The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (15°05'-15°50'N, 84°36'-85°20'W) is a World Heritage Site located behind the Mosquitia coast of Honduras and is part of the largest surviving area of undisturbed tropical rainforest in Honduras and one of the few remaining in Central America. The forested valley and its coastal plain contain a wide range of habitats with abundant and varied plant and wildlife. In the valleys and along the Caribbean coast, some 5,000 Miskito and Paya Amerindians continue to live in their traditional ways.
Threats to the Site
Agricultural expansion into the southern and western sides of the Reserve by small farmers and cattle ranchers is reducing the forests which are also being massively logged for precious woods such as caoba (Swietenia macrophylla) which threaten the World Heritage values for which the Reserve was inscribed. Uncontrolled commercial hunting of wild animals also occurs. The introduction of exotic species is also threatening to undermine its complex ecosystem. The absence for some years of a management plan and of sufficient park staff to manage the 5,250 square kilometers (km2) site compounded the problem. Government development of a hydroelectric project, Patuca II, near the reserve may affect it negatively.
In 1996 a corrective action plan, recommended by a IUCN conservation status report, was endorsed by the Honduran Minister for the Environment. In 1997 the buffer zone was enlarged by 3,250 km2 and a management plan for the Reserve is being elaborated with the help of the World Heritage Fund, as part of a large-scale project for improving conservation of the site which is financed by the German Society for Technical Cooperation, GTZ, and German development bank, KFW.
In north-eastern Honduras, in the hinterland of the Mosquitia coast extending inland south-west approximately 15 kilometers (km) by 150 km from Laguna de Ibans and Laguna de Brus on the Caribbean. The coastal towns of Palacios and Brus Laguna lie approximately 5 km from the park boundaries on either side of the reserve: 15°05'-15°50'N, 84°36'-85°20'W.
Date and History of Establishment
- 1969: Gazetted as an archaeological national park;
- 1980: Protected as a Biosphere Reserve under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme and Decree No.79;
- 1997: Boundary of buffer zone extended by Decree 170-97 to Patuca river (325,000 ha addition).
525,000 hectares (ha). Biosphere Reserve: 318,000 ha including a marine area of 15,000 ha; Buffer zone: 207,000 ha; 1997 extension: 325,000 ha.
State, in the departments of Gracias A Dios, Colón and Olancho. Managed by the Department of Protected Areas & Wildlife, State Forestry Administration. There are municipal and private plots within both buffer area and reserve.
Sea level to 1,326 meters (m).
The reserve comprises two geomorphic zones: mountains, forming 75% of the area, and coastal plain with lagoons paralleled by a 5 x 30 km strip of ocean. The Biosphere Reserve covers virtually the entire watershed of the 115 km-long Platano River, some 350,000 ha in area. The buffer zone includes half the Paulaya valley and part of the lower Sico valley to the west and Wampu valley to the south, and part of the lower Sigre valley to the east. Extension east will take it to the Patuca River. With the sea these form the boundaries of the Reserve.
The rugged mountains which rise to Punta Piedra at 1,326 m have many steep ridges, remarkable rock formations such as Pico Dama o Viejo, a 150m granite pinnacle, and many waterfalls, one 150 m high. Two thirds of the Platano river runs through the mountains, with stretches of white water, and in one cataract disappears under massive boulders in a forested gorge. The coastal plain, under 10 to 40 km wide, rises gradually from the lagoons and winter-flooded grasslands to 100 m where the foothills begin abruptly. It is partly underlain by a belt of infertile deeply weathered Pleistocene quartz sandy gravels. The river meanders for 45 km through the lowlands forming ox-bow lakes, backwater swamps and natural levees which are used for small agricultural plots. Two lagoons, of fresh (L.Ibans) and brackish water (L.Brus) and sandy beaches line the coast.
The climate is hot and humid all year, especially from May to November. Annual precipitation varies locally from less than 2,850 millimeters (mm) to 4,000 mm during the rainiest months of October and November. The dry season is said to have become more pronounced since the deforestation of the last twenty years. The mean annual temperature is 26.6° C. In an average decade the region is hit by four tropical storms and two hurricanes.
This is part of the largest surviving area of undisturbed tropical rain forest in Honduras and in Central America, and its topographic variety results in a wide range of ecosystems. It has more than 2,000 species of vascular plants and may still have species new to the region or to science to be discovered. Its main ecotypes are estuarine and marine, mangrove swamps, coastal savanna, broadleaf gallery forest, humid subtropical forest (10-15% of the area), very humid tropical forest (~80% of the area) and on the ridge tops, elfin forest, according to Herrera-MacBryde (1995) on whose descriptive summary the following is based.
