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Central America: CPD Site MA15


Location: In Mosquitia region of north-east Honduras including nearby mountains, between latitudes 15°-16°N and longitudes 84°30'-85°30'W.
c. 5250 km².
0-1500 m.
Mangrove and freshwater swamps and marshes; sedge prairie; pine savanna; gallery forest;
High diversity probably over 2000 vascular plant species; threatened species.
Useful plants:
Germplasm of timber species; medicinals.
Other values:
Watershed protection, wetlands, faunal refuge, archaeological sites, indigenous cultures, dramatic scenery, tourist attractions.
Logging, colonization, cattle-grazing, road building, mining exploration.
The Biosphere Reserve also is a World Heritage Site, Amerindian reserve and archaeological park.

Map 26: CPD Site MA15



La Mosquitia (or the Miskito Coast) is essentially that part of north-eastern to eastern Honduras and eastern Nicaragua mainly occupied by the indigenous Miskito people, and usually corresponds to the area's lowland pine savanna. The Miskito pine savanna formation occurs on deeply weathered quartz sandy gravels of Pleistocene age in a strip averaging 45 km wide (to 180 km maximum) which extends from about 16°N, 85°30'W in Honduras for some 480 km southward to a few kilometres north of Bluefields, Nicaragua (12°N) (Parsons 1955; Daugherty 1989). The Honduran Mosquitia (16,630 km²) mainly encompasses most of the Department of Gracias a Dios and part of the Department of Colón (Clewell 1986).

The 5250 km² Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve is a 35 ×150 km area extending south-west (Map 26), which protects coastal Mosquitia plain and interior elevations including some of the Honduran disjunct north-easternmost highlands. The reserve is in three departments: over half in Gracias a Dios, the rest mostly in Colón, with less than 10% in Olancho (Glick 1980; Daugherty 1989). It includes the entire watershed of the 115 km-long Plátano River (picture) and portions of the watersheds of the lower Tinto, Paulaya, Wampú, Pao, Tuskruwás and lower Sikri (Sigre) rivers - which, along with a 5-km marine extension for the Caribbean Sea, basically form the BR's boundaries. The annual precipitation varies locally from perhaps less than 2850 mm to 3000-4000 mm, with a drier season around January-May; the average annual temperature is 26.6°C. In an average decade, the region is impacted by four intense tropical storms and two hurricanes.

About 75% of the Biosphere Reserve is mountainous, with many steep ridges; Pico Morrañanga reaches 1500 m and Punta de Piedra 1326 m. Remarkable geological formations are in the rugged upland region, such as the exposed granitic pinnacle El Viejo or Pico de Dama, which projects finger-like 150 m as the summit of Cerro Dama in the Cordillera Baltimore (Cruz 1986). Cataracts and cascading waterfalls are found, the highest (100-150 m) being the Cascada del Mirador in the headwaters of the Cuyamel River. In one cataract the Plátano River almost disappears among massive boulders in a gorge flanked by forested escarpments 100 m high (Cruz 1986).

The remaining 25% of the BR is an undulating to flat segment of the Caribbean coastal plain, which extends from a few to over 40 km inland and rises gradually from sea-level to almost 100 m in altitude, where the foothills begin abruptly. The Plátano River (which bisects the length of the reserve) meanders for 45 km through this area, forming oxbow lakes, backwater swamps and natural levees which are used for agricultural plots (Froehlich and Schwerin 1983; Glick and Betancourt 1983). Near the sea are freshwater and brackish lagoons and sandy beaches.

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The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve is the largest natural tract of forest remaining in the country. About 75% of the region is in the tropical moist-forest life zone, with 10-15% in the subtropical wet-forest life zone (cf. Houseal et al. 1985). Little is known as yet about the vegetation of the mountainous majority of the BR (Froehlich and Schwerin 1983). The limited knowledge of the reserve's plant species is reported in DIGERENARE and CATIE (1978), Froehlich and Schwerin (1983) and Glick and Betancourt (1983).

The most extensive mangrove ecosystems fringe the large coastal lagoons of Brus (brackish, 120 km²) and Ibans (freshwater, 63 km²). Although some mangroves have been cut, the area still retains much of the original formation, with Rhizophora mangle characteristic.

