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 user 2005-03-27 at 9:59:00 am Views: 73
  • #11107
    Builders threaten Panama forests
    Part of Panama’s
    tropical forest, a biodiversity hotspot lying at the crossroads of two
    continents and two oceans, is up for sale to developers.

    Environmental campaigners say the sale of the forest surrounding the Panama
    Canal is illegal under Panamanian law, but the government disagrees.

    Some 27 hectares of land in the former “canal zone” have already
    been sold, with a further 100 hectares demarcated and awaiting the highest

    Those plots already sold are due to become luxury villas while others are
    destined for commercial and industrial development.

    The canal zone was handed over with the canal itself by the US in 2000 in a
    pristine state, and environmentalists thought it would be left untouched.

    “The sale of these forests is illegal under at least three laws explicitly
    banning their sale,” said Raisa Banfield, of local campaigning group Defence of

    “Legal maps show that the area is protected from development. This makes a
    mockery of the laws that grant state protection and sets a precedent starting a
    chain of deforestation and land development.”

    As a bio-geographic meeting point between North and
    South America and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, plant and animal life in this
    small area of forest is hyper-diverse

    Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
    However, the Environment Authority told the BBC in a statement
    that Panamanian law gave officials power to decide how the returned land should
    be used – for conservation or development.

    The statement added that housing constructed on two parcels of land currently
    on sale would be subject to special restrictions, in order to prevent ecological
    damage to the neighbouring Camino de Cruces National Park.

    National parks

    After the initial deforestation and flooding to create the canal in 1903, the
    forest was allowed to grow back abundantly and biodiversity thrived.

    The following 97 years of American military control prevented
    popularisation and development of the zone which stretched for 80km (50 miles)
    in length and 16km (10 miles) across the canal.

    National parks were created to protect forested areas – but it now appears
    that some of the forested areas are not included in the parks.

    Campaigners accuse the authorities of turning a blind eye to initiatives that
    promote wealth but threaten nature.

    Panamanians last year elected a new president, Martin Torrijos, on a ticket
    of zero corruption and were hopeful that the country’s climate of cronyism would
    become a thing of the past.

    “We are asking Torrijos to take a good look at this matter, which began under
    the last presidency,” said Banfield.

    By forming a narrow land bridge linking two continents, Panama
    provides the essential link in a corridor of endangered tropical forest that
    connects North America to the Amazon.

    Despite only occupying 0.05% of the world’s land area, it is a major stop
    over for migratory birds, containing 950 species, twice as many as the entire
    continent of Europe.

    It is also home to the highest diversity of trees on the planet.

    “As a bio-geographic meeting point between North and South America and the
    Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, plant and animal life in this small area of forest
    is hyper-diverse,” says Dr Bill Laurance, an ecologist from the Smithsonian
    Tropical Research Institute in Panama, who is an authority on the effects of the
    fragmentation of forests by land development.

    “Nowhere is the battle more intense to maintain this corridor than here in
    Panama because this is the bottleneck where there is intense population pressure
    through growth of Panama city, Colon and around the canal.”

    The condemned land not only contains endangered forest but the historical
    heritage of the 450-year-old Camino de Cruces stone path, part of the Spanish
    gold trading route from South America.

    Much of the path lies under mud and vegetation, however it is still possible
    to walk parts of the trail that is now disturbed by the marking posts of
    builders standing wedged between the ancient cobble stones.

    Canal cash

    Ironically, it could be that commercial pressures will ultimately help to
    save Panama’s forest from development.

    The canal generates about $700m per year in revenue, as individual
    ships pay anything from $80,000 to $250,000 to pass through.

    The trees surrounding the canal are crucial to keeping the 100km (65 miles)
    of waterway clear of silt and obstruction and full of freshwater.

    “The canal system is fed by rainwater which is produced by the forests and
    enters the canal through the Chagres river,” says Dr Michael Roy, of the
    Conservation Research Education Action pressure group in Panama.

    “The trees and roots act as a sponge slowly releasing the water into the
    canal, which is important during the three-month dry season when the canal is
    dependent upon rainfall from the previous rainy season.”

    Nearly 50% of the canal watershed is already deforested, and this figure is
    rising fast.