Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Water Gives and Water Takes [Part 3 of 5]

Considering that water is essential for life but is in limited supply for human use, how could it not be a major subject of environmental ethics? Our group of 13 college students from across the U.S. learned that water serves the citizens of Panama in a variety of ways. It provides people with other natural resources such as food and energy, as well as ways to make a living, but, depending on how it’s managed, can also threaten these.

Once low tide exposed the mangrove roots,
we went clamming in the mud! 
For example, during our week-long field course on Panama’s Pacific marine resources, we met each morning in the port town of Pedregal to be taken to mangroves and beaches along the Gulf of Chiriquí, located on the western side of the country. Our lab work involved learning local fishermen’s methods to harvest different species of clams and fish, then collecting our own samples to study. For all the time and effort the fishermen put into harvesting each day, the job was not particularly profitable. Yet, they knew the importance of maintaining this operation’s  sustainability; on the community--rather than corporate--scale, these aquatic ecosystems remained healthy and plentiful.  

We all took turns scaring fish into the net.
We spent little time in the town of Pedregal itself. Our academic director warned about the local problem of gang activity, which rose as children dropped out of school and had nothing else to do on the streets. However, the man leading our boating crew was well-reputed around the town for his efforts to recruit youth into fishing, providing a more productive way to grow and earn money. Indeed, a couple of the boat operators who travelled with us were around our age or a little younger. In Pedregal, water meant opportunity.

On the other hand, further inland in the Chiriquí province, water--literally and figuratively--is power. Spending a week in the highlands, we learned how hydroelectric dams are extremely controversial around the country. I was plenty familiar with discussing the pros and cons of different energy sources from environmental science classes. Though hydropower is a much cleaner energy source than burning coal or oil, constructing dams and their upstream reservoirs inundate habitat for both wildlife and humans. It was a new experience for me to be where this clash between economics and environmental justice was close to home, for nearly all rivers in Chiriqui have seen dam development. When generating energy from water means money, and money means power, it seems that one either has all or nothing.

One of the dams we drove across on our way through the mountains.
Comprising around 8% of Panama’s population are seven unique indigenous tribes that, in the midst of globalization and industrialization, have seen mixed success in preserving their culture and autonomy today. Yet, the national government’s wish to expand development, from dams to mining and deforestation, exacerbates the struggle to defend tribal land rights. Conflict arises between indigenous peoples and electricity companies as the former fights against relocation, and the latter is backed by the government. Most electricity generated from the dams in the countryside goes to populous and wealthy Panama City, leaving many communities closest to the dams in the dark. We met a few people from the locally-based NGO FUNDICCEP (in English, the Foundation for the Community Development and Ecosystems Conservation of Panama) to hear about their activism for river conservation. This includes working with communities, business, and other stakeholders, using environmental education to promote informed decision-making.

Alas, the ever-complicated issue of balancing development and sustainability strikes again. With, this infrastructure already so well-established around the country, would it be remotely feasible? What would be the better alternative? These questions confused and frustrated us. We wanted to see change that was just and environmentally responsible, but what could the thirteen of us do? Challenging society’s great systemic forces such as crime and politics seems like a never-ending struggle, but it was encouraging enough to meet leaders whose passion and persistence was making a difference locally.

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