Inland from the beach is a broad coastal savanna, which in wetter locales consists of sedge prairie with abundant Rhynchospora spp., Paspalum pulchellum, Tonina fluviatilis and Utricularia subulata, and where drier has more grasses, Fimbristylis paradoxa and Declieuxia fruticosa. Thickets of the palm Acoelorraphe wrightii are common. In drier areas is savanna dominated by Pinus caribaea var. hondurensis (20-25 m tall), which farther inland becomes open woodland with an oak understorey (Quercus oleoides, to 12 m) and Byrsonima crassifolia (to 5 m) conspicuous, along with several Melastomataceae, Calliandra houstoniana and the tree fern Alsophila myosuroides (Clewell 1986). The savanna is burned frequently to maintain pasturage for grazing and to keep game in the open for hunting.

Towards the large rivers are thickets dominated by Miconia, Isertia, Psychotria and Helicteres. Along the Plátano River and other alluvial rivers through the savanna, broadleaved gallery forest occurs in various successional stages, to 30-40 m high. Variously conspicuous taxa include Albizia carbonaria, Calophyllum brasiliense var. rekoi, Cecropia, Ficus, Inga, Luehea seemannii, Lonchocarpus, Ochroma lagopus, Pachira aquatica and Heliconia. Small colluvial creeks are flanked by swamp forest with a dense canopy to 10 m dominated by Guttiferae (Symphonia globulifera, Clusia spp.) (Clewell 1986). On richer soils in moist forest that has been disturbed as a result of intermittent agriculture, the dominants are Salix humboldtiana, Bambusa, Pithecellobium and Ceiba pentandra.

The upland portion of the Plátano River watershed is covered by moist to wet forests which are poorly known. Common or characteristic within its lower elevations (among others) are Apeiba membranacea, Bursera simaruba, Carapa guianensis, Casearia arborea, Cedrela odorata, Eugenia sp., Ficus insipida, Pourouma aspera, Pseudolmedia oxyphyllaria, Pterocarpus sp., Quararibea sp., Sloanea spp., Swietenia macrophylla and Vochysia hondurensis. With increasing altitude, sampled sites included the following plentiful or notable species: at 250 m - Garcinia intermedia, Pouteria sp. and Schizolobium parahybum; at 450 m - Ardisia tigrina, Pharus cornutus (rare), Smilax subpubescens and Ternstroemia tepezapote; at 600 m - Lobelia sp., Satyria warscewiczii and Welfia sp.

Trunks and branches support a rich assortment of epiphytes which are more abundant on the trees at higher elevations. Some locales have very dense successional stages resulting from disturbance by storms. Elfin forests occur on exposed ridges where the prevailing trade winds from the Caribbean have strong effect - for example at 700 m with Clusia salvinii, Magnolia sororum, Lacistema aggregatum and Psychotria elata.

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Honduras is estimated to have 6000 species of vascular plants (cf. Molina 1975; Nelson 1986). Forests remain over a third of the territory for a total of 40,000 km², approximately half broadleaved and half pine. No national Flora has been written, but many Honduran species are described in Nelson (1986), the Flora of Guatemala or other treatments (see Nelson 1989), and will be included in the Flora de Nicaragua. Probably over 2000 vascular plant species occur in the BR. The Mosquitia may still be the least known region of Honduras, where species new to the country, phytogeographically distinctive and/or new to science are found whenever a research trip can be carried out (Nelson 1978; Proctor 1981, 1983; Froehlich and Schwerin 1983).

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Useful plants 

The reserve harbours populations of some important timber trees, such as Calophyllum brasiliense var. rekoi, Carapa guianensis, Cedrela odorata, Swietenia macrophylla, Tabebuia rosea and Virola koschnyi. The abundance of seemingly wild Theobroma ("cacao") near Las Crucitas del Río Aner suggests that it was cultivated there in ancient times. The region's diverse inhabitants use an array of native species for many essential purposes (cf. Froehlich and Schwerin 1983; Cruz 1991; Lagos-Witte 1992). For example, the pines and several palms are used for construction, and several of the timber species are made into dugout canoes - a major means of transportation in the region.

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Social and environmental values 

The different ecosystems of this large BR provide habitats for many species that are classified as globally rare or threatened. Mammals include Baird's tapir, manatee, jaguar, ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, cougar, southern river otter, collared and white-lipped peccaries, white-faced, mantled howler and spider monkeys, and giant anteater (Froehlich and Schwerin 1983). Over 375 bird species reside in or frequent the region (e.g. harpy eagle, scarlet and military macaws). Five restricted-range species occur in the vicinity of the Río Plátano; the pine savanna has received little ornithological attention despite the occurrence of a number of endemic subspecies. Almost 200 amphibian and reptile species occur in the BR (Glick and Betancourt 1983; Cruz 1991).

