areas have been established. Traditional alliances are found in Selva Maya, in the Gulf of Honduras (TRIGOH), and in the La Amistad area.


Source: PROARCA/APM 2002, based on MBC 2001.

The Mesoamerican Conservation Biology Society (SMBC) was founded in the late nineties and, since 2001, efforts have been under way to set up the Central American Park Ranger Association and the Central American Private Reserves Network.

One important aspect of protected area management in Central America is the presence of at least 33 international organisations which have, for many years, been providing the countries with technical and financial assistance. These organisations are thought to have generated 70 projects and contributed to about 145 protected areas in the region in the nineties. A conservative estimate puts investment in natural resource conservation projects at about 400 million dollars in the period 1999-2004 (Miller et al., 2001).

Comments and challenges

The proposed Mesoamerican Biological Corridor seeks to protect and sustainably manage more than half of the Central American territory. Although it has attracted the attention of some government institutions and international cooperation organisations since its launch, it will take a couple of decades of practical measures before any significant changes can be seen.

Although people's perception of the value of protected areas, biodiversity and access to social goods such as water or the landscape has not been assessed, there is more media attention on environmental and forest-related issues now than ten years ago.

The protected areas appear to be efficient enough to protect most of the region's biodiversity (there are significant gaps in dry tropical and sub-tropical forests). However, the mangement model which prevailed in the past is no longer relevant. The countries are no longer able to manage all the different categories of protected area as they used to. The MBC is an agenda which encourages decentralised conservation and promotes eco-friendly production in the corridor zones. There is some evidence to suggest that the communities adjoining the protected areas, including the indigenous peoples, are not prepared to continue playing a marginal role in the management of those areas. This means that we need a new arrangement between the players gravitating around the protected areas, with responsibilities and benefits shared equally between them.

There is a growing trend to establish conservation units classified under multiple use management categories, or to group together protected areas into "Conservation Areas" (through regionalisation policies and by decentralising protected area management). Protected areas are seen as being related to strategic resources such as water, timber and energy. On the other hand, those very areas have also been identified as supports for ecotourism which is seen as an important economic activity for generating jobs and foreign currency throughout the region.

Future challenges remain, such as how to improve capacity, how to clearly define priorities and how to improve information systems on the sources of, and the mechanisms and types of negotiation needed to obtain financial resources for conservation purposes. Tools also need to be developed to monitor and assess the impact of funding on the local environment. In order to do this, suitable staff, trained in opportunity analysis for strategic investment, must be available to efficiently manage and administer resources.

Another necessary change of approach concerns the generation of resources for the areas on which the sustainablity of protection measures depends. Traditional management should give way to area management, which looks at the value of the goods and services provided by the protected areas and, on that basis, increases the quality and provides equitable payment for those goods and services.

The management capacity of sub-regional projects must be developed, with greater emphasis on support for cross-border projects, longer term programmes generated through trust funds and other long-term financial mechanisms in an effort to achieve the cooperation agencies' commitment to sustainability. The region needs to focus on pilot projects which will be used as a platform for future natural resource and protected area management projects. Projects are often of short duration and staffed by non-regional consultants who leave before staff have been fully trained to take over the required duties.

It is important to recognise that the work of rehabilitating ecosystems is new for the region, which is why little has been done in this area in the last five years. We need to start discussions about what we understand about recovery, restoration and rehabilitiation.

Central America's level of project development is still insufficient for the amount of work that remains to be done to save biodiversity and natural forests. A challenge for the future would be to encourage groups with common interests who have access to or share cross-border resources to communicate and coordinate their activities. In order to improve MBC implementation, the national environmental authorities must be made aware of the need to invest many more resources in coordinating national schemes relating to international conventions and to step up coordination between the various countries of the region.

Never before has Central America had a shared proposal on these matters. We will have to wait several years before we can assess its impact. For the time being we can share the dreams and the means to realise them.


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1 Vice President for Central America of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), Guatemala City, Guatemala.