The Route to Prosperity

In Longreads

At the height of the dry season, the Río Chagres is more trickle than torrent, clear in its shallows and green in its pools. Winds rush down the valley, the roar building and crashing like ocean surf; brown leaves flutter from the canopy above. Foot-long sábalo pipon fish rise from the river’s depths, while red-capped manakins snap and call in the distance. There are waterfalls and massive kapok trees, ospreys and blue morpho butterflies. But most of all there’s forest: an endless, undulating mass of greens and oranges and browns, home to jaguars and some of the last harpy eagles in the world. Standing on its southern bank, I was only 20 miles from downtown Panama City—a fact I could hardly fathom.

By dugout canoe we’d come, my companion Phil Schaeffer grumbling all the way as the tiny outboard whined, the floor leaked, and a headwind sprayed us with the water of manmade Lake Alajuela. We’d puttered past the thatch-roofed village of Tusipono, where tourists in shorts and bright-orange life jackets stood on dry land alongside Embera Indians in red loincloths (they wear T-shirts on off days).

More slowly still we’d crossed hundred-yard patches of matted water hyacinths, bumping over logs much smaller than the one we were sitting in. When the lake arm abruptly ended at flowing water and impassible shallows, Phil asked, “Whose idea was this again?” I had to take off my shoes and wade onto cracked, sunbaked mudflats that promptly burned my feet. But here, finally, I could take in the forest and the celebrated Chagres River, the waterway that flows into both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For the lifeblood of the Panamanian economy, it looked, I had to admit, surprisingly like a stream. Until the rains came, at least.


Think too hard about anything—one’s own birth, for instance—and it can seem a minor miracle, the end result of an impossible convergence of random events and fateful timing. And yet there’s something truly improbable, indeed miraculous, about the 400,000 acres of forests that have survived uncut in the Panama Canal watershed. Here one of earth’s most biologically diverse ecosystems flanks one of humankind’s most earth-altering engineering works. It’s an intact ecosystem, not in spite of the 50-mile canal, but because of it. The engineers, it turns out, need the ecosystem: The forests provide water. Water runs the canal. The canal runs Panama. So in this verdant transisthmian corridor nearly 70 percent of Panama’s 950 bird species and 65 percent of its 3,000 tree species can live just miles from 50 percent of its 2.96 million people. This is a historical side effect nonpareil, part of the United States’ unlikely (in fact, almost entirely incidental) environmental legacy in Panama.

As the isthmus of Panama emerged from the sea, only 3 million years before U.S. canal builders chopped it in half, it precipitated one of natural history’s grandest evolutionary events: the Great American Interchange. North American animals—tapirs, peccaries, jaguars—traveled south over the newly formed land bridge; South American animals, including anteaters and armadillos, moved north. Numerous species now overlap only in Panama, an oft-cited reason for this crossroad’s staggering biological wealth. Meanwhile, hawks and songbirds migrating between the Americas have made the isthmus a choke point. More than 1.6 million raptors fly over one small section of the canal’s west bank in a single year. U.S. military radar once recorded Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks moving south at a rate of 40.5 per minute. “The sky nearly turns black with them,” says guide Rich Cahill of Ancon Expeditions, the ecotourism wing of Panama’s most respected conservation group.

Like the French before them, the Americans who came to build the canal were awed by Panama’s wildness. At the dawn of the 20th century, though, a shortcut between the oceans seemed crucial to America’s growing naval power—the “big stick” that then-president Theodore Roosevelt was wielding. So after orchestrating Panama’s independence from Colombia and extracting a deal to control the 10-mile-wide Canal Zone “in perpetuity,” America’s utilitarian goal was simply to subdue its new holdings. Mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during France’s spectacular failure in the 1880s and 1890s to build a sea-level canal, were beaten back into the jungle. The Chagres—a monster that flooded every two or three years, swelling to 80 times its dry-season volume and demolishing railroad tracks and bridges—became the key to a new plan for a freshwater canal. Ships would follow the course of the lower Chagres for much of their passage across the isthmus; the river would provide almost half the water used to fill the canal’s locks.

The mile-and-a-half-wide earthen dam that blocked the Chagres in 1910 was the largest of its time, and the resulting reservoir, Gatun Lake, flooded 166 square miles of rainforest. But when the canal was finished in 1914, chief engineer George Goethals commanded that the remaining forest stay untouched. It was a military decision: Jungle was the best defense against a ground attack. During the next 90 years, as 65 percent of Panama was denuded by cattle ranching and slash-and-burn agriculture, this militarized greenbelt remained essentially green. Canal Zone bases became prized for jungle training—and, unfortunately, for weapons testing. Before the American military pulled out of Panama in 1999, leaving behind tens of thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance, it boasted that “the presence of U.S. bases in Panama has saved 80 percent” of the lands controlled by the Department of Defense. Even now this cynical claim is hard to dismiss: Some bases became national parks, while important bird habitat in 8,600 forested acres of Canal Zone bombing range is protected by the fact that no one dares go near it.


