Posts Tagged ‘shorebirds’

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.
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 Vi?il. 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,” Vi?il 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.