In the mangroves fringing the coastal lagoons Rhizophora mangle is characteristic. Other lacustrine species include Coccolaba uvifera, Languncularia recemosa and Cocos nucifera. Inland is a barren coastal savanna with, in wetter areas, sedge prairie Rhynchospora spp., Paspalum pulchellum, Tonina fluviatilis and Utricularia subulata and in drier areas the grasses Fimbristylis paradoxa and Declieuxia fruticosa with palm thickets Acoelorraphe wrightii and Pinus caribaea var.hondurensis, 20-25 m tall. Locally, these pines and several palms are used for construction; some species are also made into dugout canoes. The savanna is burned frequently to maintain pasturage for grazing and to keep the land open for hunting. Farther inland is open woodland with an oak understory of Quercus oleoides and Byrsonima crassifolia, with Melastomataceae, Calliandra houstoniana and the tree fern Alsophila myosuroides.
Broadleaf gallery forest along the Platano river and its alluvial tributaries can grow to 30-40 m. It includes Albizia carbonaria, Calophyllum brasiliense var. rekoi, Inga, Cecropia, Ficus and Lonchocarpus spp., balsa Ochroma lagopus, Luehea seemannii, Pachira aquatica and Heliconia. Swamp forests in colluvial creeks are dominated by Guttiferae. On land disturbed by agriculture dominants of the secondary forest include Salix humboltiana, Ceiba pentandra and species of Bambusa and Pithecellobium. Most of the watershed is blanketed by mature wet forests whose composition is poorly known. Characteristic or common trees at lower elevations are, amongst others: Swietenia macrophylla, Apeiba membranacea, Bursera simaruba, Carapa guianensis, Casearia arborea, Cedrela odorata, Eugenia sp., Ficus insipida, Pourouma aspera, Pseudolmedia oxyphyllaria, Vochysia hondurensis, Virola koschnyi, and species of Pterocarpus, Quararibea, Sloanea, Chusquea, Geonoma and Chamaedorea. Sites sampled in the past included the following plentiful or notable species: at 250 m, Garcinia intermedia, Pouteria sp.and Schizolobium parahybum; at 450 m, Ardisia tigrina, Pharus cornutus (rare), Smilax subpubescens and Ternstroemia tepezapote; at 600 m, Lobelia and Welfia sp.and Satyria warscewiczii.
In the higher mountain forest, the dominant trees are mahogany Swietenia macrophylla, Tabebuia spp., cedar Cedrela odorata, Bursera simaruba and Clusia salviniie. Other common species include Lonchocarpus, Albizzia carbonaria, bamboo and Chamaedorea. Trunks and branches at higher elevations are covered with epiphytes. Some locales have very dense successional stages resulting from storm damage. There are elfin forests on the ridge tops exposed to trade winds from the Caribbean, for example, at 700 m of Clusia salvinii, Magnolia sororum, Lacistema aggregatum and Psychotria elata. Important timber trees growing in the reserve include Swietenia macrophylla, Callopyllum brasiliense, Carapa guianensis, Cedrela odorata, Tabebuia rosea and Virola koschnyi.
39 species of mammals, 377 species of birds and 126 species of reptiles and amphibians have been recorded. Rare or endangered species include giant anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla (V), jaguar Felis onca (LR), ocelot F. pardalis (E), margay F. wiedii (E), Caribbean manatee Trichechus manatus (V) and Central American tapir Tapirus bairdii (V). Other representative species are: white-faced Cebus capucinus, mantled howler Alouatta palliata and spider Ateles sp. monkeys, three-toed sloth Bradypus infuscatus, paca, Cuniculus paca, kinkajou Potus flavus, coatimundi Nasua narica, tayra Eira barbara, Central American otter Lutra longicaudis, puma Felis concolor, jaguarondi F. yaguaroundi, collared and white-lipped peccaries Tayassu tajcaca, T. albirostris, and red brocket deer Mazama americana.
