Jungle Highway Plan Spurs Security, Eco Fears in Panama

Lorne Matalon in Panama City, Panama
for National Geographic News
March 11, 2005

It is a unique piece of biodiversity, a 60-mile-wide (100-kilometer- wide) emerald wilderness bordered by two oceans. It is the Darién Gap of Panama (see pictures), a landmass linking North and South America and straddling the Panama-Colombia border.

The Darién got its name because it is the only gap in the 16,000-mile (26,000-kilometer) Pan-American Highway, which stretches from Alaska to Patagonia.

But Colombia's President, Alvaro Uribe, says he wants that gap closed and has requested that Panama pave a road through the Darién to complete the Pan-American Highway.

Uribe has visited Panama twice in recent months, saying he considers construction of the highway to be of "huge importance" and a critical issue in relations between the two countries.

The Colombian leader believes the road would help his nation improve its economy by allowing Colombian goods to gain faster access to markets in Central and North America.

Not so fast, says a coalition of indigenous groups, environmental activists, and business and political leaders in Panama.

In the capital, Panama City, high-ranking business, political, and environmental leaders interviewed for this story expressed serious concerns over Uribe's proposal, a sentiment mirrored by the southern Darién's indigenous groups.

Lider Sucre is a Harvard Business School graduate who leads Panama's environmental activist group the Association for the Conservation of Nature, or ANCON.

"The Uribe proposal is our most important issue at ANCON right now," Sucre said during a recent interview. "We would not only lose irreplaceable biodiversity, we would also lose something that makes us uniquely Panamanian."

"Our government has to maintain good relations with Colombia, but a road through the Darién would be devastating for us," Sucre said.

Sucre believes the destruction of forest habitat would harm several species of birds, which exist nowhere else in the world. The ANCON leader said his group also supports Panama's cattle ranchers, who believe the Darién Gap acts as a natural barrier to the importation of hoof-and-mouth disease.

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