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.

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