Over 375 birds have been recorded, notable species being king vulture Sarcoramphus papa, harpy eagle Harpia harpyia (LR), great curassow Crax rubra, crested guan Penelope purpurescens, scarlet macaw Ara macao, green macaw A. ambigua and military macaw A. militaris. There are almost 200 species of reptiles and amphibians including at least 7 poisonous snakes, American crocodile Crocodylus acutus (V), brown caiman Caiman crocodilus, green iguana Iguana iguana, green turtle Chelonia mydas (E), loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta (E), and leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea (E). Fish include cuyamel Joturus pichardi.
The as yet little excavated site within the protected area of Ciudad Blanca (white city) is one of the most important archaeological sites of Mayan civilization. Other major remains include the Piedras Pintadas petroglyphs on the banks of the Platano River, probably from an unknown pre-Columbian culture. There are more than 200 archaeological sites, none of them protected in 1995. The reserve also contains the site where Christopher Colombus discovered the Americas in 1492.
Local Human Population
In 1979 the population of the proposed reserve was estimated at between 2,500 and 3,500. Twenty years later, some 6,000 inhabitants from four cultural groups occupy the northern zone, and the accessible southern end now has a population of some 25,000 migrant ladino campesinos from the poor south of the country. The local economy is mainly based on agriculture with lobster fishing, supplemented by illegal logging, though tourism is beginning to become more important.
The four existing groups are the Miskito Amerindians, the Paya (Pesh) indigenes, Garífunas of Afro-Caribbean descent, and the older ladino (mixed Spanish-Amerindian) settlers. The Miskito are the largest group, of around 4,500 people living in coastal settlements and two towns on the Tinto river. The Paya are a small tribe living in a few headwater and river villages. Tawahka Amerindians live near the southeastern edge of the reserve. Small scale low impact agriculture is practiced in the coastal region by the Garífunas and on riverbanks in the north of the Reserve by the Miskitos and Paya. whose farming methods are sustainable compared to the commercial exploitation practiced by the invading ladinos. Their customary rights to the land however are not held to be legal compared with documented de facto occupation of fenced plots. The indigenous peoples have therefore formed non-governmental organizations with foreign help, to protect their land from colonization by ladino peasants backed by large landowners.
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
The lack of easy access and facilities, short season and dense mosquitoes do not help tourism but there are hundreds of uncontrolled visitors and some simple services are provided. Community-based ecotourism and businesses such as turtle-egg protection and a butterfly farm are thriving with foreign help, and a conservation-linked sustainable tourism plan is being funded by the United Nations Fund as part of a global initiative.
Scientific Research and Facilities
Basic inventories of many of the natural and cultural resources and more detailed anthropological and archaeological surveys have been completed, many by the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, and the indigenous use of natural resources has been studied. The legend of the white city has been neither confirmed nor refuted. There is an information center at Las Marais with an information and educational program, and a small research station where accommodation is available for visiting scientists.
The Reserve is one of the few remaining areas of undisturbed humid tropical forest in Central America, being hitherto almost inaccessible and little populated. It contains an abundant and varied plant and wildlife, including several internationally threatened species and is valuable for the preservation of the germplasm of timber and medicinal species. Some 4,500 indigenous people continue to live in the reserve following traditional lifestyles. The area also has important archaeological remains.
A 1980 management and development plan was developed under the auspices of the Department of Natural Renewable Resources (RENARE), providing for strict preservation in a natural zone and conservation of the coastal lowlands farmed by indigenous tribesmen in a cultural zone extending upvalley 45 km. This was not implemented and in 1987 another plan was written for the most threatened southern zone. By late 1988, the Honduran Ecological Association with the Honduran Corporation for Forestry Development (COHDEFOR) and the Secretary of Renewable Natural Resources with funds from WWF-US and the World Heritage Foundation undertook to relocate refugees displaced by industrial logging operations outside the reserve and by the war in Nicaragua, to control sawmills, to stop road building in the buffer zone, to identify the boundary and to develop an environmental education and public relations campaign in buffer zone communities. However, these projects were rejected, having been enforced by the military. COHDEFOR has had responsibility for managing the Reserve since 1991, but without sufficient staff to protect the reserve and without linking with other organizations for assistance. The Honduran Public Safety Force (police) protects some of the nearby villages but cannot prevent land invasion or the extraction of resources.
