On a clear day, standing at the 10,422 foot peak in Barú Volcano National Park — the highest point in Panama — you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The park is in western Panama and covers 35,375 acres (14,322 hectares) of cloud forest, montane forest, and a highland ecosystem called páramo. The park is home to more than 250 bird species, including the endangered three-wattled bellbird (Procnias tricarunculata) – whose reverberating, clanging call is a hallmark of high-elevation cloud forest — and the volcano junco (Junco volcani), an endemic species of finch, found only in the mountains of Costa Rica and Panama.
Barú is also part of the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, a collection of protected areas that stretches between Costa Rica and Panama. “La Amistad” means “friendship” in Spanish, and the biosphere reserve is a symbol of both countries’ efforts to protect their shared biodiversity. But a recent conflict in Barú National Park has been anything but friendly. The government of Panama hopes to construct a road between the towns of Cerro Punta and Boquete. The highway would punch through what the University of Panama’s Center for Biotic Studies has deemed one of the biosphere reserve’s most ecologically sensitive areas.
Road construction was scheduled to begin January 2003, but it has thus far been halted by a well orchestrated campaign directed by the Barú National Park and La Amistad Biosphere Reserve Defense Committee, a coalition of 15 Panamanian NGOs. This effort has gained increasing support from local residents, according to Damaris Sánchez, environmental education coordinator for the Integrated Foundation for the Department of Cerro Punta (FUNDICCEP for its name in Spanish), a defense committee member group.
Sánchez explains that the campaign has used marches, rallies, brochures, and constant contact with the media to raise awareness in local communities of the national park’s biological importance. “Some of the media have called the campaign the biggest ecological movement to appear in the country in recent years,” she says.
The campaign has received financial support from Panamanians and organizations such as the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and Conservation International, and backing from the World Rainforest Movement, World Resources Institute and World Union for the Conservation of Nature. Those groups warn that the road’s construction would endanger the area’s biodiversity by breaking the vital connection between Barú Volcano National Park and La Amistad International Park, so it would be nearly impossible for wildlife to move between the two forested expanses.
The road’s various opponents point out that international protocol requires Panama to protect the park, since it forms part of a biosphere reserve and a World Heritage Site, as well as part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which extends along the Caribbean coast from Mexico to the tip of Panama.
According to the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., damage caused by road construction in fragile areas such as Barú Volcano National Park can change hydrological regimes in such a way that increases the danger of flooding and landslides down slope.
“The park, in addition to protecting an area with a high number of endemic species, is the most important water-producing area in the province, and is thus vital for farmlands in lower areas,” notes Stanley Heckadon, former director of Panama’s natural resources agency.
Barú Volcano National Park provides potable water to Boquete’s 30,000 inhabitants, along with hydroelectric projects and the region’s principal irrigation project. A hiking trail called Los Quetzales, which winds its way through the forests between Cerro Punta and Boquete, is a popular route for tourists, especially bird watchers, who head there to see such spectacular species as the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), crested eagle (Morphnus guianensis), and black guan (Chamaepetes unicolor). It is also home for rare and threatened species such as the dainty orchid (Stelis montana) and five species of wild cats.
According to Sánchez, many of these species would disappear if the road were built. The defense committee claims that illegal hunting and logging would be exacerbated by the road, since it would provide quick and easy access to the park’s forests.
Panamanian government officials have publicly claimed that the road would encourage economic development of the area and that an an environmental impact study will soon be released for public comment. But NGOs offer a different assessment. The Civil Society for the Environment Initiative, for example, points out that some members of the current administration have land in the area, which would certainly increase in value if the road is built. FUNDICCEP laments the fact that despite several attempts to establish a dialogue, the government has refused to include conservation groups in the decision-making process.
Eco-Exchange’s repeated attempts to seek comments from representatives of the National Environment Authority, the government office responsible for the road construction project, were unsuccessful.
In Heckadon’s opinion, it is unthinkable that the administration could reach a decision on such a project before consulting the public. He adds: “Panama’s central government has decided to build the road at any cost, regardless of what anyone else says.”
Conservation groups don’t specifically oppose construction of a road between Cerro Punta and Boquete; rather, they propose an alternative route, to the south of Barú Volcano National Park. They claim that their route would pass through 12 agricultural communities, benefiting 9,000 people. But according to Sánchez, the government’s response to the proposal is that the northern route would be less costly to build. “They talk only about the fact that the road would cost $4.6 million, but they haven’t measured the environmental costs of that route, nor have they considered how difficult it would be to maintain a road of that kind in a mountainous area,” she says.
Work on the road has yet to resume, and Sánchez says the groups and communities intend to continue opposing its construction with every means at their disposal. According to Heckadon, the fact that civil society has risen up to fight for the environment is a victory in and of itself.
— Katiana Murillo
fax 507/ 7712171
Read more about the campaign in the Eco-Index: