The State Party submitted a report on the property’s state of conservation on 8 February 2011. As requested in Committee Decision 34 COM 7B.34, a joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN reactive monitoring mission visited the property from 31 Januaryto 9 February 2011.
The mission report is available online at the following web address: http://whc.unesco.org/en/sessions/35COM.
a) Land tenure and illegal settlement of the property by squatters
Major illegal settlement was one of the main threats that led to the inscription of the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1996, as a result of the region attracting poor settlers in search of cattle ranching lands, transforming forests into extensive pastures in an uncontrolled agricultural frontier. The mission recalls that extensive efforts to organize land tenure over more than 10 years, in large part with the support of German development cooperation, have yielded promising results. Most long standing settlers have obtained clear titles to their lands in areas surrounding the property, reducing the illegal land trading market. However, indigenous groups with traditional rights within the property are still in the process of negotiating land tenure and resource use access arrangements with the authorities that are adapted to their needs. Lack of clarity in terms of access to land and natural resources in these areas is aggravated by the general lack of planning and law enforcement, inviting unauthorized settlement by squatters seeking land for ranching. The mission notes that the property was removed from the Danger List in 2007 after important advances had been made in land titling and in removing illegal settlers from within its boundaries. Unfortunately, the State Party reports the presence of several dozen new squatters in this zone, but adds that all legal procedures are being implemented to ensure their removal by mid-2011. Though the State Party reports that it will be removing these squatters, the mission considers that they represent only a small proportion of illegal settlers currently located in the property.
b) Development of hydroelectric dams in nearby watershed (Patuca I, II and III)
The mission was informed that after several years seeking a development partner, the State Party finalized an agreement with Chinese company network Sinohydro, to build the first of possibly three dams on the Patuca river, Patuca III. This river’s watershed abuts part of the property, and even includes, to a small extent, portions of the property. Construction began in February 2011, with funding from the Chinese government. Though an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out in 2008, a copy of the EIA was first obtained during the 2011 mission. The EIA makes no reference of potential impacts on the property’s Outstanding Universal Value , leaving this question unanswered. Similarly, approvals to proceed with the other two Patuca dams have reportedly been granted, though no communication from the State Party to this effect has been received by the World Heritage Centre. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that in line with Paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines, there is need for clear information on the precise location of the dams and the expected impacts on the Outstanding Universal Value, before construction on the dams is started.
c) Management and Institutional Capacity
The mission was informed that protected area management, formerly under the remit of the Forestry Development Corporation of Honduras, is now under the newly created National Institute for the Conservation and Development of Forests, Protected Areas and Wildlife (ICF) which reports directly to the President. There is also substantially revised new forest legislation, which contributes to removing the structural conflict in mandates that existed when the protected areas management agency had to cover the cost of its operations though logging concession revenues. The mission notes that the ICF remains a poorly resourced agency, relying in large part on extra-budgetary financing obtained from bi- and multi-lateral projects to carry out field activities. The ICF is in the process of producing a new management plan, though the mission considers that given that one of several projects (Proyecto Corazon) is taking the lead, there is a risk that not all initiatives and stakeholders are involved in producing the new plan in a coordinated fashion. The mission also considers that the confusion regarding the official property boundaries (the World Heritage property is effectively managed as if its boundaries were the same as the much larger Biosphere Reserve), poses the risk that World Heritage considerations are not fully considered nor reflected in the new management plan. Beyond the ICF, conservation of the property’s values, including its integrity, depends on the capacity of other government agencies, particularly those responsible for controlling illegal activities. The mission notes that the near absence of capacity to apprehend, to transport to holding areas, to hold in custody, and to prosecute people carrying out illegal activities, due to the remote nature of the site, results in an environment of impunity. The general atmosphere of intimidation, and potential and actual violence, are also disincentives for environmental prosecutors to venture into the zone.
d) Property boundary design
The State Party provided to the mission, as well as in its report, a sketch map of the current boundaries and zoning of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, as legally recognized in national law. Though the area officially recognized by the World Heritage Committee in 1982 is still contained within the expanded boundaries of the Reserve, there is no coherence between management planning and the property boundaries recognized under the World Heritage Convention. Much of the inscribed property is included in the buffer zone of the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve, where significant agricultural activities occur, and a cultural zone, where human settlements, existing at the time of inscription, are located. The mission considers that there is a need to revisit the boundaries of the property to more accurately reflect the extent of the ecosystems for which it was initially inscribed, and to take into consideration the existing uses within the current boundaries. It notes that the key values of the area are the mosaic of ecosystems in the northern part of the Rio Platano watershed, which are now largely included in the cultural zone, and the exceptional protection of an entire watershed. The mission recommends that both these aspects be considered in the future boundary design.
e) Illegal logging and fishing, poaching
The mission concludes that despite visible efforts at controling illegal logging, the practice remains widespread. There is little or no management of fishing practices in the property. Though local and indigenous communities rely on fishing for subsistence, their practices are unsustainable, as they throw nets across the main canals separating the sea from the lagoons during tidal flows. Besides subsistence fishing, the seasonal migration upriver of one species triggers a human migration for commercial fishing. The mission also found evidence of poaching in the core zone, and it was informed that manatees, large marine mammals, are hunted for food in the lagoons
f) Increase in illegal drug transshipment activities in and near the property
The mission was informed that in the past 4-5 years the property has become a major transportation hub for moving narcotics from South America northwards. The State Party reports several illicit landing strips in the property, also observed by the mission during its helicopter overflight.
The State Party has recognized the severity of the situation. On 15 February 2011, it adopted a decree recognizing the property as a zone of special interest requiring priority on the part of the government and deciding the development and implementation of an inter-ministerial action plan to address the situation. Subsequently, the State Party proactively requested the World Heritage Committee, by a letter sent to the World Heritage Centre received 11 April 2011, to inscribe the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger, in response to concerns over increased incursions into the property by cattle ranchers, and to the growing inability to deal with the conservation challenges as a result of growing insecurity in the area.