Driving south after the Chagres dugout trip, Phil and I bounced past the sagging metal roofs and “No Pase” signs, the yellow grass and raw dirt characteristic of rural Panama in the dry season. But within minutes we were back in thick forest, engulfed by Soberania National Park. Spanning 48,287 acres on the canal’s east bank, this was one of the first U.S. holdings to revert to Panama under the 1979 Carter-Torrijos Treaty. Soberania means “sovereignty”; its famous attractions—the repossessed radar station that became the Canopy Tower hotel, and a World War II–era road that once serviced a strategic oil pipeline—underscore the extent to which ecotourism here is also repo-tourism.

That very morning, we’d been on Pipeline Road, where more than 300 bird species have been seen in a single day. It was my first visit to this legendary spot. To Phil, a former Audubon vice-president who owns the tour company Caligo Ventures, the surroundings were somewhat more familiar. We tagged along, in fact, with a Caligo group led by renowned Panamanian birding guide Hernan Arauz. A decade ago ecotourism was almost nonexistent here. But especially since the handover, times have changed. Ancon Expeditions’ bookings are up 40 percent this year. In 2003, 865,000 tourists poured $790 million into Panama, rivaling even the canal in importance to the economy.

From the moment we parked, Arauz was a flurry of activity. As the Panama Canal Railway whistled nearby, setting off a troop of howler monkeys, he was already calling out names, sighting birds in the scope, identifying songs. A scrub greenlet caught his eye, then a golden-collared manakin, then a dusky-capped flycatcher, feeding on the fruit of a peeling gumbo-limbo tree (a.k.a. “sunburned tourist”). Then came a squirrel cuckoo, flying fast and low across the road, all chestnut feathers and elongated tail. We saw a keel-billed toucan. A collared aracari. A violaceous trogon. Finally, a white-necked puffbird. “It’s not the same one we heard calling,” Arauz said, “but it’ll do.” When we paused, we could hear the high hum of millions of insects. Raccoonlike coatis crashed through the jungle. An anteater feasted on termites high in a balsa tree, wrapping its prehensile tail around branches and scratching itself vigorously. “Looks like he’s got fleas,” someone said.

DSC00615That evening Phil and I stood on Canopy Tower’s fourth-floor viewing platform and looked out over 360 degrees of jungle. Built in the 1960s to defend the canal against air raids, the radar installation’s perch atop 900-foot Semaphore Hill is still commanding—though boutique rooms, an aquamarine paint job, and a massive golden Buckminster Fuller–inspired dome make it a much less intimidating presence. Up here the canopy was almost at eye level, as were motmots, cotingas, and lineated woodpeckers. Two miles to the southwest, ships were passing through the Gaillard Cut, the narrowest part of the canal. Fifteen miles to our southeast, two dozen of Panama City’s tallest buildings poked above the hills. We were back on the platform the next morning to watch the sun rise over the Pacific (yes, the Pacific). I noticed that only beyond the Gaillard Cut could I see any deforestation or roads. The other 270 degrees seemed perfectly pristine.

They aren’t, of course, but my gaze took in a remarkable number of parks and nature preserves. Soberania is one of seven in the Canal Zone watershed, which has a significant chunk of Panama’s national parkland (10.4 percent) packed into a sliver (3.8 percent) of its territory. And while early cutting reduced its jungles by nearly half, deforestation has ground to a virtual standstill. The economic imperative helps. No one wants to endanger the canal, the direct source of 6 percent of Panama’s gross domestic product and the indirect source of at least twice that. “The well-being of the country, which is tied very concretely to the well-being of the canal, is also synonymous with protecting our natural heritage,” says Juan Carlos Navarro, the conservation-minded mayor of Panama City, and the founder and first director of the conservation group ANCON.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists really began convincing policy makers of this link. The governing paradigm among canal engineers had been that the isthmus, forested or not, was a rain funnel that would always get precipitation thanks to its peculiar geography. Evidence began to accumulate worldwide, however, indicating that localized deforestation led to local drought. And a second problem, particularly worrisome for Panama, was becoming more apparent: After trees were cleared, the land could no longer hold water. Instead of being soaked up by a jungle sponge and slowly released, rainwater immediately rushed downstream; the difference between wet- and dry-season flows became all the more extreme.

The El Niño event of 1982–1983 was the turning point for protection, recalls Stanley Heckadon, a Smithsonian researcher and the former head of the government’s environmental agency. The weather phenomenon stretched the dry season, usually three to four months, out to a debilitating six. With every ship through the canal’s locks draining 52 million gallons of water—26 million to be raised 85 feet to the level of Gatun Lake, 26 million to be lowered back down—draft restrictions were eventually imposed. The drought began costing millions of dollars in revenues.

Meanwhile, in the Chagres Basin, which is the source of 40 percent of the canal’s water, ranchers, loggers, and land-hungry campesinos were taking advantage of the extended dry season to push deep into the forest. “It was like the end of the world,” says Heckadon. “There were fires everywhere, smoke and ashes—an awesome spectacle.” More than 7,000 acres were lost.


