La Amistad Binational Biosphere Reserve in Costa Rica and Panama By Manuel Rámirez, Conservation international

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La Amistad Binational Biosphere Reserve in Costa Rica and Panama

By Manuel Rámirez, Conservation international
La Amistad Biosphere Reserve and binational World Heritage Site is located in the Talamanca–Tabasara Mountain Range. La Amistad, which means “friendship” in Spanish, was officially declared on the Costa Rican side in 1982 and on the Panamanian side in 1998 as a symbol of binational cooperation. Stretching from southern Costa Rica to western Panama, it is a conservation and multiple-use area acting as a backbone and linking these two countries. The reserve protects one of the largest and richest ecosystems in Central America. Its system of protected natural and cultural areas includes approximately 633,000 ha in Costa Rica (12 per cent of the country) and 655,000 ha in Panama (8.7 per cent of the country).

Biodiversity and flagship species

La Amistad sits on the narrow land bridge between North and South America, where two distinct biotas, extreme ranges of temperatures, rainfall, altitude, slope, and exposure converge, make it one of the most biologically diverse protected regions in the Western Hemisphere.

The reserve contains a great expanse of pristine forest, including the largest portion of cloud forest in Central America, and provides a unique refuge for native wildlife species whose populations depend upon large tracts of land. This diversity is evident not only in the high levels of endemism (between 20–50 per cent for all groups), but also in the numbers of species present within the biosphere reserve, for example, La Amistad has the second most diverse butterfly fauna in the world (DeVries, 1993). Populations of large mammals thrive within this complex of protected areas, including the tapir (Tapirus bairdi), the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), six species of cats, most notably the jaguar (Panthera onca). Nearly 70 per cent of Costa Rica and Panama’s bird species inhabit the core areas of the biosphere reserve. The national bird of Panama, the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), a magnificent predator whose highly restricted distribution is a direct consequence of extensive deforestation, is also found here. The reserve is also the convergence point for 75 per cent of all migratory birds in the Western Hemisphere.
Political-economic-social significance

In 1979 Costa Rica and Panama established their first transboundary cooperation agreement for the purpose of jointly developing investment and assistance projects. Presidential declarations issued both in 1979 and 1982 with reference to the establishment of La Amistad International Park emphasized two important arguments: the need to conserve their joint natural and cultural heritage; and the importance to have a model for peace and friendship between neighboring countries.

Over the years, governmental and non-governmental agencies in these two countries have engaged in coordinated efforts to foster joint plans and binational cooperation under the transboundary agreement signed 30 years ago.
The region is of great cultural importance, as shown by the numerous archaeological sites discovered within the biosphere reserve, silent testimony to more than 12,000 years of human history that spans occupation of the first settlers, who were hunter–gatherers, to the complex, agriculturally-based tribal societies encountered by Europeans in the 16th century. Today the area includes the ancestral lands of the two largest indigenous groups in Costa Rica: the Bribri and the Cabecar. Their combined population of 26,000 (Guevara, 2000) represents nearly two-thirds of the country’s total number of indigenous people. Three ethnic groups live in and around the Panamanian side of the biosphere reserve: the Guaymi or Ngobe, the Naso, and the Bribri. Their population numbers about 75,000. Through traditional practices of shifting agriculture (corn, beans, plantain, and rice), hunting, fishing, and utilization of forest products, these groups have maintained a relatively sound relationship with their natural environment.


La Amistad is important biologically and economically to these two countries. The high annual rainfall of 2,000–7,000 mm, combined with the short and steep watersheds common to the region, creates both serious flood hazards and a potential for hydroelectric energy production. Half of Costa Rica's freshwater flow originates from catchments in La Amistad. In Panama, the land surrounding La Amistad is vital to the country’s economy, producing 80 per cent of the country's fruits and vegetables. Currently, both Costa Rica and Panama have major hydroelectric projects inside or adjacent to La Amistad, e.g. the Fortuna dam that produces a significant portion of Panama’s energy, and the Cachi dam, that produces energy for the Costa Rican economy. Additional hydro projects are in the planning phase in both countries; all of them within the buffer zones of the parks and some in indigenous territories.


The Talamanca region has undergone little development compared with the rest of Costa Rica and Panama. While the majority of land within the core of the Talamanca remains relatively pristine and legally protected, adjacent areas have suffered major land use change. Two decades after its declaration, land tenure within La Amistad is still a source of conflict. For example, indigenous territories are progressively losing land to non-indigenous settlers, particularly on the Pacific side of the reserve and encroachment is severe in the Panama sector of the reserve.

Outlook for the future

The geographic, cultural, and biotic complexity of the Talamanca region requires a broad range of institutional involvement. The full support of national entities, governmental agencies, and international organizations is needed to ensure the success of La Amistad as a trasboundary conservation area. Only coordinated action between these entities will generate the required level of integrated management and development fundamental to the long-term survival of the biosphere reserve. Finding common ground between these and the local landscape users remains a difficult task. However, local and regional civil society groups and international agencies recognize that working together is the only way to achieve desired outcomes.

The recognition that conservation of biodiversity and its entire ecosystems is of economic benefit to both countries has created a renewed interest in the coordinated management of ¨La Amistad¨ ecoregional complex. There is a growing awareness of binational and regional ecosystem services that the area provides, particularly in terms of the role of conserving forest cover in the upper watersheds of rivers originating in the La Amistad complex to ensure continued water supplies to population centers, hydropower, and other economic activities. Clean air, biodiversity and scenic beauty values for ecotourism are also beginning to be appreciated, as are the carbon stocks of the forests which will certainly add value to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

DeVries, P. (1987) The butterflies of Costa Rica and their natural history, Princeton University Press, USA

Guevara, M. (2000) Perfil de los pueblos indígenas de Costa Rica, RUTA-Banco Mundial

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