by Michael Salama
If you’ve ever been to a beach in the Pedasí district of Los Santos, chances are you’ve visited the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pablo Arturo Barrios. This wildlife refuge is relatively unknown, but it is hugely significant as one of the last defenses for the terrestrial and marine biodiversity, as well as the economic health, of Pedasí. It contains almost 30 kilometers of narrow coastline from the mouth of Rio Puro in the north to Punta Mala in the south—that’s nearly all of Pedasí’s eastern-facing coastal land on the Gulf of Panama—as well as approximately 14 thousand hectares of marine habitat in the gulf itself. Because of its location, the RVSPAB has an extremely high conservation value, supporting various ecosystems in its very narrow terrestrial tract and providing irreplaceable ecosystem services to the nearby communities. To conserve these ecosystems and the services they provide, five environmental organizations based in Pedasí work cooperatively to manage and protect the refuge, along with Panamanian federal Ministry of the Environment. Still, the refuge faces existential threats, chiefly via development, deforestation, and sand dune disturbance within its bounds. Truly the lynchpin of Pedasí and neighboring communities, the Pablo Arturo Barrios Wildlife Refuge is in vital need of funds to power land management and enable legal recourses, as well as more municipal, federal, and public attention towards its conservation.
What is the RVSPAB?
One of only three protected areas in the country named after an individual, the refuge’s dedication to Pedasí native Barrios is reflects an unrelenting commitment to preserve the natural biodiversity of the Los Santos province.
Pablo Arturo Barrios, though not formally trained in a scientific field, used to spend his time walking the beaches of the Azuero Peninsula from the Rio Purio to Punta Mala, accurately identifying each species of plant and animal that he passed. Not long after the 1981 establishment of the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla Iguana, a highly biodiverse island refuge four kilometers from the coast, Barrios recognized the great ecological value of the coastal beaches, dunes, mangroves, and marshes of Pedasí, and vocalized the need to protect those ecosystems. Barrios is remembered as having been Pedasí’s “great defender of nature.” Just months after his death in 1992, a municipal accord established the locally protected Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pablo Arturo Barrios. When the municipal agreement was repealed by local government in 2008, a grass-roots campaign spearheaded by the Barrios family petitioned the federal government to reinstate the wildlife refuge through law. In 2009, the RVSPAB was reestablished, this time as a federally protected area, with the help of Panama’s Ministry of the Environment.
Today, the refuge stretches from the mouth of the Rio Purio in the north to Punta Mala in the south, hugging a thin stretch of coastline in between. Most of the protected area is marine reserve—of the refuge’s 15 thousand hectares, 14 thousand cover the Gulf of Panama. Aside from the mangrove wetlands surrounding the Rio Purio, the refuge does not protect territory more than 200 meters inland. This makes the mangroves, beaches, dunes, and tropical dry forest especially valuable from a conservation standpoint. What little terrestrial area is protected on paper by the refuge, however, is still highly threatened by a number of unmitigated disturbances, despite the best efforts of local environmentalist groups, such as touristic development within the confines of the reserve, pollution, and climate change.
Why do we need to protect the RVSPAB?
The RVSPAB’s high conservation value comes especially from the diversity of ecosystems protected, primarily beaches, dunes, mangroves, tropical dry forest, salt-water marshes, estuaries, and wetlands. A wide variety of flora is supported by these ecosystems, including white palm trees (copernicia alba), corotú (enterolobium cyclocarpum), cedro espino (pachira quinata), guácimo (guazuma ulmifolia), Panama tree (Sterculia apetala), carob, carate (vismia baccifera), and balsa tree. A significant portion of the terrestrial reserve consists of various mangrove plants—Colorado, white, black, and salado mangroves can be found in this area. In a biogeographic matrix dominated by cultivated fields and cattle-grazed pastureland, the presence of sizable, connected forest and mangrove ecosystems is critical to maintaining the ecological value of the region. Many species of fish, shrimp, mollusks, and crabs rely heavily on the mangrove estuaries as spawning grounds and nurseries, which in turn support the functioning marine system that includes coral reefs, turtles, whales, and dolphins. Moreover, dunes, mangroves, and tropical dry forest provide important nesting and feeding habitat for waterfowl and other bird species. Between 2019 and 2021, researchers from McGill University identified and documented 91 bird species within the RVSPAB.
Clean and undeveloped beaches and dunes serve as crucial nursery locations for at least three identified species of sea turtles within the refuge: green, olive ridley, and hawksbill. The hawksbill sea turtle is classified as “critically endangered” by the World Conservation Union; primarily due to human exploitation of these turtles for their shells, which have long been used for decorative tortoise patterns, as well as encroachment on nesting areas. In the Refugio Pablo Arturo Barrios, sea turtle nests are frequently endangered by humans that illegally harvest their eggs for consumption and sale.
