Panama’s beautiful rainforests are in danger. The development of the country’s infrastructure and industries has come into conflict with the need to protect and maintain its rich environmental resources and biodiversity. But with the development-conservation debate raging hotly on either side, a perfect solution seems far out of reach.
The Natural Wealth of Panama
Panama is very rich in biodiversity and ranks among the wealthiest countries in this respect. According to the National Society for the Protection of Nature, Panama, the country boasts of having more than 10,444 different plant species 1,200 of which are orchids, 678 fern species and 1,500 kinds of trees. 255 species of mammals and 972 indigenous bird species can also be found within its teeming rainforests.
What can possibly explain the country’s remarkable biodiversity? One unmistakable factor is Panama’s location between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, where it serves as a sort of biological corridor that connects North and Central America. According to Javier Mateo-Vega, Director of the Environmental Leadership & Training Initiative at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Yale University, Panama’s prime geographical location makes it a “hub of biodiversity” that has served as a bridge that has allowed land and freshwater species from the north to migrate southwards, and their southern counterparts to migrate northwards.
Panama’s immense stretches of rainforests, mangroves, wetlands and mountain cloud forests cover nearly half of the country’s terrain. Even the capital, Panama City, enjoys its own forest, located within its boundaries. This is actually on of the last tropical dry forests in Central America, and is a treasure worth preserving. All this is true at present, even with the significant amount of deforestation that has been going on in recent years. However, it may not be true in only a few short years if present trends continue and escalate.
The Darien Region
The most well-known, even infamous part of the Panama corridor is the Darien Region, which is known for nestling guerrillas, drug traffickers and paramilitary forces. But as undesirable as some might consider these elements to be, it cannot be denied that the area also nestles highly-valued species such as jaguars, giant anteaters, harpy eagles and American crocodiles. It is also culturally significant because various indigenous peoples live and maintain their traditions on this land.
The Struggle for Conservation
The Darien Region is one of the most isolated and hard-to-reach areas of Panama, but talk has been going around about building a road through the rainforest to open it up to other future developments. But conservationists are concerned about the ramifications that this may have on the country’s rich heritage of biodiversity.
Mateo-Vega warns, “What science and research has clearly indicated is that as soon as you cut a road through any forest it unfolds a chain of deforestation. Colonizers come in and extractive industries start to come in.”
To relieve concerns about this issue, the Panamanian government has assured the people that it plans to keep the Darien Region undeveloped. However, other areas are threatened by mining companies who have made future plans to drill in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Meanwhile, plans to construct the “Gran Costanera” road along the Caribbean coast will require the destruction of large stretches of forest.