To those who expect whistles and whirs and a rush of shouting men—the trappings of a great work of engineering—the most surprising thing about the Panama Canal is its utter tranquillity. On our last full day in the country, we experienced this up close on a boat trip around Gatun Lake with the encyclopedic Rich Cahill. As we cruised along jungle-shrouded banks, he pointed out three-toed sloths, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and the triangular nests of Aztec ants. In one cove were hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks, thriving thanks to a hunting ban in the canal. In the next was a juvenile snail kite, a federally endangered species that lives in Florida that has shown up in increasing numbers in Gatun. We saw dozens of tiny islands with simple bohios—vacation huts that families lease for as little as a dollar a day.

In the main channel moved silent ships, giants with names like APL Almandine and Kuala Lumpur Express. Nearly 12,000 a year pass through, and since the 1999 handover, transit times have been slashed by more than 25 percent, from 32 hours to 23. Annual accidents have dropped from 29 to 12. Skeptics of Panama’s ability to take over operations have been silenced; the five-year-old Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is already a point of national pride. So far its environmental record is also strong. The ACP has jurisdiction over the entire watershed—an area double that of its Canal Zone predecessor. The ecosystem is monitored via satellite imagery and a network of 52 hydrometeorological stations. Oscar Vallarino, the onetime head of ANCON, coordinates environmental policy and sustainable growth.

Sometime this year the ACP is expected to propose a plan to expand the canal with a third set of locks. Expansion may be inevitable: A tenth of the world’s vessels—and 60 percent of those being built—are too large for the canal. The proposed project has environmentalists split. It would be almost as massive in scale as the original Big Dig; reservoirs to the west of the canal could flood 8,500 people from their homes. As disruptive as this would be, however, there would be a sudden incentive to save the western region’s extremely biodiverse forests, where cattle ranching is at its worst.

The biological station at Barro Colorado Island, which we had passed on Gatun, is proof of a similarly positive side effect, created by earlier manipulation. Surrounded by water when the lake was formed, this 4,000-acre former hilltop has been the site of 80 years of continuous research. Here, Smithsonian scientists, who first came to Panama to battle malaria and yellow fever when the canal was built, began unraveling the secrets of the tropical forest’s cascading systems. By studying fragmentation’s effect on wildlife—at least 7 mammal and 65 bird species have disappeared from the island during its century of isolation—scientists were able to impress the importance of biological corridors. Eventually, this groundbreaking knowledge would bolster conservation efforts in the canal watershed itself.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is now the fifth estate in Panama, a juggernaut with a dozen labs countrywide and annals of research in its downtown Panama City library. The government uses the STRI’s unrivaled expertise to set conservation priorities; its scientists are an early-warning system for environmental threats. This is especially true around the canal. In 1999, 40 STRI scientists led by Stanley Heckadon completed a major study on the state of the watershed. The findings: While deforestation is under control, poaching continues—and water quality is becoming a major concern. Rivers in Chilibre, an industrializing boomtown between Chagres and Soberania national parks, have levels of fecal matter four to five times that permitted under international norms.

The symbiosis between economy and conservation—a sort of trickle-down environmentalism—has served Panama well, but it can go only so far. The watershed provides all the drinking water for Panama City and Colón, so there’s a very tangible reason to tackle Chilibre’s pollution. Yet it’s hard to put a finger on why saving the harpy eagle, the recently designated national bird, is an economic necessity. For all the emphasis placed on the canal and ecotourism, Panama’s growing environmental movement is a battle for hearts as well as wallets. The ACP is in the watershed’s schools, teaching children to be “guardians of the rainforest.” Biologists are in Chagres National Park, asking communities to spare harpies and the sloths and monkeys they feed on.

I asked ANCON director Lider Sucre what his group’s vision was. His answer was unequivocal: “Whenever there’s an economic argument, we use it. But our focus is biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake.” ANCON advertises on Panamanian TV. Harvard-educated Sucre himself is a constant presence in the newspapers. The message is beginning to stick. Post-handover Panama is becoming a country with not just de facto conservation but the real thing: a conscious, deliberate, and entirely unaccidental protection of its biological wealth. Sucre and others are setting the stage for an environmental legacy that will have little to do with the canal—and even less to do with the United States.

Back on Gatun Lake, there were hints of this shift already. The boat docked at Dariencito, an abandoned U.S. military camp, and Cahill led us through the forest. Before us was a cement structure with dirt on its floor and sleeping bats in its shadows. Growing on its roof, already, were Panamanian trees: a gumbo-limbo, a 40-foot ficus, a half-dozen others. The jungle was devouring the old base whole.

First published in Audubon Magazine.


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McKenzie Funk
National Magazine Award finalist McKenzie Funk is a founding member of Deca and the author of Windfall, named a book of the year by The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, and Amazon and the winner of a 2015 PEN Literary Award. Mac's writing appears in Harper's, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, and The New York Times Magazine. An Open Society Fellow, he speaks five languages and is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and sons.