Panama Rises

The Central American nation, now celebrating its centennial, has come into its own since the United States ceded control of its vital waterway

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The beauty of this is that it allows guests to see the birds face to face. Near dawn on the day I visited, I climbed through a hatch to the observation deck to watch and listen as the forest awakened. Astaff member provided fresh coffee. Howler monkeys bellowed somewhere to the north. Mist floated over the forested hilltops of the Continental Divide. The sun came up from the general direction of the Pacific. (Because of the way the isthmus lies, the Pacific end of the canal is southeast of the Atlantic end.)

Using binoculars and the naked eye, the guests around me began to spot birds. Some 15 yards away a pair of keel-billed toucans preened. They were green, yellow, carmine, aqua and orange—and those were just the colors in their enormous beaks. (They are the colors, not coincidentally, that Arias de Para’s decorator chose for the hotel.) To the east, a pair of green parrots flew over the treetops. Farther in the distance someone pointed out a blue cotinga, its feathers the intense color of a flame. The cotinga seemed to be watching us watching him.

Arias de Para and his guests have logged roughly 300 different species around the hotel in the five years since he opened it. After breakfast, he and the cheerful guides on his staff take the guests out in search of still more species to add to their life lists, advising them first to smack a sock filled with powdered sulfur around their ankles; the yellow dust repels some of the forest’s less appealing species, such as chiggers.

This is the sort of tourism that Panamanian environmentalists hope to develop. They would like to avoid the Cancunization of their country’s beaches and forests. They would prefer a network of small lodges with very light footprints, catering to tourists who want to see Panama’s birds, reefs, rain forests and national parks without destroying them.

Their vision is possible in part because of an accidental American legacy. The United States permitted very little development in the former Canal Zone, though not because it cared about eco-tourism. The canal requires huge amounts of fresh water. Every large ship that makes a transit requires 52 million gallons from GatunLake—26 million to raise it and 26 million to lower it. That water is flushed away into the sea. Avirgin rain forest was therefore good for canal operations. It soaked up water in the rainy season (the Atlantic half of the isthmus alone gets about 120 inches of rain in an average year) and released it slowly during the four-month dry season. So, compared with those in some other tropical countries, Panama’s rain forests have been well preserved. In addition to hundreds of species of birds, they harbor an impressive variety of flora and wildlife, from orchids to ocelots.

“Fifteen percent of Panama’s territory is in national parks,” I was told by Lider Sucre, director of the National Association for the Conservation of Nature, Panama’s leading environmental organization. This, according to the World Resources Institute, makes Panama’s biosphere one of the world’s most extensively protected. It is roughly five times the percentage of national territory devoted to parks in the United States.

Tourism is only one way Panama hopes to capitalize on its rain forests. There is also bio-prospecting. I got a look at this enterprise on a visit to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (see “World View,” page 14), or STRI, which is located on an island called Barro Colorado in GatunLake. Since 1923, scientists at STRI have been studying the ecology of rain forests.

Research biologist Joe Wright showed me around the island. Arain forest at ground level looks and smells much different than it does at canopy level. On the ground, it is dark and shadowy. The air is humid, thick. Insects are seen more often than birds.

Wright pointed out a line of large, red leaf-cutter ants making their way toward their nest. Each ant had a bit of leaf perhaps half again its size clenched in its jaws. These ants, he said, have played a part in bio-prospecting.

Leaf-cutter ants are farmers of a sort. Foraging members of the colony march about the rain forest in long lines, cutting pieces of vegetation from a variety of plants and carrying them back to the nest. In the nest, other ants chew the leaf bits into pulp. The masticated leaf material is packed into an underground chamber about the size of a football. This pulp becomes a field on which a fungus grows. The ants feed on the fungus.


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