Panama Environmental Issues

However, in the 20th century Panama began to take positive steps in the opposite direction. The country began to create protected areas (including parks and wildlife refuges), write environmental laws, and establish conservation agencies. As Panama watched other countries in the region work to protect their own natural resources, some in the government took notice and urged their country to follow suit.

Panama’s economy has always been tied to its unique location. Dating back to the Spanish gold trade in the 17th century, this tiny isthmus has been the focus of trade, natural resource extraction, and transcontinental economic exchange for centuries. These days it’s no different. The Panama Canal is being expanded and Panama City is becoming a mecca for foreign business and banking. All of this can, however, come at a cost to the environment. Industry – whether in the form of tourism or mining operations – can exact a huge toll on nature. When roads are built, real-estate developments, hydroelectric projects, and farms often follow.

These days, Panama is trying to balance economic development with environmental protection. Sadly, the Panamanian government can do a poor job protecting the natural areas, and watchdog agencies often lack real power to do anything about it. Still, there is a growing environmental movement in Panama. Panamanians are beginning to realize the tremendous importance of their forests, coasts and rivers. This awareness of environmental issues will have a huge impact on the country’s future.

Deforestation

In the second half of the 20th century, Panama saw almost half of its remaining primary forests wiped out. Around 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) of important habitat were destroyed, largely for farms and cattle ranches. At the beginning of the 21st century, around 40 percent of the country was still covered by primary forests. 50 years earlier, it was 70 percent.

Estimates vary, but deforestation is thought to claim up to 50, 000 hectares (123, 500 acres) of forest a year in Panama – a loss of slightly more than one percent per year. Deforestation is proceeding most rapidly in the Colón, Darién, and Bocas del Toro provinces. Panama is a vital link in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which connects the ecosystems of North and South America—122 species of migratory birds pass through the country each year. Of Panama’s estimated 978 bird species, 12 are endemic, 120 are rare, and 20 are globally threatened. Deforestation has the potential to interrupt important migratory routes and cause lasting ecological damage to not only Panama but in North and South America as well.

By and large, these forests have been cut down to make way for roads, agriculture, and cattle ranches. Once a forest is gone, the soil erodes quickly, especially during the rainy season. Soil erosion is serious. When soil erodes, it’s difficult for plants to establishing root systems and the remaining nutrients are often washed away. Panama’s land coverage is also 78 percent mountainous, which makes the soil erode quickly. This soil is generally low quality anyway, as most of the nutrients found in tropical forests are within the trees themselves. Any remaining soil is then exploited for farming operations and is quickly exhausted. The cycle repeats itself, and farmers, loggers, and ranchers move into other parts of the forest.

While poor subsistence farmers cut down many forests, commercial interests – including coffee, banana and sugarcane operations – have done substantial damage. The Panamanian government also continues to allow mining operations and hydroelectric projects into environmentally sensitive areas. Not only do these operations degrade the natural landscape, but they also displace indigenous populations who have lived on the land for centuries.

In the last few decades there have been efforts made to reforest parts of Panama. But the government policy of giving tax incentives for reforestation, critics point out, is faulty. One often-cited flaw is that two-thirds of the trees planted so far are teak, a nonnative species. Teak is a commodity; it is planted at tree farms that harvest the wood and then sell it. Furthermore, birds and animals have little use for teak, so the trees do not create new habitat.

At the start of the 21st century, a total of 46, 000 hectares (114, 00 acres) of land had been reforested. This is less than is lost annually to deforestation.

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