Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve

Date of Submission: 01/02/2019
Criteria: (vii)(ix)(x)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Honduras to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Departments of Gracias a Dios, Olancho, and Colon in the Honduran Moskitia Region
Coordinates: N15 38 09 W84 46 43
Ref.: 6383

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Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in 1982 as one of the pioneering natural World Heritage sites in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Even at the time of inscription, it was the country's largest protected area extending across roughly 350,000 hectares of the Honduran Moskitia. At the national level, however, the nominated area has since been substantially enlarged to some 630,000 ha with an additional buffer zone of approximately 200,000 ha. The IUCN evaluation in 1982 emphasized two remarkable characteristics supporting the case for the area's World Heritage merits in addition to the large block of intact broadleaf forest. First, the protected area encompasses the entire watershed of a major river, the Rio Platano, from the headwaters in a densely forested mountain landscape to the river mouth on the Caribbean Coast. Second, even though the protected area is best known for including one of the most important remnants of closed humid broadleafforest, it also encompasses numerous completely different ecosystems and habitats. The entire northern part towards the Caribbean coast is in fact comprised of an exceptionally diverse landscape mosaic, boasting a series of coastal lagoons, remote beaches, rare pme forest types, savannahs and wetlands. The ecosystem mosaic is home to an extraordinary diversity of life. Further adding to its importance, Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve is functionally linked to several other important protected areas and indigenous conservation areas, even across the intemational border with neighboring Nicaragua.

The nominated area has a very long and ongoing human history. It is no coincidence that the nominated area overlaps with a vast National Archeological Park predating the establishment of any protected areas dedicated to nature conservation in the entire Honduran Moskitia. Notable archaeological values, such as major Pre-Columbian artifacts and petroglyphs have been found both in fhe existing property and the much larger area to be nominated. Some surveys are ongoing, requiring communication and coordination between authorities in charge of natural and archeological heritage to coordinate competing interests. It is conceivable that the results of ongoing archeological research might justify and stimulate the consideration of cultural World Heritage criteria in addition to the currently proposed natural criteria in the future. Unlike the smaller existing property, the nominated area adopts the configuration and zonation of the nationally and internationally designated man and biosphere reserve in 1980, which extended its boundaries in 1997. This means that there is a much larger zone comprised of one of the most important remnants of the once immense humid broadleaf forests of Central America and Southern Mexico dedicated exclusively to nature conservation. It is surrounded by a buffer zone in the south and west in an effort to halt the agricultural frontier. Mestizo (Ladino) communities have been granted rights in this buffer zone in order to stabilize land and resource use. As the most profound change initiated in 1997, the nominated area includes a cultural zone of some 425,000 ha. Following many years of negotiation, indigenous Pech, Miskito,Tawahka and local communities of African descent (Garifuna, Afrohondurenos) have been granted rights permitting them to continue to live on their land and sustainably use its rich natural resources. This proposal to explicitly include inhabited and used areas is made on the grounds of paragraph 119 of the Operational Guidelines which states that World Heritage properties "may support a variety of ongoing and proposed uses that are ecologically and culturally sustainable and which may contribute to the quality of life of communities concerned" on condition that "such sustainable use or any other change does not impact adversely on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property". It deserves to be recalled in this context that large parts of the existing property have been inhabited and used at all times, including at the time of the inscription of Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve in its current configuration in 1982.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

As noted above, the existing property was recognized as having World Heritage merits due to its significant block of contiguous humid broadleaf forest, the coverage ofan entire and major river from its source to its mouth on the Atlantic Coast and the exceptional diversity of the landscape mosaic in the coastal plains. The nominated area builds upon that rationale, while substantially adding surface area and ecosystem diversity. Compared to the existing property, the most obvious difference of the nominated area is its much larger scale of some 630,000 hectares, an enormous area by any standard and in particular by the standards of a relatively small country. Unlike the existing property, which included some 120,000 hectares of contiguous dense broadleaf forest, the nominated area includes the vast majority of that entire forest block, some 210,000 hectares fully coinciding with the core zone of the biosphere reserve.

Criterion (vii): 
The particular natural beauty of the nominated area rests on the exceptional variety of the terrain, landscape and ecosystems. The vast protected area is home to rarely visited and almost impenetrable forested mountains reaching 1,418 m.a.s.l. at Punta Piedra, but also includes markedly distinct savannahs, pine forest and vast wetlands towards the coastal plains of the Caribbean Coast. The spectacular lagoons near the coast, namely Laguna Brus and Laguna Ibans, are home to manatees and major bird colonies, while also serving as nurseries for fish and many other forms of aquatic life.