The vast majority of the RVSPAB protects a marine area of 14,000 hectares in the Gulf of Panama. Between the Rio Purio and Punta Mala, the protected area reaches four to seven kilometers into the gulf, creating an important marine corridor between the Pablo Arturo Barrios refuge and the Isla Iguana refuge. Marine biologist Gricel García, who works with the Organización Ambiental Pablo Arturo Barrios Velasco, says that the biodiversity at Isla Iguana depends profoundly on this marine buffer zone, which prevents ecological isolation on the island by allowing for safe passage to the mainland RVSPAB. Within the marine portion of the reserve, trawling, large shrimp boats, and other commercial fishing practices are prohibited; only artisanal and independent sport fishing is allowed.
Ecosystem services provided to local communities
The protection of the coastal dunes and the establishment of a riparian buffer zone along the mouth of the Rio Purio is critical not only to the conservation of the species within these areas, but also to the local communities dependent on fishing and agriculture for livelihood. In many parts of the Azuero peninsula that fish the Gulf of Panama, artisanal and subsistence fisherman have exhausted local marine populations after decades of overfishing and are forced to travel several hours to find fish-abundant spots.
This is generally not the case in the communities that border the RVSPAB, such as Purio, Pedasí, and Mariabé. Because of the aquatic spawning grounds protected in the inland mangrove estuaries and the banning of commercial fishing in the marine section of the refuge, fish populations in RVSPAB’s waters have remained sufficient to support subsistence and sport fishing in the past twelve years (though, this consistency is backed up only anecdotally). By protecting the dune ecosystems, the refuge also protects another major pillar of Pedasí’s, Purio’s, and Mariabé’s economies: agriculture. The Panamanian federal government Commission for People, the Environment, and Development writes that “the refuge’s narrow, fine-sand dunes, which are especially fragile and scarcely found elsewhere on the Panamanian coast, act as natural barriers against oceanic erosion; they also prevent salinization of the inland, which is vital to protect coastal communities in Pedasí and their agricultural fields.” Protected buffer zones on the coast act as a sand wall that prevents winds and seeping groundwater from carrying sea salt inland, which would significantly diminish the fertility and productivity of farmland. Though the economies of these coastal and agricultural communities are heavily reliant on the protections afforded by the RVSPAB, knowledge of these ecological forces within refuge plays is not widespread enough to garner the support of these communities behind local conservation efforts.
The greatest threat to the ecosystems that the RVSPAB intends to protect is that of further economic and touristic development. This was seen most emphatically in 2008, when the governor of Pedasí repealed the municipal agreement that established the Pablo Arturo Barrios local refuge sixteen years earlier.
The local government of Pedasí wanted to encourage seafront development and tourism infrastructure as another means of income for the town, and for one year succeeded in rushing in development agreements within the bounds of the refuge.
Immediately, the Barrios family petitioned the Ministry of the Environment to re-establish the RVSPAB through federal law, and in 2009 successfully made the refuge a permanent, federal protected area. However, this federal backing has not been able to curb touristic development, as federal law is repeatedly ignored with oceanfront constructions continuously being carried out, often with the support of the local government. Most of the coastal land that is sold within the refuge is purchased by foreigners (frequently retirees from the United States) who seize on the opportunity to buy waterfront properties at relatively low prices. Although five non-governmental conservation organizations aid with the management of the refuge, environmentalists simply don’t have the financial resources to fight these developments with the law. Appeals for enforcement are filed to the federal government but are almost always ignored by the Ministry of the Environment. The futile bureaucratic process and lack of government monitoring and enforcement is a signal to environmentalists like Sabina Barrios, a biologist, sister of Pablo Arturo, and president of the Organización Ambiental Pablo Arturo Barrios Velasco (OAPABV), that despite the existence of the refuge and their best efforts, the state of the fragile but crucial coastline ecosystems is not improving. “The situation is no better than it was in 2009, when the federal law was passed,” Barrios says. “They are continuing to develop on the beach in a non-sustainable way.”
With the worsening threats of climate change, water pollution, and overfishing, she fears that progress is not only stagnated, but that the condition of the refuge is regressing.
Increased development over time has led to more frequent human disturbances that continually threaten wildlife in the reserve. More traffic, both tourist and local, to RVSPAB’s beaches has brought higher levels of direct contamination, like as trash left on the beach and agricultural and septic runoff. Contaminants from Los Santos and from elsewhere (which are brought into the refuge by currents) reduce the water quality of the Gulf of Panama. Foot traffic in the refuge has also caused degradation of the dune formations, which in turn limits dry forest plant growth and endangers the protections provided by a functioning dune ecosystem. Simple deforestation of coastal dry forest and extraction of sand from the beach and dunes also threatens the refuge. On the beaches, sea turtle nurseries are directly threatened by locals who frequently pilfer eggs from the nests to sell and to eat, though this is not for subsistence. And, anecdotally, the beaches are shrinking due to climate change.
