The provinces of Los Santos and Herrera are considered the heartland of Panama. Many Panamanians trace their roots to these strongholds of Spanish settlement. It is in these areas where ranchers and cowboys tend to their cattle, where the best tipico music and food originate, where the sense of national pride burns brightest. If you are from the U.S., think of Texas and you won’t be far off.
Over the years, parcels of land within these provinces were divided up between sons of landowners, over and over, to the point that cheap land became scarce in the 1970s. It was at this point that the Panamanian government issued something akin to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. If any of the Herrerranos or Santenos were willing to pick up and move to the Darien Province, located to the east of Panama City, the land would be theirs – provided they “worked” it. In those times, “working” the land took on a different meaning than it does now.
Simply put, the farmers from these provinces practiced what is known as slash and burn agriculture, and in the political climate of the 1970s, the law stipulated that they needed to continue with these practices in order to lay claim to their land. They moved into a forested jungle area, removed and sold the most precious of hardwoods, cut down what they could of the remaining trees, and set fire to the rest. The resulting charcoal from this practice introduces carbon into the soil which helps fertilize the first few years of crops. However, as a result of removing the root structures that once held the soils in place, erosion sweeps away the rich topsoil layer that was previously comprised of decaying jungle vegetation and leaves clay, rock and otherwise impotent land. Having depreciated the land, farmers are often left with no choice but to pick up and move to another location where they continue the same practice.
In this way, the Santenos and Herrerranos have been compared to the hormiga arriera, or “leaf-cutter ant.” A fascinating specimen, the leaf-cutter is known to walk several miles in search of leaves that it will bring back to its ant hill. There, the leaves decompose and produce a mold that provides the ant’s sustenance. They have been known to kill entire trees by removing all of their leaves. When they finish demolishing one tree, they search for another and so on.
This problem may appear to have a simple solution: educate and persuade the people, fine the transgressors, reforest what has already been destroyed… but it’s not that simple. How might I expect to explain to a farmer that makes $6/day that he shouldn’t deforest land to sell wood, or that he shouldn’t clear-cut jungle lands to create new pasture for his cattle, when these are the only means he knows to feed his family? It’s easy for me to stand on a podium with my comfortable salary and preach, but many have tried selling the same concept before me and all have failed. In all reality, I have never experienced hunger a day in my life; there’s no way I can fully empathize with their daily struggle.
Slowly, things are changing in Panama. Since the inception of ANAM, Panama’s version of the EPA, there have been many efforts to combat this grave problem and save what remains of Panama’s Darien jungle. Attitudes are changing among many of the farmers and conservation is becoming more prominent in the vernacular among them. Through the use of sustainable development practices and the ethical harvesting of hardwoods, Panama may still be able to rescue one of its most valuable resources.