Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Poor forest management takes its toll on Panama


When they celebrated Panama's independence from Spain in 1821, villagers here laid claim to a thickly forested, abundant land.

Now, as a nationwide drought lays waste to this once lush land, the people of Villa de los Santos have only bone-dry fields peppered with skeletal animals.

After seven months without rain in a tropical country that usually sees heavy rainfall for most of the year, farmers and city-dwellers alike are suffering the effects of almost two centuries of deforestation, as one of Panama's worst droughts in memory takes hold.

Water shortages are affecting cities and towns, while crops fail and desperate farmers abandon their scrawny cattle to graze on what is left of the dusty meadows.

The drought has been sparked by El Nino, which through the warming of coastal waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, affects rainfall patterns in Central America.

But the relentless felling of tropical dry forest, once prevalent across Central America and Mexico, to make way for farming and ranching, has robbed the land of the trees that kept moisture in the soil and maintained the fragile microclimate of the humid tropics, environmentalists say.

Drinking water has been rationed across Panama City and surrounding towns, as the volume of water entering treatment plants from rivers has dropped by more than half.

Export crops such as sugar and bananas remain so far unaffected, but hundreds of dairy, corn and rice farmers say their production has fallen by a third.

Some supermarkets have begun selling imported, rather than domestic beef, as farmers struggle to feed their livestock.

Areas of natural beauty are also suffering.

Last month fire destroyed 40 percent of the 2,000 hectare Cerro Zuela national park in the central province of Cocle.

The fire, sparked by the drought, devastated the park's flora and fauna, park officials say.

Smaller fires have destroyed areas of other national parks.

In response, the government has suspended all permits to slash and burn new land for agriculture, as well as promising millions of US dollars in soft loans to drill holes to reach deep underground water tables in agricultural areas.

In urban areas, the water authority Idaan provides daily water trucks, but many residents complain there is not enough to go around.

Short-term solutions to the drought appear to be few and far between. Everyone is praying for rain.

According to environmentalists, Panama and its Central American neighbors Guatemala and Honduras, which suffered severe droughts last year, are paying the penalty for felling huge areas of tropical dry forest.

Tropical dry forest, which demands half the rainfall of its better known sister tropical rain forest, is Latin America's most threatened lowland tropical forest habitat.

The deciduous forest once covered more than 518,000km2 of Pacific coastal lowlands from Panama to Central Mexico, but now less than 0.1 percent of the original forest survives, according to studies by the University of Pennsylvania.

Tropical dry forest initially provides good agricultural soil and is cleared easily. Settlers and landowners in post-independence Panama felled the forests and burnt pastures, leaving the invasive grass to take over and create grazing meadows for cattle.

"But without trees, the soil soon loses its nutrients as the rain water runs off to the sea," said Salomon Aguilar, a botanist at the University of Panama. "And that's to say nothing about the loss of plant species and wildlife."

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