World Rainforest Movement

The Meso-American Biological Corridor: Conservation or appropriation?

The idea of a series of protected natural areas joined by surrounding buffer zones where low intensity activities take place is no doubt attractive. It could be a scheme that might even guarantee landscape or habitat continuity and avoid the fragmentation caused by industrial activities such as large-scale agriculture and tree plantations, urbanization or works such as roads and dams. This is what the text of the Meso-American Biological Corridor (MBC) project proclaims.

However it is also true that serious doubts arise, considering that this project is located in Meso-America in the context of the ferocious advance of company interests towards the harnessing of areas that so far had not been on the market – such as genetic resources or water – where there is great inequality and where the communities that had enabled the rich biodiversity of the region to last are increasingly being dispossessed.

The origins of MBC can be traced back to 1992 when, in the framework of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) and the Central American Biodiversity Convention, the Central American Council for Protected Areas was entrusted with the development of the Meso-American System of National Parks and Protected Areas, “as an effective Meso-American biological corridor.” Later, in the Central American Alliance for Sustainable Development, adopted in 1994, the development of biological corridors and protected areas is mentioned and a commitment was made by the Presidents to establish the Central American Biological Corridor. Also in 1994, the University of Florida, United States of America, under the auspices of the “Paseo Pantera Project”, published a report on the feasibility of establishing a biological corridor in Central America.

The agreement formally establishing the concept of the Meso-American Biological Corridor was signed in February 1997. The Meso-American region comprises five southern states of Mexico (Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Tabasco) and seven Central American countries: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. The project was officially adopted at the Central American Presidential Summit Meeting, held in July 1997 in Panama City and its implementation is the responsibility of the Central American Environment and Development Commission (CCAD) (project document available at:ÑOL.pdf ).

The project is circumscribed in a special region of 768,000 km2 of lands and landscapes considered as one of the regions of the planet having the greatest biodiversity – 10 to 12% of all the world’s biodiversity, depending on the longitude recognized – inhabited by over 40 million people. It is the meeting point of two American biota (the Neo-Artic biota inhabiting the north and the Neo-Tropical biota inhabiting the south of the continent), turning the isthmus into a funnel where migratory movements of all types of species, biological individuals and genes are condensed.

The MBC arose at a time when the world had started to recognize the planetary value of biodiversity. However, this recognition comes in a context in which everything fast becomes merchandise. Carbon sequestration, water, soil, and biodiversity conservation, are all presented as “environmental services” that may be profitable. The concept of profitable “environmental services” fulfils the function of creating a broad economic framework, within which fragmented collective property and small-holdings of these services may turn into protected areas, basin heads, river-beds, water-tables, knowledge, genetic codes, etc., being privatised by mega-companies. The proposal of environmental services also encompasses bio-prospecting – to preserve in situ species that may be privatized or marketed through patents – and eco-tourism.

It is thus that conservation becomes yet another business, but also serves as an attractive pretext to capture funds aimed at “sustainable development” what ever it may be. The territorial planning of Meso-America is established in function of the environmental services and goods that the ecosystems to be protected, can provide. The idea may seem interesting if it were not that so far there is no exact definition of sustainable development; the term has become a pipe dream that can mean anything depending on who uses it.

What is true is that, according to the testimonials of various organizations in the region, three years after having launched this 16.6 million dollar project, the results are not encouraging. Protected areas in the zone continue to be highly threatened and pilot projects promoted by MBC have not caused any substantial change in this situation. The fact that the design was submitted without attempting to remedy already known problems makes us think that there are other interests behind it, different from those of conservation, and that an attempt is being made to “greenwash” conventional “development.”

The strategy of paying for environmental services is presented as an economic alternative for the peoples of Meso-America, suffering from the burden of the historically heavy foreign debt. But in turn, it should not be forgotten that the context in which this trade is carried out is that of a world of “free trade” in which transnational companies have all to win insofar as their increasing accumulation of capital and power enables them to have hegemonic control over the whole cycle of production, transformation, marketing and distribution. These dynamics are continuous and for this reason, in a further attack, transnational companies now seek to become the owners of genetic codes – the raw material for the genetic engineering business – and of water – as its increasing scarcity will make it become a strategic resource.

