by Eric Jackson
When I was a kid growing up colonial in the former Canal Zone, unbeknownst to me at the time I bore witness to the beginning of the definitive end of an ancient way of life, slash and burn agriculture.
Back then the Zonians had a whole litany of ethnic slurs, accumulated folklore and “proofs positive” about how the Panamanians were too backward to ever run the American canal. The tide of history has proven the once prevailing Zonian wisdom wrong about the day-to-day operations of the canal (notwithstanding some dodgy “safety statistics” built upon undisclosed changes in reporting standards), but vestiges of the old colonialist attitude still persists in the smug American put-downs of ignorant Panamanian campesinos who have deforested so much of the isthmus.
But when I was born, subsistence farming wherein one cut and burned a patch of the jungle for a few seasons of crops and then abandoned it to the jungle to lie fallow for years was a going concern. Of course with a growing population density that way of life, which had gone on for thousands of years, would become unsustainable. But well before that tipping point arrived, Panamanian slash and burn agriculture was destroyed by an act of American environmental hubris.
Some individual in the Panama Canal administration who thought he could use nature to conquer nature got the bright idea of shoring up the banks of Culebra Cut, that narrow part of the canal where the slopes have never reached their angle of repose, by importing elephant grass from Vietnam and planting it here. This imported ground cover became a ferociously invasive weed, and whenever a farmer left a patch for the jungle to retake the elephant grass --- dubbed “paja canalera” in Spanish --- moved in instead. The weed takes everything from and gives nothing to the thin tropical soil. Once land becomes covered with this nothing else will grow, and if cattle eat it, after a few seasons of that the land becomes barren and eroded.
But neither from the Americans nor from the American-educated elites who now run the Panama Canal has there ever been an admission or error or even fault. That inbred class of Panamanians which worships Disney World as the pinnacle of American culture and things mechanical or electronic as inherently better than things biological has a visceral need to demonstrate their supposed inherited superiority to the men and women who work the land with machetes.
They won’t like it when they are accused of being strangely flawed imitations of the Americans. Oh no. The Creole aristocracy has remained largely inbred, and has maintained a culture that the aspiring middle class has been obliged to embrace --- the culture of the hidalgos, or sons of somebody --- which disdains actual work as a campesino thing, which revels in juega vivo, the life of sharp dealing and fraud.
And what have the hidalgos and the wannabes, now that they run the Panama Canal, offered to the Panamanian people?
They have submitted to us, in a referendum to be held in October, their latest technological solution to the serious matter of modernizing a nearly century-old canal. Few Panamanians dispute the need to upgrade our principal industrial asset. Thanks to an expensive government propaganda campaign, an increasingly ironclad domination of the news media, corny but effective information control games and flat-out scientific fraud, one thing that relatively few Panamanians know is that they’re offering us a set of environmental problems of unknowable but almost certainly immense proportions, a maritime elephant grass and then some.
You see, the Panama Canal is built around Gatun Lake, an artificial body of water made by damming the Chagres River. Because it’s fresh water, the lake has proven a barrier to most Pacific species getting through the canal to the Caribbean Sea and to most Caribbean species from crossing and establishing themselves in the Pacific. (Certain species that live partly in salt water and spawn in fresh water streams have crossed over, but the massive exotic invasions of strictly marine species have been avoided.)
Originally, the canal authorities, in all their disdain for campesinos, had intended to make a new lake to the west of the canal to provide water to run the larger third set of locks that’s proposed. But the local small farmers would have none of it, and even by setting up a puppet rival organization, even by vilifying the would-be displaced farmers “Zapatistas,” even by a protracted campaign of slanders and cheap blandishments, they were unable to break the area residents’ unity. The farmers of the “Western Watershed” well knew how the Panamanian ruling elites have treated those who were displaced by dams that governments and corporations have built, and their cause attracted a great deal of public sympathy.
So the political and technological solution was to build the third locks with a set of water saving basins, which would reduce water requirements. The problem is, this system would make Gatun Lake brackish in unpredictable ways, opening a gate whose width nobody has studied for Caribbean species to get into the Pacific or vice versa. Will it be an annoyance on the level of the Black Sea zebra mussels that have infested so many of the inland waters of the United States and Canada? Will it be worse? Has anyone in the Panama Canal Administration Building or the Presidential Palace been paying attention to the problem?
In the manner of hidalgos the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and our president who’s president because he’s the son of the late dictator have paid attention. They have paid attention by the widespread propagation of lies, and by the misrepresentation of the contents of the studies that they themselves commissioned. That, you see, is the means that requires less work on their part, the means consonant with the rules of juega vivo.
Of the at least nine water quality studies commissioned by the ACP, the key report is by WL Delft Hydraulics, a Dutch company. Delft stated that:
The salt concentration of the water in the water saving basins is, generally, also higher than the water in the adjacent higher lock, causing less dilution of the water in the receiving lock chamber. The effect of water saving basins is thus a greater inflow of salt water into Gatun Lake.