The region has long been a site of human occupation. It has many archaeological sites (e.g. Marañones, Lancetillal, Platanillales, Saguasón, Limeta), including mysterious petroglyphs (picture) carved into large boulders along the river edge. The Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH) is conducting studies in the BR. The village Las Crucitas del Río Aner in the reserve's south-east (on the Aner River a few km from the Wampú River) is established over one of the largest and most impressive archaeological sites (Lara-Pinto and Hasemann 1991). It is believed that the fabled ancient "Ciudad Blanca" awaits discovery within the reserve. Additional archaeological research in the region may confirm the surmise that its peoples were an important link between major pre-Columbian cultures in North America and South America.

The northern portion of the BR has c. 6000 inhabitants belonging to four cultural groups: the Miskito (picture) and Pesch (Paya) Amerindians, Garífunas (Afro-Caribbeans) and "ladinos" (mestizos). The Miskito are the dominant group in the reserve, with c. 4500 persons living in coastal settlements and two towns on the banks of the Tinto River. The few Pesch who inhabit the BR mostly live in a few foothill settlements between Las Marías and Baltiltuk. Several hundred Garífunas are established in the coastal town of Plaplaya. There also are several hundred ladinos established in eight small settlements along the Paulaya River. These groups have not caused serious impact on the forests of the reserve (Herlihy and Herlihy 1991).

Economic activity in the region is based primarily on agriculture, cattle and fisheries; agriculture is the basis of subsistence (Glick and Betancourt 1983; Houseal et al. 1985). Tourism is considered a key potential for the BR (Murphy 1991), although attractions such as the archaeological sites still remain largely undeveloped or with limited access. The 1980s war in neighbouring Nicaragua made it difficult to attract foreign tourists when the Biosphere Reserve was newly established.

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The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve has the largest natural forest remaining in Honduras, where current estimates indicate an annual deforestation of 645 km² (Daugherty 1989). There is significant pressure to use the reserve's natural resources, with particular interest in logging the lowland hardwoods. Migratory farmers and loggers enter the reserve, with resultant forest destruction. In c. 1982 stricter controls were enacted on mineral exploitation and mining by non-residents was eliminated (Glick and Betancourt 1983).

A significant impact to the forest along the eastern border would have been permanent relocation of 4000 Miskito from Nicaragua, which was under consideration by the Honduran government refugee commission (Houseal et al. 1985). One of the most serious threats (c. 1982) was a proposed road to facilitate movement of military troops to the Honduras-Nicaragua border. The road would have crossed the BR's eastern boundary, which would have facilitated logging the region's hardwoods and opened the area to colonization. The plan was dropped as a consequence of international attention (FFPS 1983; Glick and Betancourt 1983; Nations and Komer 1983).

The most serious present problem for the BR's integrity is the cattle-frontier advancing from the south-west and into the reserve's south-western portion in the Wampú-Paulaya area. More than 6500 ladinos are established in 46 settlements and towns, roads reach beyond Dulce Nombre de Culmí into the area, and agricultural colonists continue to arrive (Herlihy and Herlihy 1991).

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In 1960 Honduras created the Ciudad Blanca Archaeological Reserve (c. 5250 km²) for the Plátano River region and in 1969 made it an archaeological National Park. This recognition endorsed the importance of archaeological finds and legends of an ancient major Maya city in the area, although actual protection was minimal (Anon. 1979; WWF - U.S. 1988). The cultural significance led to other scientific evaluations, confirming that the Mosquitia region of Honduras and Nicaragua had the most virtually undisturbed forest of northern Central America. As a result, in 1980 the park was recognized as the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (the first in Central America) under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB), which provided stronger legal protection and a management planning process for the Plátano River watershed and adjacent slopes. In 1982 the BR was accepted on the World Heritage List (Houseal et al. 1985).

Under the Biosphere Reserve concept, not only the biotic and archaeological resources are protected but also the indigenous cultures. From the beginning the Miskito and Pesch have been involved with the Honduras Dirección General de Recursos Naturales Renovables (RENARE) in planning and management of the reserve, assisted by MAB, the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE), the World Wildlife Fund - U.S. (WWF - U.S.) and the U.S. Peace Corps (Hartshorn 1983; Houseal et al. 1985). Management objectives include utilizing the BR as a model for studying human impact in the short and long term on tropical rain forests and identifying land-use practices that can be sustainable (Glick and Betancourt 1983). The BR has two basic zones to facilitate management: a core or natural zone (3180 km²) and a peripheral buffer zone (2070 km²), which has a cultural (lowland) portion.

WWF - U.S. has been involved in supporting projects for the Plátano River watershed for over a decade, including its establishment as a Biosphere Reserve. In 1987, the Honduran Ecological Association (AHE) organized an inter-institutional workshop (sponsored by WWF - U.S.) which produced a two-year detailed management plan for the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. The new plan called for the Honduran Corporation for Forest Development (COHDEFOR) to assume principal administrative duties. The plan outlines actions necessary to deal with serious threats to the BR's integrity and to make it the model of integrated resource development intended (WWF - U.S. 1988; Salaverri 1991).

In spite of some accomplishments and tremendous efforts by those involved with implementation of the management plan, degradation continues in the region (Salaverri 1991). To help alleviate the problem, the German Bank of Reconstruction and Development (KFW) in coordination with COHDEFOR undertook a feasibility study on the management plan for the Río Plátano BR; the 1991 results were accepted by the Honduran government. Before receiving development aid for the reserve from Germany, Honduras is making revisions to the BR decree and relocating non-indigenous persons living in the Plátano River headwaters area. Logging is being curtailed, and the military is increasingly involved in protection of the environment (El Heraldo 1992). The Biosphere Reserve may be significantly expanded eastward, to the Patuca River (c. 84°18'W).

The probability is growing to expand protection for the tropical forest to threatened contiguous regions in eastern Olancho Department, by extending an ecological corridor south from the Wampú River beyond the middle Patuca River to the Coco River bordering Nicaragua and its Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. Paseo Pantera (Path of the Panther) (Marynowski 1993), a consortium of Wildlife Conservation International and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, in collaboration with COHDEFOR and USAID, is engaged in trying to establish the corridor, which would link the Río Plátano BR, a proposed reserve (2300 km²) for the indigenous Tawahka Sumu (Herlihy and Leake 1990) and the adjacent (southward) proposed Patuca National Park (2200 km²) with the Bosawas BR (8000 km²) (Herlihy and Leake 1992). The Río Coco or Solidaridad Reserve is one of 11 areas given priority under the region's 1992 Convenio para la Conservación de la Biodiversidad y Protección de Areas Silvestres Prioritarias en América Central.

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Map 26. Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, Honduras (in CPD Site MA15)


Anon. (1979). The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras. Nature and Resources 15(3): 24-26.

Clewell, A.F. (1986). Observations on the vegetation of the Mosquitia in Honduras. Sida 11: 258-270.

Cruz, G.A. (1986). Areas silvestres de Honduras: guía de los parques nacionales, refugios de vida silvestre, reservas biológicas y monumentos naturales de Honduras. Asociación Hondureña de Ecología, Tegucigalpa.

Cruz, G.A. (1991). La biodiversidad de la reserva. In Murphy, V. (ed.), La Reserva de la Biósfera del Río Plátano: herencia de nuestro pasado. Ventanas Tropicales, Tegucigalpa. Pp. 20-23.

Daugherty, H.E. (ed.) (1989). Perfil ambiental de Honduras 1989. SECPLAN, Tegucigalpa and USAID: DESFIL, Washington, D.C. 346 pp.

DIGERENARE and CATIE (1978). La cuenca del río Plátano (Mosquitia, Honduras). Estudio preliminar de los recursos naturales y culturales de la cuenca y un plan para el desarrollo de una reserva de la biósfera en la región del río Plátano. Dirección General de Recursos Naturales Renovables (DIGERENARE), Tegucigalpa, Honduras and Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE), Turrialba, Costa Rica. 133 pp.

El Heraldo (6/VII/92). [President Callejas announces ban on lumber activities.] Pg. 38.

FFPS (1983). Military road threatens Honduras virgin forest. Oryx 17: 110.

Froehlich, J.W. and Schwerin, K.H. (eds) (1983). Conservation and indigenous human land use in the Río Plátano watershed, Northeast Honduras. Research Paper Series No. 12, Latin American Institute, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. 94 pp.

