Ecological Corridor of the Americas is Counting on Lawyers to Help Conserve Wildlands from Alaska to Argentina

Determined and farsighted ecologists envision a day when an uninterrupted, protected, and forested corridor extends all the way from Alaska’s Aleutian Range to the tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, protecting much of the planet’s plant and animal species in an interlacing network of national, state, and privately-owned reserves. One of the ambitious concept’s early designers, the Wildlife Conservation Society, calls the hemispheric initiative the Ecological Corridor of the Americas, or EcoAméricas, and conservationists throughout the Western Hemisphere have taken up the cause.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')Ensuring permanent protection for so many wild acres requires a particular kind of conservation, one that involves deeds, decrees, and of course, lawyers. Environmental attorneys with the Regional Alliance for Conservation Policies of Latin America and the Caribbean (ARCA, for its name in Spanish) are already at work in specific sites in four nations, figuring out what’s legally needed in order to protect privately owned lands that form part of EcoAméricas. ARCA was created in 1996 to strengthen links among conservation groups in Latin America and more effectively promote environmental policy region-wide. Network members are leading nonprofit groups in 15 Latin American countries, plus the Dominican Republic.

The groups working on the EcoAméricas project, which is funded by the MacArthur Foundation, include: the Environmental Law and Natural Resources Center (CEDARENA) in Costa Rica, which serves as the project coordinator; the Peruvian Foundation for Nature Conservation (ProNaturaleza); the Environment and Nature Foundation in Bolivia; and the Pronatura Fund, of the Dominican Republic. In each of the four countries, lawyers with these leading conservation groups are reviewing regulations, studying legal documents, and working closely with local organizations and community residents.

According to Silvia Chaves, an attorney with CEDARENA, the ARCA project’s overall goal is to learn which legal approaches to safeguarding wildlands are the most effective under which circumstances, so they can be adapted throughout the EcoAméricas corridor. To start, ARCA team members have selected one pilot area in each of their countries, based on the area’s proximity to the corridor, the high level of threat to particularly precious natural resources, and the support of local communities. In Costa Rica, the area is the Osa Peninsula, near the southern border with Panama. In Peru, the target is Tabaconas Namballe National Sanctuary in the north, near the boundary with Ecuador. Bolivia’s priority site is just outside Amboró National Park, not far from Santa Cruz, while in the Dominican Republic, not an official part of EcoAméricas, the focus is nationwide.

“In all these areas, there are landowners who are conserving forests without any involvement by the state,” Chaves says. “There are organizations promoting nature tourism, rural development organizations, and even just small groups of neighbors who are working together in conservation by mutual consent. Most are small- and medium-sized landowners who need to have deeds and the necessary legal documents that will allow them to continue their conservation activities and sustainably use their resources in the present, while ensuring that their forests will be protected in the future, whether or not they continue to be the owners.”

Chaves explains that one legal method to ensure perpetual land protection is to establish “conservation easements,” self-designed, legal contracts that stipulate how landowners can use their property. Conservation easements are part of the land’s deed, so when new owners buy the property, they are also committing to heed the land-protection provisions of the contract. She points out that the ARCA-identified priority areas “provide people living near them with vital environmental services,” such as clean water — forests serve as watersheds, slowly channeling rainfall into streams downhill. So ARCA attorneys are considering how people who own watersheds might be legally compensated for ensuring that this life-saving service continues. Or, Chaves notes, it might be more appropriate and secure for some forested expanses to be officially recognized as biological reserves.

Corridor Conservation in the Peruvian highlands

ProNaturaleza in Peru selected the 73,000-acre (29,500 hectare) Tabaconas Namballe National Sanctuary because of its high ecological value and because of increasing pressure on the reserve’s natural resources, says Oscar Franco, coordinator of the group’s Private Initiatives Program. The cloudforest sanctuary is in San Ignacio province in the Department of Cajamarca, near the border with Ecuador. Its mist enshrouded trees and páramo, a rare high-altitude ecosystem, is home to the endangered spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and the mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque). Also found in this region are Podocarpus montanus trees, the only conifer native to Peru and a highly prized timber species.

The area, including the sanctuary and adjoining, 22,000-acre (9,000 hectare) Chaupe Forest, has a conflictive history of illegal logging and colonization. A decade ago, local residents fought government-granted logging concessions in Chaupe Forest, a bitter battle that resulted in a violent nighttime confrontation, two deaths, and false imprisonment of two leaders of the local, forest-defense group, who were finally freed after a national and international outcry. In January, a group of Aguaruna indigenous people killed more than a dozen squatters who were living on Aguaruna lands in San Ignacio. Although the Aguaruna had won a court ruling that evicted the squatters, local authorities had not removed them.

The ProNaturaleza project will work closely with local residents and the government in this region, to find ways that communities can sustainably — and legally — log the forest and develop ecotourism activities.

“Quite a few remnant patches of forest still stand along the crests of the mountain range,” Franco explains. “But there are very few continuous stretches of forest, so we are concentrating on these.” Some of the remaining forest adjoins Aguaruna territory, so ProNaturaleza also plans to establish a forest reserve to be managed by the indigenous group.

“There is a very strong conservation ethic among the local population,” Franco emphasizes, “since they have seen the destruction of their province and also have become aware of the importance of the sanctuary.”

Another goal is to secure a corridor of forested land that would connect the Tabaconas Namballe National Sanctuary with Podocarpus National Park, just over the border in Ecuador, and with forests in a neighboring Peruvian province, where local landowners are particularly keen to develop ecotourism, with assistance from ProNaturaleza.

Contacts:

Silvia Chaves
CEDARENA
Apdo: 134-2050
San Pedro, Costa Rica
Tel: 506/283-7080
Fax: 506/224-1426
peysil@racsa.co.cr
www.arca-net.org

Oscar Franco
Pro-Naturaleza
Apdo. 18-1393
Lima, Peru
Tel: 511/264-2736, 264-2759
Fax: 511/264-2753
ofranco@pronaturaleza.com.pe
www.cosapi.com.pe/instituciones/pronatur/pronatur.htm

Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:
www.eco-index.org/search/results.cfm?ProjectID=243 and www.eco-index.org/search/results.cfm?ProjectID=126.

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