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Moreover, Delft noted that certain important things remain unknown and unpredictable:
Since the simulation model SWINLOCKS is not able to compute the time-dependent dispersion of salt water into the lakes, the computed volume-averaged salt concentrations do not provide a picture of salt water concentrations in the lakes. It is however most likely that strong variation of the salt concentration will occur in Gatun Lake and Gaillard Cut.
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It is doubtful however, whether these very complicated computations are fully feasible....
Delft predicted the influx of salt water through the new locks into Gatun and Miraflores Lakes, as compared to the present situation and using various forms of mitigation by "flushing" --- the running of fresh water from Gatun Lake through the locks and the emptying of the water-saving basins --- as well as the locks' operation without flushing, in the following chart:
(Look at the dark green bars which represent minimum salt intrusion into Gatun Lake, and the adjacent light ones that show maximum intrusion. The red and yellow bars are for the much smaller Miraflores Lake near the canal’s Pacific entrance, where the water has been too brackish to drink for some time. On the left end of the chart you see the current situation. Next to that you see what would happen with no flushing, using none, two or three of the water saving basins. The three sets of graphics from the middle to the left show the situation using various flushing strategies. But understand that flushing increases water loss from Gatun Lake, and that in times of water shortage there would be no flushing and the predictions in the “no mitigation” chart would be more likely. Also understand that there are some marine species that can survive in brackish water with fairly low salt levels and that no inventories of these have been done for this project.)
Square the above with the statement that the government and Panama Canal Authority have been repeating ad nauseam in a multimillion-dollar ad campaign directed at the Panamanian people:
"The third set of locks equipped with water-saving basins will not affect the water quality in Gatun and Alajuela lakes, nor in their tributaries, even when they function at their maximum capacities."
Should we be surprised? I ask this question in particular to the folks at Greenpeace, who have spearheaded the international campaign against shipping highly radioactive nuclear wastes through the Panama Canal, because they know something about the sorts of “assurances” that the Panama Canal Authority gives about environmental risks. Greenpeace, like the governments of our neighboring Caribbean countries, is right not to trust the denials of the risks entailed in that matter.
The difference here, however, is that with nuclear cargo there is a small chance of an absolute catastrophe, while with the salinization of Gatun Lake there is a high chance of exotic species invasions.
The effects may just not be on Panama. Might the larvae of some small and unstudied Caribbean organism get over to the Pacific side, make its way to the waters around Coiba Island, then ride the current out to the Galapagos, along the way disrupting food chains in ways nobody ever considered and devastating fisheries not only in Panama but in nearby Ecuador as well? Maybe, maybe not --- but I’m not willing to tear down the Panama Canal’s freshwater barrier between the oceans without even the slightest study of what might happen.
But the Panamanian people are not being allowed to hear this discussion. With the recent acquisition of the RCM television news channel by the former head of the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party’s (PRD’s) Frente Empresarial, all Panamanian TV is either owned by PRD members or sympathizers or bribed by huge government referendum ad contracts and none will air this debate. Of the nation’s five major daily newspapers, one was taken over in a 2001 shareholder coup by an alliance of members of the PRD and its junior coalition partner the Christian Democrats (sic), who now call themselves the Partido Popular; two more are aligned with the Partido Popular and have as their publisher the former Christian Democrat National Police chief; and the other two have editorially endorsed the canal expansion plan and have family ties to members of the Panama Canal Authority board of directors and to banks and construction companies with a financial interest in seeing the project go ahead under the present administration.
Yes, there are a few ragtag little publications, mostly on the Internet, and a few radio talk shows that give voice to the “no” side, and especially because two former presidents --- Guillermo Endara and Jorge Illueca --- and former top canal administrator Fernando Manfredo are among the skeptics, opposing voices sometimes make it into little news reports or op-ed columns in some of the mainstream newspapers.
But meanwhile the government and Panama Canal Authority have been sending propaganda teams all over the world and naïve reporters in Europe, Asia and North America are reporting what they say as the only truth and not asking any of the relevant questions. The Panamanian government has established a “Panama Caucus” in the US Congress, headed by the Congressman from Caterpillar and father-in-law of Guatemala’s genocidal Efraín Ríos Montt, Illinois Republican Jerry Weller. Endorsements from foreign corporations, including the Chinese state-owned China Overseas Shipping Company (COSCO) have been gathered. The Panamanian government is even falsely claiming endorsements from the Catholic Church and the Smithsonian Institution.
In the face of all this I call upon the world’s environmental activists to take notice of what’s going on at the Panama Canal, the Crossroads of the World; for those of you with high speed computers and broadband connections to get past the intentionally Byzantine indexing of the Panama Canal Authority website and download the environmental studies that they have published in English and as long PDF files to make them inaccessible to the Panamanian people; to mobilize your scientific knowledge and access to experts; and to join this debate in which special interests around the world have already been mobilized.
The author is the editor of The Panama News. He is a dual US-Panamanian citizen with a BS in history and political science from Eastern Michigan University and a JD from Detroit College of Law.