A joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN monitoring mission was carried out from 11-15 December 2006, as requested by the World Heritage Committee at its 30th session (Vilnius, 2006). The mission aimed to assess the state of conservation of the property and progress in the implementation of the corrective measures set by the World Heritage Committee at its 28th session (Suzhou, 2004) in view of a possible removal of the property from the List of World Heritage in Danger. The official mission report is available in English and Spanish for consultation by the Committee. During this mission the State Party reported on the implementation of previous recommendations, including:
a) The remaining settlers (7 families and 32 landowners) were relocated from inside the core zone in July 2004, and no more permanent human settlements exist in the core zone. However, during the over flight of the property, the mission team observed a new clearing in the forest of approximately 10 hectares, in which several head of cattle were seen grazing.
b) All the resolutions of COHDEFOR concerning the commercialization of dead wood from the effects of hurricane Mitch have been cancelled.
c) Changing approaches to sustainable agricultural practices have had a significant impact, with 13 agroforestry cooperatives now managing about 100,000 ha in the buffer zone. Other achievements include the intensification of cattle management and the uptake of traditional organic coffee growing and processing techniques.
d) Critical areas and access points of the core and buffer zones have been demarcated, and the land registration process has almost been completed.
e) The Regional Advisory Committee for the Conservation and Protection of the Reserve (Comité Regional de Orientación para la Protección y Conservación de la Reserva - COROB) has established an annual operational plan, as well as an action plan for the identification of illegal logging areas, confiscation of illegal wood and the filing of charges against those responsible, in cooperation with the Armed Forces, the National Preventive Police and the National Human Rights Commissioner.
f) The environmental management plans related to the Ministry of Agriculture’s development strategy have been disseminated within the Sico Paulaya Valley zone.
g) The Government has significantly increased the presence of the Armed Forces in the area. Between February and November 2006, a total of 8,663,303 Lempiras (approximately USD 458,837 ) was spent on military operations in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR), such as the setting up of control posts, terrestrial, aerial and coastal patrols, and fire fighting. During this period, 491,157 board feet of wood and six motor saws were decommissioned; nine persons arrested and handed over to the authorities, and 67 forest fires extinguished.
The President of the Republic of Honduras personally expressed his commitment to the protection of RPBR during an extended meeting with the mission team. The mission team noted that the level of threat to the property has further decreased since the previous mission (2003), and recognized the efforts of the new Honduran Government to protect the values of the property. The team also noted the significant long-term financial and technical assistance given by the German cooperation, particularly in its support of a very extensive cadastral process for all lands within the property’s buffer zone, thus stabilizing the illegal appropriation of public lands by people involved in aggressively expanding the agricultural frontier into the property. However, this process was not yet completed at the time of the mission, and the important follow-up process of legally registering the parcels demarcated by the cadastral process remains to be done. Until this is completed, legal ownership will continue to be in doubt, and the opportunity for aggressive frontier land conversions and appropriations will remain.
The mission team received several reports on the difficulty of carrying out the full judicial process in the region. Due to the absence of prosecutors and legal expertise at the local level, individuals arrested for illegal activities (particularly those involved in illegal land clearing and appropriation) must be transported to the capital at significant expense, dissuading the full application of the law and resulting in few convictions of people arrested by police. The on-going relative impunity with which people have been infracting the law is discouraging law-abiding citizens to support police work in the region, as the risk of retribution to whistle blowers, though improved with the presence of the military, is still perceived as too high.
The mission team noted the important investment made in large part by the German cooperation on infrastructure within the property, particularly the construction of a spacious and modern building for the management authorities. The building provides a comfortable place for staff to work and sleep in this remote region, encouraging a greater presence in this part of the property. However, the team also noted that the management team remains small, underfinanced and at times ill-equipped, reducing its impact at the field level, particularly in other parts of the property.
Involvement of local organizations in co-management initiatives, though existing to a certain extent, still needs to be strengthened. Participatory structures (e.g. regional co-management committees) could help improve this situation.
Following the expansion of the Biosphere Reserve boundaries on two occasions in the past several years, there now seems to be wide confusion about the actual boundaries of the World Heritage property as it was inscribed in 1982. This was confirmed on several occasions during the mission, when it was apparent that there is widespread belief that the Biosphere Reserve boundaries are the same as those of the World Heritage property. The original nomination dossier maps are unclear and require updating.
In order to consolidate the management and conservation gains made in recent years, the following priority issues should be addressed by the State Party:
h) The presence of the Armed Forces, while welcome and having a measurable effect on conservation needs to be backed up by the full complement of judicial institutions operating effectively to ensure full application of the law and the dissuasion of further illegal activities.
i) Parts of the buffer zone (mainly in the north-western part of RPBR) have not yet benefited from the cadastral process; this process should be completed, and should be followed-up with the full legalization of all lands having been cadastred.
j) Structures through which local organizations and communities can effectively participate in management processes need to be developed and strengthened.
k) Decommissioned wood should irrevocably be destroyed or otherwise withdrawn from the market so that no possibility exists for the wood to be legalized and to re-enter the market through administrative loopholes, thus reducing the incentive for illegal logging or for processing illegal wood.
l) New intrusions into the property must be dealt with swiftly and by applying the full measures of the law to discourage replication.
m) Given the rough nature of the maps provided at the time of inscription, and given the current uncertainties as to the precise boundaries of the property today, a formal clarification of the boundary is strongly recommended, and should rely on GIS technology and satellite imagery, which is currently available to the authorities.