Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

Ranchers Help Protect La Amistad Forest

By Patrick Johnston

Large tree in the forest of La Amistad International ParkFor decades the future of the Panamanian cloud forests of the Talamanca mountain range has been anything but certain.

In the 1960s, the government encouraged agriculture in the region and ranchers moved in. Two decades later, a burgeoning conservation movement resulted in their inclusion in the bi-national La Amistad International Park. In the 1990s, oversight waned and ranching pressures returned.

However, an initiative supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) has helped to map out a significantly clearer future for the region.

The results include an agreement that has seen roughly two thirds of 75 ranchers in La Amistad join forces with a team of nongovernmental organizations, indigenous communities, and government officials to halt encroachment and environmentally damaging practices.

Led by the Asociación Nacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza (ANCON) and the national environmental authority, Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM), the effort is part of a multi-faceted initiative to safeguard the largest remaining upland virgin forest in Central America.

“The agreement is unprecedented,” said Ernesto Ponce, ANCON’s La Amistad coordinator. “For the first time in the history of the park all sides have come to the table and supported a comprehensive strategy that protects the park and enables ranchers to conduct their business in a sustainable way.”

Renewed Partnership

Bridging the Panamanian/Costa Rican border, La Amistad International Park is a World Heritage Site and the crown jewel of the 1-million hectare La Amistad Biosphere Reserve.

Rising from sea level to 12,500 feet, the region hosts an estimated 4 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial species. No other protected area in Central America contains as many viable populations, species, or as much altitudinal variation.

Farmers have long occupied the lower, easily accessible lands on the Pacific side of the Talamanca range. Four decades ago, with those lands filled, farmers were encouraged to settle the remote Atlantic slope region. There they converted large tracts of land into cattle pasture.

Efforts to engage these ranchers and regulate activities began in the 1980s when the national government officially established the Panamanian portion of La Amistad, including, in the process, lands already occupied by ranchers.

Led by ANAM and ANCON these efforts were largely successful; however, work with the ranchers later dropped off. Relations between ANAM as the national environmental authority and ranchers also soured.

With support from CEPF, ANCON began ramping up its mediating efforts in La Amistad in 2005. Among its goals was to work closely with the ranchers to sort out land tenure issues, as well as to increase surveillance, adherence to environmental laws, and the capacity of ANAM to manage strategies to protect the park.

“The ranchers were here before the park so it was crucial that we work with them to develop a plan that was mutually beneficial,” said Alida Spadafora, ANCON executive director. “We were catalysts, helping the ranchers organize, and to be aware of the harmful effects [of] deforestation, pesticides, and other damaging practices. We stressed the need for them to work in equilibrium with the forest and natural resources.”

Historic Agreement

After extensive negotiations, ANAM reached an historic agreement with 25 cattle ranchers within the park to engage in protection and development activities. That number has since doubled to roughly 50 ranchers.

Under the accord, ranchers have agreed not to expand their plots further and also to help monitor activities inside park limits. In exchange, they receive development and other technical assistance that channels economic benefits from the conservation of La Amistad to local communities.

Fifteen cattle ranchers have also recently founded a farmers’ association including Latino and indigenous farmers who have dedicated some of their land to forest cover within La Amistad and contribute to conservation efforts on their farms and in surrounding areas.

The group is in the process of establishing legal status as an NGO in Panama and is expected to play a critical role in further harmonizing relations between ranchers and ANAM.

“Before there was really no way for the ranchers to communicate and the government and ranchers were essentially enemies,” Spadafora said. “Having legal status enables ranchers to sit down with the government and negotiate directly for projects that can be of mutual benefit.”

ANAM and ANCON report that since the signing of the agreement control of key sectors of the park has been regained, and that encroachment has diminished significantly.

And the future bodes well for both ranchers and protection of the park. Studies continue in Panama on techniques that support more sustainable cattle ranching. Meanwhile, ranchers and other stakeholders are exploring economic alternatives such as carbon sequestering initiatives, ecotourism, and environmental services programs that reward farmers for protecting the cloud forest.

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