Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, Honduras

A Howler Monkey in the forests of the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.
A Howler Monkey in the forests of the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.

5. Description

The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve was designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1982, making it only the second such site in Honduras. The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve is located in northeastern Honduras in the Mosquitia region of the country, covering 350,000 hectares (1,351 square miles) of land as the largest protected area in all of Honduras. The site covers the whole watershed of the Río Plátano area from the Caribbean coastline to the mountains. This reserve help to protect one of the few remnants of tropical rainforest in Central America, as well as the plant and animal species that called the area home.

4. Historical Role

The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve was originally set aside by the government of Honduras as an archaeological reserve in 1960. Despite the nature of the reserve now taking precedent over the archaeological parts of the site these areas are still important for archaeologists and tourists. The reserve has over 200 different archaeological sites that include ruined settlements, rock carvings and stone that was used for roads and buildings, among other remains. The site is also notable for having the point where Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) first arrived in mainland America during his fourth voyage in 1502. The reserve has also the alleged site of the legendary settlement of La Ciudad Blanca (The White City) over the centuries, but no one has ever come up with credible evidence that the site exists or has ever existed.

3. Significance to Indigenous Peoples

Today, there are over 2,000 indigenous people that call the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve their home. These indigenous people, as well as people of African descent, living in and around the site include the Garifuna, Miskito, Pech, and Tawakha peoples. Besides this area being the home for these indigenous people, the site also has a number of Pre-Columbian sites and petroglyphs that reflect the ancient past of these indigenous people, on top of the current living cultures that these groups have and try to keep alive.

2. Habitats and Biodiversity

The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve is a landscape that varies from being mountainous to going down towards the coastline of the Caribbean Sea, with the Plátano River running through the area. The site is mostly dense highland and lowland rainforest, although there are also wetlands, savannas, and coastal lagoons and lowlands in the site. Besides this wide array of ecosystems, the reserve also has 586 different species of vascular plants just in the lowlands area of the reserve and more than 721 different species of vertebrates that include more than half of the known mammals in the country. The reserve also houses 411 known species of birds and 108 different species of amphibians and reptiles. There are also endangered animals that live on the reserve like the Mexican Spider Monkey, Giant Anteater, West Indian Manatee, Central American Tapir, and the Great Green Macaw among others.

1. Environmental Threats and Conservation Efforts

In 1960, the Ciudad Blanca Archaeological Reserve was created to protect the ancient ruins in what is now the Río Plátano site. It took until 1980 before the government of Honduras designated the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve by decree, which was also the same year that the site was recognized by the international community as a biosphere reserve. Two years late the reserve was made a UNESCO site and in 1997 the site was farther protected by the government when they extended its area via decree. The site is protected by the government and the Forest, Protected Areas and Wildlife Law, along with there being zoning regulations to separate areas that are strictly protected with areas where natural resources can be harvested in a controlled manner. Despite all of these protections the site still has its integrity threatened due to illegal resource extraction, agricultural encroachment, illegal logging and forest being converted into pasture land for grazing animals. In order to address these problems there needs to be more law enforcement, as well as working with the local communities and trying to help balance their rural poverty with protecting the reserve.


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