Protected Areas - On Paper Only
By Humberto Márquez*
Many of the 2,267 zones under protective legislation in Latin America and the Caribbean exist only on the paper that created them, says the United Nations Environment Program, stressing that the provisions for management and protection must be put into practice.
CARACAS - Nearly 25 percent of Latin American territory is under some sort of nature protection legislation, but just a half-dollar per hectare goes towards management and monitoring of these areas, says a report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Most of these protected areas exist only in the documents that created them, without the provisions being applied in practice, says a UNEP study presented at the Fifth World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa.
Latin America is home to the greatest combined area of protected areas, representing nearly 25 percent. Meanwhile, just 18 percent of North American territory and 14.5 percent of Southern and Eastern Africa are protected. The world average is 10 percent of national territory under some protective legislation.
The protected areas in Latin America and the Caribbean need human and financial resources for their administration, laws and institutions to apply them, and planning and coordination among the agencies entrusted with their management, states the report.
The state has an indelegable responsibility to safeguard natural areas as public heritage, the document says.
As with many other matters in this region, just scratching the surface of the issue produces the specter of poverty and social exclusion.
One example is the Montes Azules biosphere reserve in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which in the past two decades lost 40 percent of its forest cover -- amidst a context of misery and violence.
Its 331,000 hectares are home to 163 of the 439 species of mammals in Mexico, 500 bird and 800 butterfly species. The reserve is set in the Lacandona jungle, where Chole, Tojolabal, Tzeltal and Tzoltzil Indians live, and where the insurgent Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is based.
There, "the landscape of deforestation and pillage causes a feeling of spiritual desolation, not just visual," poet Homero Aridjis, president of the environmentalist Group of 100, told Tierramérica.
Another sign that protection must move from paper into practice is the trouble afflicting the Río Plátano biosphere reserve in Honduras, part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, whose 815,000 hectares were declared natural heritage of humanity by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
But the Honduran reserve could lose that status at any moment.
Deforestation advances at the hand of the 45,000 families living in the area. But the state is intervening, alongside UNESCO, to "redouble protection efforts and to raise awareness among the communities," Honduran environment secretary Fausto Mejía told Tierramérica.
Citizen participation is essential, says the UNEP report, based on questionnaires put to state entities and non-governmental organizations specializing in environment issues.
Nine out of 10 countries in the region have legal instruments for protecting their natural wealth, ranging from national environmental councils or commissions in Brazil, Cuba and Ecuador, to committees for each protected area, as in Argentina and Bolivia.
"We encourage consultations with the local communities for our five wildlife refuges, which in theory are untouchable, and the seven reserves where local residents have limited use of the areas," biologist Xavier Elguezabal, with Venezuela's environment ministry, told Tierramérica.
Data provided by 23 countries for the UNEP report show that there are 2,267 protected areas in Latin America and the Caribbean, covering 211 million hectares, with an average of 99,000 hectares each. But the funds set aside for managing these areas is just 56 cents on the dollar per hectare.
The country with most protected areas is Brazil (582), followed by Cuba (236), Venezuela (229), Mexico and Costa Rica (150 each), Jamaica (133) and Guatemala (108).
Bolivia has relatively few such areas (20), but they are enormous, averaging 825,000 hectares. In El Salvador, with just nine, the reserves cover an average of 959 hectares each.
Venezuela stands out because 61 percent of its territory is under some form of protection, followed by Belize with 44 percent, and Panama, with 32 percent.
All of the countries in the region are involved in international cooperation programs aimed at nature reserves, and all signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (Rio de Janeiro, 1992).
Furthermore, all are parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), and have ratified the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. But paper is not enough.
UNEP is calling for national oversight plans, with strategies for the medium and long terms. Ecological inventories are also needed, including environmental, social and economic variables, and there must be greater coordination among institutions, says the U.N. agency.
* Thelma Mejía (Honduras) and Pilar Franco (Mexico) contributed to this report