written for Environment Yale

Since the 1500s, when Spaniards colonized Panama, the isthmus that separates the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, people have cleared and cut its tropical forests. Development, cattle ranching and farming have changed the landscape and the culture, and bit by bit, trees have disappeared from at last half of the country’s land mass.

The cleared lands include most of the southern coast on the Pacific Ocean side and stretches of land on both sides of the Panama Canal. In some areas where trees still grow, plantations have replaced hundreds of native tree species with a single exotic species. In others, land has given itself over to introduced, invasive grasses that easily catch fire. Deforestation appears to be changing local hydrology. Two bad droughts, exacerbated by the lack of trees whose roots retain water, dangerously lowered the water levels of the Panama Canal’s locks in 1997 and 2001.

This small nation, roughly the size of South Carolina, is home to 2,400 native tree species—more than 10 times the number in southern New England—and dozens of climatic zones. But this well of biological diversity is endangered, because more than half of the land has lost its tree cover.

The time has come to replant tracts across Panama with native trees, accordiong to a group of researchers from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Intitute in Panama. Three years ago, these two groups formed PRORENA, an acronym that in English translates to Native Species Reforestation Project. PRORENA’s goal is to do research so that Panamanians can re-establish diverse native forest cover across these extensively deforested lands. Even more challenging, perhaps, is a second goal, which is to find a way to increase forest cover without marginalizing farming and ranching as occupations—a source of income for about 50 percent of Panamanians—and, as a result, interfering with Panamanians’ ability to make a living.

Panama is known for the 50-mile-long canal that changed worldwide commerce with it opened in 1914. The waterway is a freshwater system that cuts through a mountainous region. Ships travel one by one through six giant locks that elevate or drop between two large manmade lakes. As the forests have diminished around it, the periodic dry yearscaused by El Nino (the warming of the Pacific Ocean) have lowered the water level in the manmade lakes and caused erosion in the valleys and on the shores of the lakes.

The land from which rainwater drains into the Panama Canal has lost more than half of its forest over the past three decades, according to the United States Agency for International Development, a U.S. government agency that assist foreign countries. In 1997, two years before the United States turned over the canal to Panama, USAID reported to the U.S. Congress that protecting forests around the canal is an urgent priority.
PRORENA’s first steps have been to experiment with planting native tree species on deforested lands. The task of organizing these projects fell to Mark Wishnie, Yale F & ES Class of 2001, PRORENA’s project director. Wishnie lives most of the year in Panama, where he travels around to research sites, and observes the work of companies and the government in their efforts to grow trees.

“When I first arrived in Panama, I thought it was going to be straight-ahead research,” Wishnie said. Within several months, by asking around, he located and met people who were beginning to plant small plots of native trees—for timber and better water quality, or to control erosion around the Panama Canal.

Wishnie said, “When I and my colleagues realized that there was this network of people doing work on the topic, [we realized] that to be a useful organization we had to be collaborative. Everybody planting trees already knew more about this.”

The rest of this text appears in the print edition.


About This Article

This article first appeared in Environment: Yale, a magazine published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmenal Studies, Spring 2004.

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