Furthermore, it is important to place the MBC in the context of the Puebla-Panama Plan (PPP) proposed by the Mexican President, Vicente Fox and accepted by the other heads of State of the region in 2001. The PPP contemplates the construction of roads, sea ports, electric cabling and optic fibre communications, hydroelectric dams, oil pipelines, gas pipelines, railways, airports, dry and wet docks, as well as industrial and maquila (assembly plants) corridors. With all these, the zone will be linked to the requirements of international trade and markets.

In this context, it would seem that the implementation of the MBC somehow gives out the message that there is a protected zone, the conservation of which is guaranteed, but that the rest is unprotected and subject to unsustainable use, which is what will happen with the PPP. However, eventually, depredatory activities will end up by affecting it all, as conservation and depredation are irreconcilable. Furthermore, there is an inherent contradiction in the co-existence of the two projects, insofar as the PPP conceives a network of corridors of inter-oceanic infrastructures, which interrupt at various points the flow between the biota from the north and from the south circulating along the trans-Meso-American biological corridors. The cuts imposed by the mega-projects and infrastructure (mainly at the Panama Canal, in Honduras and in the Tehuantepec Isthmus) are added to all the environmental destruction that has previously been taking place in the Meso-American region. Moreover, to increase this schizophrenia even further, side by side with the conservation corridors, the establishment of tree plantation corridors is being promoted to act as zones of “reforestation” and “carbon sinks.”

The peoples of the region already have had bitter experience with mega-projects that have caused serious problems, such as the lack of recognition of economic and social asymmetries, the weakening of States, the privatization of goods and public services, the increase of the vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples, women and children, the subordination of food security and sovereignty, the growth of the informal sector, the drop in social protection, the ransacking of natural resources, the destruction of small and middle-sized farmers, and of national production in general.

Both the MBC and the PPP have World Bank funding. In the case of the MBC, in addition to the World Bank, various donor countries, mainly from Europe, Japan and the United States together with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have allocated a contribution of 470 million dollars to carry out national and regional projects. It is unlikely that the presence of these bodies and these governments in the MBC is accidental. There is a lot of money being moved around these projects, which will give rise to many studies, assessments, consultation and advisory missions and very often these lead to association with private companies for bio-prospecting activities and investment in Protected Areas. It should not be ignored that there are strong entrepreneurial and geopolitical interests concerned with giving an impulse to the Puebla Panama Plan and with taking over a biodiversity from which great profits are expected.

However, there is no doubt that genuine interests do exist, aimed at diversity conservation, both biological and cultural, which see the MBC as a viable alternative to achieve this objective.

Therefore, the discussion on the good or bad points of MBC should take place in the framework of the type of development to be implemented in the region. If the Puebla Panama Plan model triumphs, the MBC will simply be part of a package for the ransacking and degradation of the region’s resources. If a socially just and environmentally respectful vision predominates, as a result of informed, real and free participation of the local peoples, the idea of a system of protected areas simultaneously acting as a biological corridor in the region could be an important step in improving the quality of life of the people and in the appropriate use of natural resources.

Article based on information from “PPP y corredor mesoamericano, otra forma de invasión externa”, Angélica Enciso L., La Jornada, ; “Press Communiqué from the Forth Meso-American Forum for the Self-determination and Resistence of the Peoples” (IV Foro Mesoamericano Por la Autodeterminación y Resistencia de los Pueblos”, 9 July 2003, ; and comments by Andrés Barreda, UNAM – Universidad Nacional de Mexico, e-mail: ; Piedad Espinosa, Trópico Verde, e-mail: , ; Magda Lanuza, Fundación Hijas e Hijos del Maíz, e-mail: