In April 2004, government authorities from Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama signed a declaration to work together to protect the Tropical Eastern Pacific Corridor. This marine area, spanning 2-million km2 and including portions of the Exclusive Economic Zones of each of the signatories, would serve as a model for the protection of broad, international, ecologically connected areas. Providing cornerstones for the protection plan would be five existing island national parks and surrounding marine reserves: Galapagos (Ecuador), Coiba (Panama), Cocos Island (Costa Rica), and Malpelo and Gorgona (both of Colombia).

Now underway, the initiative is based on the following concept: that an ecosystem-based approach is necessary to protect the region’s wide-ranging species (tunas, turtles, marine mammals), and that such an approach can be carried out in part by coordinating relevant management among existing MPAs in the region. In practice, the initiative’s scale and international component have brought challenges. While progress has been made in the past year and a half – including initiation of regional efforts involving authorities, stakeholders, and NGOs – the initiative has also faced strong opposition, namely from the Ecuadorian tuna fleet, which relies largely on the corridor region for much of its catch and is cautious that the initiative could eventually bring restrictions.

Ultimate goal of the initiative

The ultimate goal of the marine corridor initiative, or CMAR for short (for Corredor Marino), remains a point of contention. The fishing sector fears the goal is to designate a “super-MPA” that includes the five existing sites and waters in-between. Advocates of the initiative, citing the declarations and documents signed by government officials to this point, argue the objective is simply to improve coordination of management at the existing sites and strengthen mechanisms that provide for effective conservation of protected areas and sustainable use of marine resources.

As it stands, the main challenge for advocates is to convince the industrial fishing sector that CMAR does not propose the creation of a giant no-take area. Opposition to the initiative from the politically influential Ecuadorian tuna fleet has resulted in the Ecuadorian government backing off from actively promoting the initiative, although it is still officially committed to CMAR under the declaration. “The CMAR initiative supports the sustainable use of the corridor, which is in the long-term interest of the fishing sector,” says Gabriel Labbate, coordinator of the UN Environment Programme’s regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean. His office will supervise dissemination of pending Global Environment Facility funds to support the CMAR initiative. “The creation of any MPA as part of this initiative will have to take into account the needs of the fishing sector,” he says.

Scott Henderson, Galapagos program coordinator for Conservation International (CI), an NGO that has actively supported the CMAR initiative, says the project recognizes that tuna fishing is an important regional economic activity. He notes that there are established bodies – primarily the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission – that have the remit to ensure sustainable use. “The aim of the project is to support such bodies so that sustainable fishing can prosper,” says Henderson, noting that best environmental practices by the fishing sector can ensure access to conscientious markets. “[CMAR aims] to improve management at established MPAs, not to exclude industrial fishing in the entire region.”

Labbate of UNEP adds that another challenge for the project includes the existence of a portion of the corridor outside national waters on the high seas. This portion is being used by fleets from nations that are not signatories to the declaration, including Japan and South Korea. “Involvement of these fleets in the initiative is a real challenge, as they have no formal commitments to it,” says Labbate.

The declaration in April 2004 established a rotating secretariat (the initial period is under the umbrella of Costa Rica’s environment ministry) to oversee the initiative and coordinate the countries’ work plans. Labbate says the main accomplishment so far has been the fact that this institutional space now exists for discussion of sustainable management among nations. “It has helped to strengthen the commitments of future administrations of participating countries to the CMAR,” he says. “It has also been relatively successful in bringing funds to sustain this initiative.”

International NGOs and intergovernmental organizations have teamed up to assist. Among them are CI and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, which are cooperating on a UN Foundation and Global Conservation Fund-financed project to promote long-term management and conservation of the five MPAs. (Three of the parks are already World Heritage sites – Galapagos, Coiba, and Cocos Island – while Gorgona and Malpelo have been proposed for such status.) The project involves fostering the networking of managers, scientists, and other professionals associated with these sites: i.e., establishing a communications network for site managers and conservation professionals in the region; providing training on the use of environmental laws and conventions; promoting collaboration among regional conservation organizations on key issues; and supporting the World Heritage nominations for Gorgona and Malpelo. CI and the World Heritage Centre have secured US$10 million to support these programs over the next four years. The US National Marine Sanctuaries Program is also engaged in capacity-building efforts for MPA managers in the region. And there has been interest expressed in creating an internet listserver for managers and a manager-training program similar to those of the UNEP-sponsored CaMPAM Network and Forum Partnership – an initiative to network Caribbean MPA practitioners (MPA News 6:1).

Marjaana Kokkonen, a marine heritage specialist with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, says that although the idea of designating the entire corridor as a World Heritage site has been suggested, it is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future due to the fishing-sector opposition and other obstacles. But the management of the existing sites can be improved, she says. “We should aim first to conserve the existing sites properly – and there are several problems – before aiming to nominate the whole region,” she says. “For now, we can work to build the necessary collaboration so that perhaps such a designation could happen one day.”

For more information

Gabriel Labbate, Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente, Oficina Regional para America Latina y el Caribe, Blvd. de los Virreyes 155, Lomas de Virreyes, CP 11000 Mexico, D.F., Mexico. Tel: +52 55 5202 6394; E-mail:

Scott Henderson, Conservation International – Andes/Eastern Tropical Pacific Regional Marine Coordinator, Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecaudor. Tel: +593 9871 8157; E-mail:

Marjaana Kokkonen, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 7 place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP, France. Tel: +33 1 4568 1887; E-mail: