Forests along Panama Canal face uncertain future
November 18, 1997
Web posted at: 11:28 p.m. EST (0428 GMT)
From Correspondent Gary Strieker
PANAMA CITY, Panama (CNN) -- For more than 90 years, the United States has controlled not only the Panama Canal, but also a 10-mile-wide strip of territory along the canal -- most of it dense tropical forest.
But there's concern that when the United States
hands control of the canal over to Panama in 1999, it could be the beginning of the end for those forests.
About 70 percent of Panama's forests have already been cut
down, and squatters have moved into some areas bordering the canal zone, slashing and burning forested areas to clear
land for crops.
Detailed map of the area around the Panama Canal
"If people now believe this is a free land, for everybody to
take advantage of it, (the forests) will soon disappear,"
said Ivan Valdespino of ANCON, the National Association for
the Conservation of Nature.
Scientists say the canal zone areas contain some of
the most undisturbed forests in Central America, sheltering
many endangered animals and plants.
It would be hard to find another nation that depends so much
for its survival on a vital watershed and the forest that
"The part that we have preserved over this time, that has
been under our management, is really in excellent condition," said Col. Michael DeBow of the U.S. Army.
The forests have been preserved because they protect a
critical watershed -- streams and rivers flowing into lakes
that supply fresh water needed to operate the canal's locks.
Without the forest, erosion and sedimentation would threaten
the canal's future. That's why Panama's government says it
puts a high priority on protecting the watershed after the handover.
"I think it's good to be concerned. It you're not concerned,
you're not really going to pay attention to things that could happen. You have to be cautious," says Mirei Endara of
INRENARE, the Panamanian government's Institute for the
Management of Renewable Natural Resources.
New changes to Panama's constitution give canal authorities
overall responsibility for protecting the entire watershed -- an area more than 10 times larger than the portion now under U.S. control.
The Panama Canal Treaties, signed in 1977, provide for the transfer of the canal to Panama by December 31, 1999.
"We are the ones using that watershed. We are the ones that
need to protect it. We need someone to have authority," said canal administrator Alberto Aleman.
Much of the forested area is now reserved in national parks,
and government efforts to stop slash-and-burn farming in the
watershed seem to be working. Deforestation rates have
fallen, Endara said.
But some experts say the real problem is not farmers but uncontrolled expansion of urban areas. The
growth causes erosion and pollution that affects water
supplies not only for the canal, but for the cities and
Panamanian conservationists say the country is much more aware of the need to protect the watershed, but that the
international community should not take that protection for
"They should keep an eye on what we are doing," Valdespino said.