El Darién

El Darién

Darien is the forest in Colombia and Panama, covering 17,014 km2, and being the 3rd largest wilderness in Central America. The Darién Gap is a 160 km long swath of forest and wetlands within Colombia's Chocó Department in South America and Panama's Darién Province in Central America. The Darien Gap represents the only break in the Pan-American Highway, making it impossible to cross between South America and Central America by road. This deep wilderness area is extremely biodiverse, hosting wildlife such as the harpy eagle and bush dog, yet is increasingly exposed to deforestation, illegal wildlife harvests, and timber trafficking.

The Darién forest, also known as the Darién National Park, was created in 1980 and represents 33.6% of the total area of ​​the Darién province. The Park is the largest of all the National Parks of Panama and the largest protected area in Central America and the Caribbean. This tropical forest is located to the east of the country, bordering the Republic of Colombia, it has an area of ​​579,000 hectares, being the largest protected natural area in Central America and the Caribbean.

Location map "El Darién" by Marco Martínez (WCS)

It is made up of premontane and montane forests, cloud forests, dwarf forests, as well as large mangroves. Darien is a very humid and rainy area. The summary area of ​​the reserve contains a great variety of ecosystems and biodiversity. Its prodigious nature includes mountain ranges of more than 2,500 meters in elevation, extensive navigable rivers such as the Tuira or the Chucunaque. Its forests are home to unique plant species in the world and animals of extraordinary beauty such as the harpy eagle and the jaguar.

Due to its extraordinary biological diversity and its high genetic value, in addition to the groups that keep and practice ancestral traditions, the Darién National Park was declared in 1981 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Reserve of the Biosphere of Humanity.

From sea level to Cerro Tacarcuna at 1,875 meters above sea level, the area has an exceptional variety of coastal, lowland, and mountain ecosystems and habitats. There are sandy beaches, rocky shores, and mangroves along the coast, countless wetlands, rivers and streams, palm forests, and various types of rainforest, including the most extensive lowland rainforest on the Pacific coast of Central America. The forest is also culturally and ethnically diverse, as evidenced by major archaeological finds, as well as the Afro-descendants and indigenous people of the Embera, Wounaan, Kuna, and others who live within the property to this day. The Darién National Park was a pioneer in explicitly including a cultural dimension in the management and conservation of a protected area.

Flora & fauna

Its large size and remoteness create a wide spectrum of habitats, which benefits the evolutionary processes of the endemic species. This means that Darien is definitely important in cultural and diversity matters.

Hundreds of vertebrates and thousands of invertebrates have been recorded in the Darien National Park and there is high endemism. Since detailed research is still scarce, there is an almost certain potential for new discoveries, especially in the little-known and isolated cloud forests at higher elevations.

Among the impressive 169 documented mammal species are the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps fusciceps), the endangered Central American tapir (Tapirus bairdii), the vulnerable giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), and near-threatened species such as the jaguar (Panthera onca), bush dog (Speothos venaticus), and white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari). The many other species include puma (Puma concolor), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), margay (Leopardus wiedii), and jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi).

The more than 533 species of birds recorded include the endangered great green macaw (Ara ambiguus), the vulnerable great peacock (Saturnia pyri), and a significant population of the near-threatened harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja). There is a remarkable diversity of reptiles and amphibians with 99 and 78 confirmed species, respectively. The probably incomplete inventory of freshwater fish is 50. 

The many beautiful rivers and streams, particularly the mighty Tuira and Balsas rivers, are the arteries of the protected area. They are of great importance to wildlife, they also serve as the only access and travel routes for park inhabitants, researchers, visitors, and staff in most of the forest to the present day.

Indigenous and local communities

Notable indigenous groups in the area are the Chocó (specifically the Emberá and Wounaan, or Waunana) and the Kuna (Cuna); estimates for their combined local populations vary widely, from 1,200 to about 25,000. They have traditionally lived in villages scattered throughout the forest, but some families have moved to towns and cities.

In the Panamanian sector of Darién, there are three cross-border peoples, the Guna, the Emberá, and the Wounaan. For the three peoples, special provisions must be considered due to this characteristic, as established in Convention 169, ratified in Colombia, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, voted favorably by Panama.

The Darién Forest covers an important area of ​​Panama, beginning with the Chagres National Park, of central importance in the national economy because it constitutes the main part of the water reserve of the Panama Canal, continuing with the Guna regions of Gunayala, Wargandi and Madungandí, continues with the Emberá Wounaan Comarca, the Guna territory of Dagargunyala, the collective lands of Alto Bayano and the Emberá Wounaan collective lands.