Panama: Islanders integrate biodiversity conservation

Residents of the Pearl Islands collecting trash.
Residents of the Pearl Islands collecting trash. Photo: UNDP in Panama

Residents of the Pearl Islands and other archipelagoes in the Gulf of Panama always got everything from the sea. But, according to the islanders, fish population has been steadily declining, and so have jobs.

Andrés Ramirez, a boat captain who services commuters between the islands, faces a diminishing income.

"It is no longer like it used to be”, he says. “Lobsters and octopuses are not so abundant any more. Resources become scarce and people have to buy them now”.

The Pearl Archipelago is a special coastal marine management zone and its inhabitants live of tourism, agriculture and artisanal fishing. The area has long been one of the major sources of global extraction of oysters and pearls but, today, its future is threatened by the negative effects of global warming and mismanagement of natural resources.

For the past two years, the Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama and UNDP, with support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), have been implementing a project that aims to integrate biodiversity conservation into fishing, tourism and real estate development in the archipelagos of Panama.


  • The population of the archipelago is 3,000 inhabitants, who live of tourism, farming and artisanal fishing.
  • The Pearl Islands is a critical area for the conservation of sea and land biodiversity, hosting various species of sea turtles at high risk of extinction, corals and mangrove swamps.
  • Training workshops on sustainable tourism and responsible fisheries were carried to raise awareness on ecosystem conservation.

Awareness regarding responsible fisheries and ecosystem conservation was raised among major communities of the Archipelago. Twenty-six training programmes were conducted for more than 650 participants on topics such as responsible fisheries, biodiversity conservation and successful experiences of community-based tourism in coastal island areas of Latin America. Training on good practices in sustainable tourism was also provided to hotel and restaurant staff.

"We are very excited about the building of a collection centre, where goods will be processed and sold" says Gerardo Barsallo, President of the fishing cooperative CooPerlas.

The project also facilitates partnerships between residents, private sector and government institutions. A Zone Committee was set up to identify environmental, social and economic needs, and coordinate response with the appropriate authorities, though their presence in the area is still very limited.

Community initiatives for cleaning beaches, studies on tourism potential and business analysis of productive activities related to tourism have also been conducted through the project, which is expected to be replicated in other islands in Panama.

According to Leyka Martínez, the Project Coordinator, “The loss of biodiversity could have significant and negative economic impacts on fishing, tourism and real estate development in Panama. There are increasingly more key actors who are understanding that conservation of these activities in the long term depends on the sustainable use of the natural assets on which they depend.”

—  Alejandra Araúz

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