Scientists like Gricel García and Barrios take notice of the higher water levels each year, although lack of research of rising sea levels in the Panamanian Gulf does not allow them to back their observations with data.
While threats of development and other anthropogenic disturbance continuously put the refuge in peril, local conservation organizations recognize where solutions must be implemented to ameliorate these threats. The sale of waterfront property within the refuge needs to be addressed at both the seller’s and buyer’s sides in order to curb further development on fragile and critical ecosystems. Locals in the communities of Purio, Mariabé, and Pedasí need to be educated on the ecological value of the refuge, as well as (and perhaps more importantly) the ecosystem services that those values provide. Now, fishermen are particularly cognizant of the importance of protecting the coastal ecosystems, especially regarding impact on local fisheries. A McGill University study in 2012 showed that, although only 60 to 70 percent of fishermen in Pedasí were familiar with the RVSPAB (despite working within its bounds so often), 90 percent showed a desire to participate in “sustainable development and conservation of this refuge.” However, regional landowners, ranchers, and development contractors are not always as knowledgeable about the importance of the refuge for the local economy. Most are unaware of or unwilling to attend community meetings about management and conservation works on the RVSPAB that are held by the federal Ministry of the Environment on a monthly basis.
But the onus does not land solely on these landowners and developers; with the lack of government enforcement, it will be difficult to limit the sale of this property without also curtailing foreign demand for this land. It is equally important to inform prospective buyers that the construction of new properties is prohibited within the refuge because of the significance of those natural ecosystems.
Government action, both local and federal, is another must for the endurance of the RVSPAB. On the municipal side, the Pedasí government need to adopt plans to expand sustainable development and ecotourism infrastructure. Such foresight would not only alleviate some of the direct threats by sidelining government support for prohibited construction within the refuge, but it would also allow for new avenues of economic development by establishing an industry of ecotourism in the region. A green tourism campaign with a focus on sustainability has the potential to introduce RVSPAB to a broader community of conservation-minded travelers, essentially attracting tourists who are already conscious of and concerned about environmental degradation. This could raise awareness, funds, and volunteerism for RVSPAB-related projects. Groups like OAPABV and Refugio Pedasí are aware of the advantages of establishing more ecotourism in and around the refuge and have pushed for this change. The Ecotourism Cooperative of Pedasí connects these environmental groups with the joint cause of establishing a more prevalent ecotourism industry, but they recognize that without government support, lack of funds makes this goal virtually unattainable. Federal inaction is also a crippling inadequacy in terms of keeping non-sustainable construction projects out of the refuge. Each time a new development begins, OAPABV and other groups petition the Ministry of the Environment to intervene and uphold the federal law that protects the refuge, but the Ministry has never responded.
There is a similar lack of monitoring and enforcement for rules prohibiting deforestation, sand extraction, and turtle egg harvesting. It is key that the federal government allocates more legal resources to upholding protected areas throughout the country.
Although threats are numerous and definitive solutions seem out of reach, there is so much effort that goes into the protection and conservation of the RVSPAB. Five environmental organizations share management responsibilities for the refuge: Organización Ambiental Pablo Arturo Barrios Velasco, Cima Pedasi, Azuero Eco Foundation, Refugio Pedasí, and Tortugas Pedasí. These groups conduct reforestation projects, lead beach clean-ups, host undergraduate researchers from McGill and other universities, petition violations within the refuge, and work to document and protect wildlife with the help of local volunteers. With government and financial support low, these groups are working extremely hard to preserve the crucial values that the RVSPAB protects and represents, each day bringing the volunteers from surrounding communities closer to the nature that sustains them.
Though the threats are compounding, the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pablo Arturo Barrios remains the beating heart of Pedasí. It is one of the last remaining defenses against human exploitation and degradation of the ecosystems on the eastern Azuero coast. “If we took away la Isla Iguana, we would still have Pablo Barrios. We would still have Pedasí.” Gricel García says. “But, even if we don’t see it, Pedasí and Isla depend on the Pablo Barrios Refuge. If we took away Pablo Barrios, we would lose la Isla, and we would lose the beautiful community of Pedasí. We wouldn’t have anything left.”
- Gricel García – Organización Ambiental Pablo Arturo Barrios Velasco,
- Sabina Barrios – Organización Ambiental Pablo Arturo Barrios Velasco,
- Margaret Von Saenger – Refugio Pedasí