La Amistad International Park stretches across the southern end of the Talamanca mountain range, comprising a diversity of landscapes that range from misty oak forests inhabited by rare birds such as the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocino), to exuberant rainforests that provide refuge for such endangered species as the jaguar (Panthera onca) and the umbrella bird (Cephalopterus glabricollis). The park forms the core of the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, which was designated as a world heritage site, thanks to the diversity and importance of its natural resources and cultures.
Its name, “La Amistad,” which means “friendship” in Spanish, refers to the fact that it is the result of a joint effort between two neighboring nations, with nearly 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) protected on the Costa Rican side of the border and double that area in Panama. Nevertheless, some citizens have demonstrated unfriendly attitudes toward La Amistad’s wilderness, which suffers from forest fires, poaching, illegal logging, and extraction of endangered flora and fauna.
In an attempt to confront those threats, Costa Rica’s National Parks Foundation, with funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), is coordinating a project that brings together NGOs, park rangers, and communities to protect biodiversity and natural resources in the park and its buffer zone. That two-year project, called “Mitigating Threats to La Amistad International Park in Costa Rica by Strengthening Park Protection” is focused on the Costa Rican part of the international park, which represents 32 percent of that country’s total national parkland.
According to the project’s coordinator, Shirlene Chaves, its goal is to strengthen protection of the park by training officials so they can deal with environmental threats more effectively, and by encouraging the public to help prevent illegal activities and report environmental crimes.
La Amistad’s buffer zone is home to people who want to exploit the park’s resources, as well as those who are working in tourism and farming organically, which provide them with income with minimum environmental impact. The park’s natural riches are mirrored by the cultural wealth of surrounding communities. In addition to farming communities, there are six indigenous reserves that are home to Cabecar and Bribri ethnicities, which represent two-thirds of Costa Rica’s indigenous population.
Most of La Amistad lies in the Talamancas, which historically served as a refuge for indigenous groups that managed to escape subjugation by Spanish colonists. The region’s indigenous inhabitants conserved their cultures during the colonial era and maintain many of their traditions and customs today. The project has managed to integrate this cultural diversity by involving the indigenous population, while working toward a common goal of minimizing threats to the natural resources upon which they depend.
In the words of Odlmar Ortiz, a member of the Bribri ethnicity who collaborates with the project, “We need to maintain the culture of our forefathers and teach it to future generations, because it is important for our people, but without neglecting the forest and while keeping the environment clean and pure.”
According to Chaves, the project has not only donated equipment, a vehicle, and salaries for three additional officials to patrol and protect the park, but it has also organized community fire-fighting brigades and natural resource vigilance committees. Park rangers and community members have received training in pertinent areas such as: reporting environmental crimes, creating databases, managing geographic information systems, using global position systems (GPS), responding to forest fires, and educating neighbors about the importance of environmental protection.
According to park administrator Gravin Villegas, who is responsible for community outreach, people often make procedural errors when reporting environmental crimes, which leads to charges being dropped for lack of evidence — so the project is trying to improve such efforts throughout the conservation area. The vigilance committees also now have a better understanding of what does and doesn’t constitute an environmental crime.
“Taking GPS data and analyzing it has given us a better idea of which areas suffer higher incidence of environmental crimes such as poaching, which has allowed us to improve our deployment of human and economic resources,” explains Villegas.
Project staff have helped train 30 community forest firefighters, including one that patrols an indigenous reserve. They have received courses, equipment, and economic support. In 2006, the firefighters responded to and extinguished two forest fires.
Villegas says the La Amistad is unusual for the level of awareness and motivation of the 12 organized groups in communities bordering the park and the presence and support of different NGOs. The project benefits from this collaboration and staff make every effort to address issues of concern to communities, such as protecting clean water sources, when designing the initiative’s environmental education plan.
Chaves stresses that a fundamental goal of the project has been to gain the confidence and respect of the communities, so finding ways to meet basic needs, such as roads and other services, is a priority.
“Establishing relationships of mutual respect among the different players is vital, and it is essential for good relations that every person understands his or her role and responsibilities and continues their work in the future,” she says.