Criterion (ix): The Rio Platano is one of the major rivers of Honduras. Flowing freely from its mountainous headwaters to the Caribbean Sea, uninterrupted by any human infrastructure, it is the heart of the nominated area. This permits the continuation of the full range of natural processes along the entire altitudinal and ecological range. The contiguous block of dense tropical rainforest with smaller areas of rare elfin forest on the highest in the mountainous south area is widely recognized as being among the most intact and most valuable tropical forests of the entire Meso-American region. The natural wealth of the dense forests is complemented by the many other distinct yet interlinked elements of landscape mosaic.
The estuarine, coastal and marine ecosystems, mangrove swamps and pine savannah form an extraordinary, largely intact web of life in the remote Honduran Moskitia. 

Criterion (x): The Honduran Moskitia is renowned as a globally important stronghold of biodiversity. The nominated area is to include a much larger and diverse representation of that natural wealth than the existing property. Recent research confirmed that the nominated area continues to keep many of its secrets; new research is certain to reveal new species. Today, at least 586 species of vascular plants are documented. Across all investigated taxonomic groups, Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve is home to impressive proportions of the fauna of Honduras, which is part of the Mesoamerican Biodiversity Hotspot. The more than 721 species of vertebrates include more than half of all mammals known in Honduras, such as the critically endangered Mexican Spider Monkey, the endangered Central American Tapir, the vulnerable Giant Anteater and the West Indian Manatee, as well as the near-threatened Jaguar and White lipped Peccary. Other charismatic species are Puma, Ocelot, Jaguarondi and Margay, Neotropical Otter, White-throated Capuchin Monkey and Mantled Howler Monkey. The endangered Great Green Macaw, the vulnerable Great Curassow and Scarlet Macaw and the near-threatened Guiana Crested Eagle stand out among the impressive 411 documented species of birds, along with Jabim, King Vulture and the majestic Harpy Eagle. The 108 species of reptiles and amphibians comprise several rare poisonous snakes and 4 species marine turtles reproducing on the coast (Loggerhead, Leatherback, Green Turtle and Hawksbill Turtle).

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

As the name implies, the spatial approach to the protected area to be nominated largely follows natural watershed boundaries. The heart of this watershed is the Rio Platano, which is protected from its headwaters to its mouth. The Platano River is a major landscape feature and corridor connecting all the landscape elements from the rugged mountains to the coastal plains. Unlike the existing property, the nominated area encompasses the bulk of the block of dense humid forest under coherent and strict protection. Compared to the existing property, the configuration is further strengthened by including a much larger area of the conspicuously diverse landscape east of the river mouth. Most of the vast area, including the coast, is remote and difficult to access, which contributes to the high degree of naturalness, while admittedly also creating management and law enforcement challenges. The vast cultural zone acknowledges the presence, rights and needs of indigenous peoples and local communities. Sustainable use of natural resources is accepted as long as it does not deteriorate the natural values or ecosystem productivity. The resource-dependent indigenous peoples and local communities can be regarded as a first line of defense against illicit activities threatening the integrity of the cultural zone.

Comparison with other similar properties

A more in-depth analysis is to be carried out as an integral element of the envisaged new nomination. The below overview has a focus on the most obvious sites with comparable nature conservation values; analysis is restricted to brief comments on the most striking differences in the form of bullet points.

Given that the area is being proposed to enable a Significant Boundary Modification of an existing property, it is also relevant to compare the envisaged new nomination with the existing property. One major difference in favor of the new nomination is the much larger surface area, which would make it one of the largest World Heritage properties in all of Mesoamerica. As mentioned in the integrity section, it deserves to be noted that the nominated area includes the bulk of the exceptionally large and intact remnant of humid broadleaf forest, whereas the existing property only encompasses slightly more than half of that key area. Similarly, the nominated area adds substantial surface area of various ecosystems in the coastal lowlands, also adding ecosystems, which are not included in the existing property, such as freshwater lagoons further inland markedly distinct from the coastal lagoons and rare coastal vegetation in the northeast of the biosphere reserve.

Existing World Heritage properties in the région similar as this property, that have been inscribed taking into consideration the criterion (ix) and criterion (x) are Tikal National Park (Guatemala), Los Katios National Park (Colombia), Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul, Campeche (Mexico), in terms of the coincidence of high natural and cultural values.

Comparable properties in scale and in landscape diversity and complexity are Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (Costa Rica), Talamanca Range-La Amistad Réserves / La Amistad National Park (Costa Rica / Panama), and the Darién National Park (Panama).