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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.

Border Security

"The border is constantly violated by guerrillas, drug traffickers, and alien smugglers bringing refugees from the Colombian civil war," Sucre added. "And that's without a road. With a road, we are certain the problem will expand."

As if to underscore Panama's unease Panamanian Border Police recently reported the seizure of several tons of cocaine in the Darién—contraband that investigators believe originated in Colombia.

And within recent weeks, the Colombian Army suffered major casualties in an ambush by antigovernment guerrillas known as the FARC in Colombia's remote northwest near the border with Panama.

The FARC often retreats into the Darién. Panamanian authorities say that the FARC and anti-FARC, pro-Colombian government paramilitaries and drug smugglers have committed atrocities inside Panama.

The head of Panama's National Police, Gustavo Perez, is responsible for day-to-day operation of the border-police units. In an interview in Panama City, Perez described security in the border region as a constant challenge.

"We have drug dealers and FARC people coming into the country, and we also have a lot of (illegal) immigration making things inconvenient for our country," Perez said.

Perez doesn't agree with those who believe a road would make it easier to control the flow of guerrillas, paramilitaries, drugs, and illegal immigrants.

Asked how a road in southern Darién would affect his work, Perez is emphatic that it would only complicate an already difficult security situation.

Perez's boss, Minister of Justice Hector Aleman, also expressed serious reservations about the Darién Gap roadbuilding proposal.

"Colombia believes a road would help it connect to the rest of the Americas. From their point of view a road in the Darién is a good strategy," Aleman said. "But a road is not necessarily in our interest. We have to defend our frontier, not just to protect the biodiversity there—which is important—but to make certain lives are not lost because of a conflict we are not involved in."

Unusual Alliance

Its takes an hour by small plane from Panama City to the jungle hamlet of El Real and another four hours by dugout canoe to reach the geographical middle of the southern Darién.

The region's two indigenous groups, the Wounaan and Embera Indians, have seen parts of their territory ravaged by an influx of poachers and loggers, which was triggered by the construction of a road in the northern Darién.

Not all Indians oppose the road plan, especially those employed as seasonal contract loggers. But most indigenous leaders interviewed for this story said they are aghast at the notion of extending the road. They point to the area flanking the existing road in northern Darién, noting that it is denuded, treeless, and barren.

But like their counterparts in the Panamanian capital, the Wounaan and Embera say their environmental concerns are trumped by fears over border incursions.

"Even with the Darién Gap, we live with fear every day," Isidro Solis said through an interpreter. Solis lives by the banks of the Rio Tuira several hours upriver from El Real. Visibly anguished, he said, "FARC, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers have already killed some of our people, forcing some of us to move away from our lands."

"What will happen," he asked rhetorically, "if the guerrillas travel by road to enter the Darién? Of course we are worried."

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe recently told a group of prominent business leaders that a road will allow authorities in both nations to control the flow of people and goods in either direction.

He pledged to minimize a new road's environmental impact and drew laughter from the business leaders, when he said that "only good Colombians" will use the road to enter Panama.

Presidential Dilemma

Panama's recently elected president, Martin Torrijos, now wrestles with a dilemma.

He is popular, enjoying both a recent electoral victory and iconic status as the son of legendary Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos.

The elder Torrijos dominated Panamanian politics from the late 1960s until he was killed in a plane crash in 1981. He negotiated the Panama Canal Treaty with United States President Jimmy Carter in 1977, which returned control of the waterway to Panama in 1999.

"We have made no commitment to the road," said Martin Torrijos, in an interview at the presidential palace in the capital. "We have a border which is not easy to keep control of."

The president elaborated, saying that the argument that the road would give Panama greater control of security in southern Darién, can be contradicted by the argument that the road would give undesirable elements easier access to Panama.

Torrijos added, however, "We will study carefully the proposal from Colombia. But we have only said we will examine the proposal."

His supporters and seasoned observers of Panama's political scene say President Torrijos is willing to consider expanded ferry links with Colombia. But, they say, he is wary of roadbuilding's threat to the possibility of increased ecotourism revenue in the Darién.

But these same backers and observers also say that Torrijos cannot dismiss the Colombian President's proposal without at least formally considering the idea out of respect for a valued neighbor and trading partner.

Interpreter Raymond Mizrachi in Panama contributed to this report.

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