The World Bank/WBIs CBNRM Initiative

Case Received: January 31, 1998

Author: Peter Herlihy


Participatory Zoning and Management

of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, Honduras


Significant developments are occurring in favor of the conservation of natural resources and the self-determination of the indigenous and ladino peoples of the Mosquitia Region of eastern Honduras. As part of the Greater Mosquitia Ecosystem, one of the last great wilderness regions in Central America, this region contains a rainforested corridor recognized as a world-class conservation area with rich natural and cultural heritages that are of regional, national, and global importance. The Mosquitia Corridor, extending from the Caribbean Sea southward across the Nicaraguan borderlands, forms the largest contiguous tract of rain forest remaining in Central America today; it is the largest intact component of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, making it an international borderland conservation priority. It is also the homeland to four indigenous and native ladino populations who have maintained the forest cover through centuries of settlement, yet who until recently have been little involved in conservation development and protected area establishment in the region. This is changing today.

This case study discusses the ongoing Participatory Zoning and Management component of the Rio Platano Biosphere Project, which is a 12 million dollar, six year long collaboration between the Honduran State Forestry Agency (AFE/COHDEFOR) with technical and financial support from the German Government (GTZ, KfW), under their Social Forestry Program (PSF). The author is a university professor of geography who has been working over the past 11 months with a team of consultants hired by the German Consultancy Organization (GFA), that originally developed the project proposal. The author worked on the feasibility study for the Proyecto BRP and designed the Participatory Zoning and Management Component for which he is the primary participatory researcher and consultant in charge. It is important to note that this presentation focuses on only one facet of a multidimensional project that is designed to manage and protect the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve.

The Participatory Zoning and Management Component of the Proyecto BRP is designed to bring resident populations and government authorities together in the management of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. Participatory research has demonstrated that involving local people in the collection and interpretation of data produces excellent results by incorporating their intimate knowledge of resource use into a standardized format. Early examples from such research in La Mosquitia and Darien of eastern Panama, in which the author also worked, have demonstrated that participatory research enables local people to articulate their knowledge of resource use into a standardized and intelligible format, and that the people involved are empowered by the data produced.

The initial situation

Concern over accelerated deforestation of the Mosquitia Corridor led nature conservationists to press for protected area establishment during the late 1970s. The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in Honduras, was the main initiative there, resulting largely from top-down policy decisions made by national and international conservationists. The focus was, at the time, on the United Nations Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program which aims at setting aside priority conservation areas in an international network of world biomes. The program provides a conceptual link between the need to establish protected areas and the recognition of the lands and traditions of indigenous cultures. The notion accommodates preservation, conservation, and human use through a conceptual model of a nucleus, cultural, and buffer zones.

A major effort began at RENARE in 1977 to organize a national wildlands system for Honduras. The Mosquitia region, still mostly forested, was an obvious priority. The Río Plátano watershed became a focus with its well-preserved setting and representative biodiversity of Central American rain forests. The area had almost no modern influences and the fact that it contained significant indigenous populations with a long history of resource uses conformed closely to MAB guidelines. It also housed rich archaeological remains. A management plan was written and the Plátano Biosphere was established in 1980, the first such reserve in Central America. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1982 and remains one of the region's most significant conservation units. Initially, the Río Plátano Biosphere covered 5,250 km centering on the basin of that river draining into the Caribbean Sea.. By about 1990, the Plátano Biosphere contained a population of over 12,000 individuals, of which roughly 5,000 was indigenous and 7,000 ladinos, with most of the latter settling there in the last twenty-five years.

Initial biosphere administration was largely top-down with almost no involvement of local populations. At peak RENARE involvement, shortly after establishment, a resident director and small number of park rangers worked in the reserve. World Wildlife Fund and CATIE financed the building of an administration building, visitor center, and one ranger station inside the reserve. But by the early 1990s, the only two park rangers in this massive area were ill- equipped without outboards, radios, and other necessities when management of the biosphere passed to AFE/COHDEFOR. Only a few small NGOs had any involvement in working on reserve management issues. And agricultural colonists continued entering reserve limits and their settlements had seriously breached the area designated as the nucleus by the time the Rio Platano Biosphere Project was first conceived. Illegal timber cutting continues converting forest to farmlands and pastures even today.

Indigenous leaders want to stop the invasion of colonists onto their lands and those of the Rio Platano Biosphere. They opened dialogue with the Honduran government to gain legal control over their lands twenty years ago. They fight for their own identity and international support and participate with non-governmental organizations (like MOPAWI) to secure legal recognition for their lands.

Without management, demographic and resource use patterns within the Plátano Biosphere have changed greatly since establishment. With thousands of colonist within its limits, the original boundaries have been compromised and the nucleus, cultural, and buffer zones needed redefinition. A 1992 Presidential Decree called for this redelimitation and it became widely recognized that a more realistic zoning system should reflect indigenous and other resident people's land use which was not defined when the reserve was first established.

The change process

The Honduras-Nicaragua borderlands became a regional conservation priority during the early 1990s. The Central American presidents signed a 1992 biodiversity agreement calling for the development and strengthening of borderlands protected areas, including the development of the so-called "Solidaridad" reserve system, linking the Rio Plátano Biosphere with Tawahka and Bosawás reserves to the south. Presidents Callejas of Honduras and Chamorro of Nicaragua signed an agreement to establish this binational protected areas system and then, that same year, Callejas signed a decree calling for boundary studies of 23 protected areas, including the Plátano Biosphere. More recently, President Reina sign a 1994 accord further calling for the establishment of a Reserve System called "Plapawans," seeking to integrate the Platano Biosphere together with two other proposed reserves (Tawahka and Patuca) into a National System of Protected Areas (SINAPH) and calling for the mapping of the area, relocation of the colonists from "areas of influence" in the reserves system, and for the "radiodiffusion" to inform and "concientizar" the population about management of the system. The proposal which included a vigilance program enforced by the Honduran Armed Forces, brought fear and resentment to the local populations who were almost never involved or consulted during the process.

