Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Upper Bay of Panama Wetlands [Part 5b of 5 / Epilogue]

In reality, the little guy and Mother Nature are never completely abandoned. I learned that Juan Díaz did have a history of protesting against expanding development, which has somewhat improved compensation from the government after severe floods, as well as local organizations’ efforts such as the Panama Audubon Society’s program “Aulas Verdes” (“Green Classrooms”). This trains teachers in Juan Díaz to educate their students of the importance of wetlands ecosystems. And maybe my little research project was a step in the right direction too; the public officials of Juan Díaz I met were glad that there was someone getting the word out about this environmental injustice in the wetlands.

Through the struggles with planning interviews, translating documents, and writer’s block, when ISP time came to a close, I was happy to see “The State of the Upper Bay of Panama Wetlands: Ecological Significance, Environmental Policy, Urbanization, and Social Justice” as a symbol of the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of environmental studies. I felt more assured that I wanted to go into environmental conservation at the interface of human-environment interactions, and I felt proud to expose this little known but critical conflict. Indeed, on the day of our ISP presentations, my classmates were shocked to see my photos of the trash accumulating in Juan Díaz and on the mudflats outside of Costa del Este. Since returning from Panama, I’ve talked incessantly about my experiences and research with friends and professors.

So, big project over, no more worrying about the Bay? Well, the battle amongst economics, politics, and environment definitely did not end after I left...so I have been checking up on recent developments (hopefully only figurative) around the wetlands. Back in January, Panama’s Supreme Court declared the reinstatement of the Ramsar site’s protection status permanent under the “No Environmental Regression Principle.” Local environmental organizations could only celebrate for so long, though. In May, for his last month in office, President Martinelli tried passing a number of laws that included one to establish the Upper Bay wetlands as protected habitat under Panamanian law--except 750 hectares of the wetlands were excluded from this proposal. Again, conservationists and lawyers rallied and persistently fought against letting developers have their way, and success did come with an injunction from the Supreme Court against the National Assembly having a meeting to pass this law. So, addressing the complicated question of how to balance human progress and environmental sustainability around the Upper Bay of Panama remains a battle, but at least there is a side committed to following international decrees. Nevertheless, the ecosystem will continue to be vulnerable to other ongoing anthropogenic threats, such as industrial and agricultural runoff from elsewhere along the coast, if their environmental implications are allowed to spread unmonitored.

Ultimately, while I did not have the chance to explore an entire continent if I had chosen to go to a more traditional study abroad location in Europe, my semester, with its focus on experiencing the multifaceted citizenry and environment of a single nation, allowed me a special opportunity for in-depth cultural understanding. Though small, with an area slightly less than South Carolina’s, the entirety of Panama cannot be tossed under simple labels or categories: “first-world” or “third-world”, tourists or locals, white-sand beaches or untamed jungle. Its history goes back way beyond the Canal. Scientists are frequently discovering new species in the tropics. Sure, that semester was a jump way beyond my comfort zone, but now I really can say from experience that the richest opportunities for learning and personal growth don’t come if you’re always going with the flow, but rather diving into new adventures.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Upper Bay of Panama Wetlands [Part 5a of 5]

As the end of the fall semester approached, the 13 students of SIT Panama were a transformed group--not just from dirt and suntans, but from countless experiences in cultural immersion. Moreover, we were well-practiced in various research methods for gathering both qualitative and quantitative data, from interviewing locals to surveying wildlife. So, as was characteristic of all SIT study abroad programs, each student in my group was to disperse around the country that November for nearly four weeks to conduct independent study projects (ISPs) on topics of our choosing. (Actually, we were all extremely nervous about going off to conduct research on our own and write 25-page papers!)

Looking west from Costa del Este shows downtown
Panama City, mangroves, and mudflats.
Initially, I wanted to do research on bird conservation, a long-time interest of mine. I researched issues with Panamanian bird conservation and actually decided to stay in Panama City after becoming intrigued by the vast wetlands habitat just east of the capital. Here, nutrient-rich mudflats serve as an important stopover site for around 2 million migratory shorebirds to refuel each migration season. This 49,000 hectare ecosystem was recognized as a protected area by the Ramsar Convention in 2009, but the country’s Supreme Court suspended this status in April 2012. After much backlash from environmental groups, the protection status was reinstated a year later. However, the national government, then under pro-business President Ricardo Martinelli, still wanted to make adjustments to the site’s boundaries that would actually reduce its total area, for the eastward spread of urbanization was already well underway. With Panama City growing both in population and economy, it was in the process of enhancing its transportation 
systems, particularly the expansion of Tocumen International Airport, which already neighbors the wetlands. In the past few years, some of the wetlands habitat has been filled, elevated, and paved over to allow for the construction of highways, an industrial park, and affluent housing developments. In particular, the business district of Costa del Este runs right along the coast to the eastern edge of remaining mangroves. Despite recommendations against developing in this area, apparently some of the construction companies had connections within Martinelli’s family who were willing to overlook environmental concerns.

Clearly, this issue was more complex than just the birds. I decided to investigate and compile all this information from interviews, scientific studies, and news articles into one report. During most of my researching, I stayed in a hostel actually located on the western end of the capital. This allowed me to walk into Ciudad del Saber (“City of Knowledge”), a community for hosting headquarters of numerous national and international organizations--including Wetlands International and WWF--and conduct interviews with environmentalists about recent environmental policy around the bay.

What's supposed to be solely a rain drainage canal in Juan Díaz
still has homes'  sewage pipes connected to it.
During my interviews and research, I also came across recent issues surrounding one of Panama City’s eastern districts, Juan Díaz, where frequent flooding has become a major problem in poorer neighborhoods with the rise of nearby development. While wetlands naturally soak up excess rainwater, paved surfaces reduce infiltration. Being the low ground among the newer urban developments, Juan Díaz then receives this runoff. Unfortunately, many neighborhoods’ drainage systems are not big enough to manage, which is only worsened when the drains become clogged with garbage and sediments carried by the flooding. Indeed, this trash problem, as well as residents’ frustrations against the construction companies, became clear to me one day when I was shown around Juan Díaz’s most affected areas by a local environmental engineer.
Homes in Juan Díaz along one of the main drainage canals,
which is prone to overflowing during rains.

The day after my tour through Juan Díaz, I packed up to move to another hostel on the opposite end of the city to be closer to Costa del Este and the wetlands themselves (which is quite an ordeal, if you’re familiar with Panama City’s Metrobus system). While November is said to be Panama’s rainiest month, I had been pretty lucky with the weather for going out to do my interviews...but of course this didn’t last on my travel day. The heavy showers of that very grey morning weren’t slowing down for anyone, so I wrapped by rucksack in its rain cover and started walking. My clothes were soaked through before I arrived at the nearest bus stop. However, this day was more unique in that, back in the U.S., it was Thanksgiving Day. If there’s a first time for everything, then this was my first Thanksgiving not spent with my parents, sister, and extended family in a heated (and dry) house feasting on cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and of course a fat juicy turkey. So, no pavo for me...what was mostly on my mind, though, was how the people I encountered the day before in Juan Díaz were faring. Sure, I didn’t like carrying all my things through a chilly torrential downpour, but I was not having nearly as bad a day as someone having to watch their home and possessions being inundated by knee-length (as I was told now happens there every rainstorm) flooding. Once again, I couldn’t help feeling frustrated at yet another David vs. Goliath situation in Panama. I thought, “Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about this? Why doesn’t the world know about this?”

Just meters away from the sidewalks of Costa del Este, piles of trash line the coast.

To be continued . . .