Posts Tagged ‘Juan Diaz’

Wetland or wasteland?

June 28th, 2009

As arranged, Karl, Rosabel and I show up at the camp by the river at Juan Diaz at seven. High tide is heaving the flotsam of trash in slow rhythmic waves. The Bay of Panama should be called the Bay of Garbage. It floats down the rivers and the tide distributes it along the beaches and up into the mangroves. We walk through it up to our knees to get to the canoe, a stumpy dugout that looks in danger of capsizing even before we get in, let alone once we start across the channel.

Wetland or wasteland?

KENNEDY WARNE
Wetland or wasteland?


Viĵil paddles us to the opposite shore, where we set out to find the old crab collector. We follow a trail under the roosting trees of pelicans, cormorants, frigate birds and vultures. The undergrowth is so spattered with guano it looks like someone with a paint gun has run amok. The stench of ammonia is intense. Pelicans hoist themselves off the swaying branches and wing across the bay, rising and falling against the distant skyscrapers of downtown Panama.

We slosh through the mud, the mangrove breathing roots and the trash. We are at least a hundred metres from the shore now, but light bulbs, soft drink bottles and flip-flops lie in drifts amongst the trees. On a patch of higher ground I am surprised to find cactuses growing among the mangrove roots.

Pelicans, mangroves and the highrises of Panama City.

KENNEDY WARNE
Pelicans, mangroves and the highrises of Panama City.


Antonio finds a path that winds through tall canal grass—an introduced species that looks like ordinary grass on steroids, growing head-high on thick stalks—and we reach the crabber’s hut. Embers are smouldering under a cooking pot, but the crabber is nowhere to be seen. Viĵil and Antonio whistle and call, but there is no response. They conclude that he has gone off hunting.

It isn’t possible to wait for his return. So quickly does the tide fall on the Pacific coast that we would be stuck here until evening. Even on the way back to the canoe the sea has retreated by hundreds of metres, leaving a brown silt soup below the wrack line.

Viĵil, Rosabel and Karl negotiate the mangrove trash-heap.

KENNEDY WARNE
Viĵil, Rosabel and Karl negotiate the mangrove trash-heap.


And so ends my visit to the mangroves of Panama and my journey among the mangroves of the Americas. Seven weeks, six countries, dozens of communities visited, hundreds of people met. It seems appropriate to be finishing up in a mangrove forest that is both a cornucopia and a rubbish heap. Juan Diaz epitomises the mangrove problem: treasured by the few, trashed by the many.

I don’t see much hope for the rainforests of the sea until their true value gains wider recognition. I don’t mean just a price per hectare, but their intrinsic worth. Karl Kaufmann mentioned something that has stuck with me: the need for a new narrative about land use. It is no longer legitimate, he said, for us to think of land as private, discrete assets. “From the point of view of the earth, my plot of land isn’t separate from everyone else’s. We all have a stake in what’s left.” This is a big topic of discussion, one I have I only started to get my head around. Smarter minds than mine have written about the need for a transition from an environmental metaphor of infinite wilderness, inexhaustible and impervious to human desecration, to one of the “house of nature,” finite and vulnerable, which each resident shares with everyone else.

An unusual sight: cacti among the mangrove pneumatophores.

KENNEDY WARNE
An unusual sight: cacti among the mangrove pneumatophores.


As I see it, my task with Last Stands is to help establish and promote the intrinsic worth of mangroves, and to make connections between one resident in the house (eg the consumer of unsustainably farmed shrimp) and another (eg the cockle collector who relies on healthy mangrove stands). A shared sense of values surely leads to a shared desire to preserve. Or as Jacques Cousteau once put it: people protect what they love.

A city and its mangroves

June 27th, 2009

How does a city live with its mangroves? How does it accommodate growth without irreparably damaging its natural assets? Or is that an impossibility? These are questions I am trying to address while in Panama.

Panama's dilemma: burgeoning city, declining mangroves, and a mountain of trash.

KENNEDY WARNE
Panama's dilemma: burgeoning city, declining mangroves, and a mountain of trash.