Owing to the fact that the existing limits of the Plátano Biosphere were established without sufficient consideration for ecological criteria and because they have been penetrated by the colonization front, the German Consultancy Agency Gesellschaft für Agrarprojekte, contracted by COHDEFOR and the German Development Bank (KFW) in 1991 to develop a program for managing the reserve. GFA proposed redefining and expanding the reserve's boundaries to include an additional 300,000 hectares. The new delimitation would redefine the three macro zones with an expansion of the cultural zone to include additional rain forest and pine savanna areas with indigenous settlements reaching eastward to the Río Patuca. GFA completed a detailed feasibility study and project proposal in 1996 and the Rio Platano Project began in early 1997.

The outcome

The Proyecto Biosfera Rio Platano was conceived within this problematic. At the time of the feasibility study in 1995, there was virtually no COHDEFOR presence in the Platano Biosphere, very little involvement by NGOs, and the local population new next to nothing about their lands existing within the limits of a protected area. A baseline estimate in 1995 suggested that the newly proposed limits would include lands used by about 25 to 30 thousand people living in over 100 communities; about 64 percent of the population is indigenous and 36 percent is ladino. Actual results from the project now show an even larger population.

The Participatory Zoning and Management Component (PZM) of the Proyecto BRP is designed to contribute to the protection, conservation, and management of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. The PZM Component is developing a process, involving the local populations together with AFE/COHDEFOR and nongovernmental organizations, to manage and administer the lands and natural resources of the reserve. This objective is being implemented using a participatory research methodology, which permits the indigenous and ladino populations and their leadership to develop and clearly express their cognitive and innate knowledge of their lands. The process permits them to articulate information, at the local and regional level, related to the use and conservation of their natural resources. The PZM Component allows the local populations to develop their own consensual strategy for the zoning, management, and conservation of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. This in turn will help them assure their land rights, economic security, and cultural survival, all the while helping the Honduran State conserve and protect natural resources in the region.

The objective of the Zoning and Participatory Management Component of the Proyecto Rio Platano aims to define a new consensual land zoning system for the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. This zoning system will be defined by the resident population and will provide the fundamental base for the development of a Global Management Plan to assure the permanent conservation of these zones in the reserve. This zoning system will reflect the land use that already exist and is defined and recognized by the local populations. The process includes the direct participation of the indigenous and ladino population in the collection and production of the baseline information needed to design the system and it will, in turn, empower them in the administration and conservation of their lands within the Platano Biosphere.

The PZM process provides the reserve's resident population with an understanding of the existing relationship between their use of lands and resources and the limits of the reserve. The process has as its objective the establishment of well-defined property rights and the management of natural resources within the reserve. The PZM uses a participatory research methodology to define land use categories and to draw specific limits of these on maps made together with the people. Then, with an intimate knowledge of the information produced, the residents of the reserve themselves define the regulating management norms for controlling the exploitation of resources. The findings of this research and process then form the core and principal bases for the establishment of a consensual Global Management Plan of the reserve.

At the onset, the Participatory Zoning and Management Component of the Rio Platano Biosphere Project had three interrelated objectives:

  1. To incorporate the resident populations of the Platano Biosphere in participatory research in order to increase their participation in the conservation and management of their surrounding natural environment. In turn, this should strengthen the administration of local organizations and help form the mechanisms to incorporate the cognitive knowledge of local residents in the development of the Global Management Plan.
  2. Describe and draft large scale maps of community land use within the Platano Biosphere using the categories of resource use that the people define themselves.
  3. Design a system of zoning system with controls and regulations for the administration and management of the Platano Biosphere based on how the residents of the zone define them and within the context of the official State authorities responsible for managing the reserve.

The lessons learned

The results of the PZM process, while work is still underway, are truly staggering in the area of the Platano Biosphere covered to date, including:

  1. Large scale mapping of settlements and resource use
  2. Census at the household level of every family in and around the reserve.
  3. Census of the socio-economic conditions in every village
  4. Recognition of the limits and macro zones of the Platano Biosphere by the local population.
  5. Consensual definition and delimitation of the cultural and buffer zones into a locally defined and comprehensible zoning system including areas of multiple, extensive, and special use.
  6. Development of a sophisticated consensual regulatory document including locally-defined activities permitted, not permitted, and permitted with restrictions.
  7. Consensus on the part of the vast majority of the population now involved to protected the biosphere reserve.
  8. Integration of AFE/COHDEFOR at the local level within the PZM process
  9. Integration of NGOs, municipal, indigenous, and other community-based organizations into the process of managing the biosphere.

Additionally, during the process, the National Honduran Congress has approved the new redelimitation of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve (covering 8,000 square kilometers) and AFE/COHDEFOR has approved a new Rio Platano Forestry Region with the same limits. The ultimate goals which now appears within reach is a consensual Global Management Plan that fully integrates local residents and nongovernmental organizations together with state authorities in the conservation and administration of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve.

The overall lesson of the PZM process is not new: Resident populations can and need to be involved in the co-management of their lands and resources with state authorities. What is new is that the PZM process is showing a successful model of how to do it. The model will have important applications elsewhere in protected areas management.

Finally, if accepted, the author's presentation at the World Bank Conference will document exactly how the PZM process has been implemented in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve of Mosquitia.