In 1996 WWF-US ran a project in north-eastern Honduras to strengthen effective co-ordination between local NGOs, government authorities and local communities, aiming to improve resource protection and management, stop the advance of agriculture by promoting sustainable land-uses and help develop COHDEFOR's infrastructure. In 1997, the German NGO GTZ/GFA-Agrar and German Development Bank (KFW) working with Honduran government departments, succeeded in reintroducing a decree to expand the Reserve to the Patuco river. In future it might even extend to the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve on the border in Nicaragua 20 km away. The German project, timed for 1997-2001, has been delayed by disputes over the relocation of people in the buffer zone. In 2001 the State Forestry Administration reported to the World Heritage Committee that it had started on the following projects: compensation to 52 (of 152) families moved out of the Reserve, establishment of a field office, increased staffing of the Reserve, demarcation of the core and southwest buffer zone boundaries, studies of vegetation and of threats to the Reserve, a Commission to determine land use rights, and plans for forest management, community development, agro-forestry cooperatives and sustainable tourism.
The reserve was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1996 because of encroachment by cattle ranchers, logging and ladino slash & burn colonists; also because of the inadequate management of its natural and cultural resources: there was no effective management plan and the reserve had been neither delimited nor zoned. A new road from the Río Wampú in the south had been built 35 km into the core National Park area, expanding the agricultural frontier: by 1995 a hundred families had settled in this zone. Livestock farms, logging of lowland hardwoods and forest destruction is a severe problem on the southern and western boundaries and along riverbanks. Small ladino farmers are often financed by commercial cattle-ranchers to take advantage of the lack of property records and to colonize the forest. After two years, the farmers sell the land rights to cattle-ranchers, and move further into the forest. This deforestation, now estimated at 10% of the Reserve, causes erosion and sedimentation of streams. The southern and western zones are also subject to the uncontrolled extraction of precious woods such as mahogany Swietenia macrophyla, Liquidambar styraciflua and palm Roystonea donlapiana. 25% of the southern end of the Reserve was said to have been deforested by 1992 and COHDEFOR itself lost credibility when locals were penalized for cutting trees but powerful logging interests were permitted a sawmill within the reserve. There is also commercial hunting, mainly by outside groups, some operations being masked as ecotourism.
According to a mission report submitted to the IUCN in 1995, scarlet macaw (a national emblem), jaguar, tapir, and crocodile are no longer seen in the Reserve. The introduction of exotics is a threat to native species: tilapia Tilapia nilotica introduced to the coastal lakes threatens native fish. Marine turtle populations are under threat from the stealing of eggs, and the sale of hawksbill turtle shell. This is aggravated by industrial fishing and dragging for shrimp. The cultural value of the site is being undermined by inhabitants from both inside and outside the reserve who extract archaeological artifacts to sell to tourists and collectors. Tourism is increasing, although there is no tourism management strategy to control visitors or to benefit from them. This increase, combined with the immigration of ladinos has accelerated the intercultural mixing of native ethnic groups within the park. There are conflicts between ladinos and Amerindians over colonization, and the use of natural resources. Indigenous land users were faced with enforcement of de facto claims, sometimes at gunpoint. In 1995 the Government pressed ahead with the development of a hydroelectric project, Patuca II, near the reserve which would need new roads, reduce river flow and destroy natural resources. Local people complained that it was being forced through without consulting them. Flooding caused by Hurricane Mitch in October 1998 was considerable and for some months communications with authorities in Honduras were difficult because of the devastation caused to the country's infrastructure by the hurricane.
The reserve headquarters is at Kuri near the river mouth with a sub-station upstream. By 1995 there were one fishing inspector, two inspectors from the Ministry of Natural Resources, and a forest technician from the Honduran Corporation for Forest Development, responsible for all protected areas of La Mosquitia, based at Puerto Lempira, some 100 km from the reserve. In 2001 three guards were hired.
In 1980-81 US$97,000 was donated, 50% by WWF, to launch the Reserve; in 1983-84 the WWF Tropical Forest Campaign granted US$84,000 towards essential equipment and an airstrip. By 1989 WWF had paid out US$169,309. Various organizations including the National Directorate of Mines, Ministry of Natural Resources, the National Autonomous University and the Costa Rican Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) pledged US$173,500. In 1990 the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and the German Bank for Reconstruction & Development (KFW) proposed US$9m for a project, but uncertainty on the ground postponed the grant. In 1998 WWF-US contributed US$30,000 towards a DM15.8million 5-year GTZ / KFW project to improve conservation of the site.
IUCN Management Category
- II National Park (Proposed). Biosphere Reserve.
- Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1982. Natural Criteria i, ii, iii, iv
- Listed as World Heritage in Danger in 1996 because of uncontrolled encroachment by farming, logging and hunting.
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