Today Rosabel Miró wants to show me a new area of coastal development, at a place called Juan Diaz, on the eastern fringe of the city. To get there we drive past the crumbling rock walls of Panama Viejo, Old Panama, sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Then through the upscale residential area of Costa del Este, then past a sign announcing “Santa Maria Golf and Country Club” to the development site itself, where bulldozers are at work.

Rosabel has shown me a newspaper article with an aerial photograph of the site. It shows a dramatic juxtaposition of intact mangrove forest, a recent residential development and a great scar of development in progress.

The city's advance is the mangroves' retreat.

CAVU
The city's advance is the mangroves' retreat.


She is concerned about this new development because it is within an area that was declared a protected area in February of this year, and because the continued nibbling away of mangroves poses a threat to shorebirds. As director of the Panama Audubon Society, she has a vital interest in the welfare of those birds.

“The Bay of Panama is the most important stopover for migratory shorebirds in Central America,” she told me. Two million shorebirds of more than 30 species, including plovers, sandpipers and whimbrels, use the area. One reason they stop here are the huge tides on the Pacific coast—up to seven metres difference between high and low. When the tide goes out it exposes up to 70 km of mudflat—a huge open-air buffet.

Two million shorebirds use the mudflats of the Bay of Panama as a migratory stopover.

KARL KAUFMANN
Two million shorebirds use the mudflats of the Bay of Panama as a migratory stopover.


Mangroves are important to shorebird ecology not just because of biological interactions between mudflat and mangrove forest but also as safe roosting areas at high tide and a security buffer between the birds and urban areas inland.

After looking at the site we drive to the end of the road, where a cluster of ramshackle huts stands on a scrap of land between the mangroves and a sheetmetal works that is turning out sections of tailrace tunnel for a hydroelectric project.

We brush past banana palms and papaya trees and introduce ourselves to Antonio, Magdalena, Lisbeth and Viĵil. They’ve drifted together, along with a few others, by happenstance and word of mouth. They have fashioned a simple, if not entirely idyllic, existence on the shores of the bay, drawing from land and sea for their sustenance. The fact that they wake in the morning to the sound of arc welders and angle grinders is a small price to pay for a life close to nature.

Magdalena with pumpkin.

KENNEDY WARNE
Magdalena with pumpkin.


We swing in hammocks in the shade of an almond tree and they talk about their life here. A crocodile tried to eat one of their dogs so they shot it and dined on crocodile for a good while after that. They grow vegetables in what looks like pretty fertile soil. Magdalena shows off a huge pumpkin which will be used as crab bait in the ingenious spring-door traps they set out at low tide.

Rosabel is enjoying herself, singing to a parakeet that is perched on her finger. She grew up with parakeets—“they were all called Juanito or Juanita”—and she and the neighbouring kids used to go adventuring in the mangroves next door to the house. So she has a warm feeling for this little band of outcasts living their Swiss Family Robinson life. (When I offer the bird my finger as a perch, it pecks me with a grip that could crack a macadamia.)

Rosabel Miró with friend in Juan Diaz.

KENNEDY WARNE
Rosabel Miró with friend in Juan Diaz.


Like all subsistence communities, they know the bounty that each season brings. November is when the iguanas come, for instance—“cooking time,” Viĵil says with a grin. Antonio walks a few steps into the mangroves and uses a table knife to show how he digs up shellfish from around the trunks of the trees. It isn’t the mangrove cockle, but a much smaller bivalve that lives in sandy conditions. It looks like you would need a lot of them for a meal.

Mounds of empty soft drink and beer cans are scattered through the camp. When the scrap metal merchant comes they’ll get a few dollars for the aluminium. Lisbeth, an older woman, says she collects parakeet chicks in the mangroves during the breeding season, raises them to fledging size and sells them in the city, three dollars each.

Antonio with mangrove molluscs.

KENNEDY WARNE
Antonio with mangrove molluscs.


They tell us there’s an old crab collector living alone, deep in the mangroves on other side of the river, and offer to take us to meet him at high tide the next morning. It’s a deal, we say. We’ll show up with breakfast and they’ll paddle us across the river to meet him.

Before we leave I ask if anyone from the new development has visited them, perhaps to tell them they’ll have to leave. They say no, and clearly hope that it stays that way. I hope for their sakes it does.