Glick, D. (1980). Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve case study. Integrative Studies Center, School of Natural Resources, University Michigan, Ann Arbor. 120 pp.

Glick, D. and Betancourt, J. (1983). The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve: unique resouce, unique alternative. Ambio 12: 168-173.

Hartshorn, G.S. (1983). Wildlands conservation in Central America. In Sutton, S.L., Whitmore, T.C. and Chadwick, A.C. (eds), Tropical rain forest: ecology and management. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, U.K. Pp. 423-444.

Herlihy, P.H. and Herlihy, L.H. (1991). La herencia cultural de la Reserva de la Biósfera del Río Plátano: un área de confluencias étnicas en la Mosquitia. In Murphy, V. (ed.), La Reserva de la Biósfera del Río Plátano. Ventanas Tropicales, Tegucigalpa. Pp. 9-15.

Herlihy, P.H. and Leake, A.P. (1990). The Tawahka Sumu: a delicate balance in Mosquitia. Cultural Survival Quarterly 14(4): 13-16.

Herlihy, P.H. and Leake, A.P. (1992). Situación actual del frente de colonización/deforestación en la región propuesta para el Parque Nacional Patuca. Mosquitia Pawisa (MOPAWI), Tegucigalpa. 22 pp. + Annexes.

Houseal, B., MacFarland, C., Archibold, G. and Chiari, A. (1985). Indigenous cultures and protected areas in Central America. Cultural Survival Quarterly 9(1): 10-20.

Lagos-Witte, S. (1992). Ethnobotanical contributions to the TRAMIL program in the Caribbean Basin: the case of Honduras. In Plotkin, M. and Famolare, L. (eds), Sustainable harvest and marketing of rain forest products. Island Press, Washington, D.C. Pp. 20-26.

Lara-Pinto, G. and Hasemann, G. (1991). Leyendas y arqueología: ¿cuántas ciudades blancas hay en la Mosquitia? In Murphy, V. (ed.), La Reserva de la Biósfera del Río Plátano. Ventanas Tropicales, Tegucigalpa. Pp. 16-19.

Marynowski, S. (1993). Paseo Pantera: the great American biotic interchange. Wild Earth (Special Issue): 71-74.

Molina, R.A. (1975). Enumeración de las plantas de Honduras. Ceiba 19(1): 1-118.

Murphy, V. (ed.) (1991). La Reserva de la Biósfera del Río Plátano: herencia de nuestro pasado. Ventanas Tropicales, Tegucigalpa. 26 pp.

Nations, J.D. and Komer, D.I. (1983). International action halts road through Honduras rainforest. Ambio 12: 124-125.

Nelson, C. (1978). Contribuciones a la flora de La Mosquitia, Honduras. Ceiba 22(1): 41-64.

Nelson, C. (1986). Plantas comunes de Honduras. 2 vols. Editorial Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras, Tegucigalpa. 922 pp.

Nelson, C. (1989). Honduras. In Campbell, D.G. and Hammond, H.D. (eds), Floristic inventory of tropical countries: the status of plant systematics, collections, and vegetation, plus recommendations for the future. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx. Pp. 290-294.

Parsons, J.J. (1955). The Miskito pine savanna of Nicaragua and Honduras. Ann. Assoc. Amer. Geogr. 45: 36-63.

Proctor, G.R. (1981). Appendix 2. Mosquitia botanical collection list according to families. In Brunt, M.A. (ed.), La Mosquitia, Honduras: resources and development potential. Vol. 3. Appendices. Overseas Development Administration, Land Resources Development Centre, Project Report No. 110. Tolworth, Surbiton, England, U.K.

Proctor, G.R. (1983). New plant records from the Mosquitia region of Honduras. Moscosoa 2(1): 19-22.

Salaverri, J. (1991). La situación actual de la reserva. In Murphy, V. (ed.), La Reserva de la Biósfera del Río Plátano. Ventanas Tropicales, Tegucigalpa. Pp. 5-8.

WWF-US (1988). Country plan-Honduras. In 1989/90 program. Latin America and the Caribbean: new and ongoing projects. World Wildlife Fund-US (WWF-US), Washington, D.C. Pp. 291-312.


This Data Sheet was written by Olga Herrera-MacBryde (Smithsonian Institution, SI/MAB Program, S. Dillon Ripley Center, Suite 3123, Washington, DC 20560-0705, U.S.A.).

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