June 28th, 2009

Wetland or wasteland?

By KENNEDY WARNE

With the afternoon high tide lapping at our ankles, more about Rosabel’s husband Karl Kaufmann and I are poking around in a patch of mangroves in a suburb of Panama City called Diablo. It’s in the former Canal Zone, a corridor of land that extended five miles on either side of the Panama Canal and was controlled by the US until 1979. It’s a leafy neighbourhood of spacious weatherboard duplex houses that were characteristic of the zone—an entity that ended in 1999 when the canal passed to Panamanian control.

Panama's cash cow: the canal.

KENNEDY WARNE
Panama's cash cow: the canal.


Karl, who has lived in Panama for 30 years and works as data manager at the Smithsonian lab, tells an amusing story about the city being unhappy with the name Diablo and changing it to Altos de Jesus, “Jesus Heights.” But the residents objected, and signs with the new name kept disappearing, until eventually the name change was given up as a lost cause. (So it is now accurate to say that the Panama Canal lies between the devil and the deep blue sea.)

We’re in an area of boatyards, boatsheds and rickety wharves. Karl remembers seeing Pelliciera here in the past, and, sure enough, as soon as we start looking we spot the distinctive pointy leaves and star-shaped flowers. Here on the Pacific coast, the flowers of Pelliciera are much pinker than they are on the Atlantic. Candy Feller wonders if they are distinct subspecies.

A fly discovers the nectar riches of an unopened Pelliciera flower in Diablo.

KENNEDY WARNE
A fly discovers the nectar riches of an unopened Pelliciera flower in Diablo.


There’s something special about finding a treasure like Pelliciera in a neglected backwater in a place called Diablo. It’s partly why I became interested in mangroves in the first place. They’re maligned, they’re marginalised, they’re considered uncharismatic. Documentary makers aren’t beating a path to the mangroves. Their eyes are on terrestrial rainforests and coral reefs. I’ve got nothing against those habitats, but they’ve become ecological celebrities. Mangroves are underdogs. I like the idea of showing what they’re made of.

I turn to see a container ship slipping past, leaving the canal. The canal is being expanded at the moment, with the predictable attendant loss of mangrove forest. Karl asks me a question: Is there anywhere I’ve been on this journey where mangroves are held in high esteem by a majority of people? I can’t think of any.

In the evening Karl and Rosabel take me to the visitor centre at Miraflores Locks, where we watch the electrified “mules”—vehicles on rails on each side of the locks—towing ships through the canal. “The next TV you buy may have spent some time on an old mangrove site,” he says. “Panama grew up on the edge of mangroves, but today’s city is turning its back on them in favour of golf courses and recreational areas.”

A five-billion-dollar expansion will give the canal two new flights of locks and allow larger ships to pass through.

KENNEDY WARNE
A five-billion-dollar expansion will give the canal two new flights of locks and allow larger ships to pass through.


The mangrove outlook isn’t all bad. Along with the recent protection of coastal land along the Bay of Panama, resolutions have been passed that attempt to put a price on mangrove loss. Where mangrove removal is deemed a “public necessity” the land is valued at $20,000/ha. If part of a commercial project the price goes up to $150,000/ha. If mangroves are removed illegally, the fine is $300,000/ha.

Karl sees a problem with this approach. “If you put a dollar value on mangroves it’s an incentive to sell. You’re taking a public asset—the goods and services that mangroves have provided for hundreds of years—and putting it up for grabs in a one-time sale. And it isn’t even the people who get reimbursed for the loss of the asset, it’s the government.”

The correct approach, Karl thinks, is that for every hectare of mangroves taken, a hectare should be replanted. That way the public good is perpetuated for future generations.

Canalside mangroves of Diablo.

KENNEDY WARNE
Canalside mangroves of Diablo.


Rosabel and her colleagues are working to develop a conservation strategy for the Bay of Panama protected area, which they hope will be incorporated into the management plan. They expect battles ahead. Nearly half a million hectares of land near the protected area is under consideration for mining, and a further 40,000 ha just offshore is subject to applications for the extraction of rock and sand. The protected area is going to need sharp legal teeth to fend off developers. It will be interesting to see how the city balances its commitments.

As arranged, tuberculosis
Karl, contagion
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, see
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?


Vi?il 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. Vi?il 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.

Vi?il, Rosabel and Karl negotiate the mangrove trash-heap.

KENNEDY WARNE
Vi?il, 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.

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.