Sunday, August 27, 2006

Stanley Heckadon defends canal expansion, expresses his concerns

Former national environmental protection director - PANAMA NEWS

Stanley Heckadon defends canal expansion, expresses his concerns

by Eric Jackson

Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, an anthropologist by education who now works for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and was once the director of INRENARE, the predecessor of today's National Environmental Authority, spoke before a tough audience at the Excedra Books Club de Lectores on August 14. His main point was to explain why he thinks that the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan to expand the Panama Canal is reasonable and environmentally tenable, but the discussion got into a wide-ranging talk about Panama and its many inter-related woes.

Lamenting the fact that mass communications media focus most of their attention on the capital, Heckadon pointed out that "there are more trees being destroyed in Colon now than in the entire canal project." The growth of the Free Zone and urban sprawl up the Colon Corridor and onto the Transistmica have destroyed the Colon forests of this reporter's and Heckadon's childhood, and the process continues.

He recounted how, soon after the old Canal Zone's formal abolition, there were mass invasions of the forests along the Transistmica and soon sediments, garbage and sewage were flowing down once pristine streams into the canal waters. He said the early 80s were the worst time for the canal watershed but that the creation of a series of parks went a long way toward insuring its survival.

Still, he said, "our worst enemy is the loss of water quality."

He showed a PowerPoint projection about the canal area's ecological history and the evolution of national environmental policies, citing 1991 as a key turning point when the government turned its back on the idea of economic development through "the conquest of the forest" and banned further loans for the turning of jungles into cow pastures.

About the canal expansion project, he said he was first worried about the possibility of dams because of the nation's experiences with previous big dam projects, and said that the current plan, with its water saving basins, "leaves me more tranquil --- it's much better than the three dams proposal."

Heckadon noted that the areas to be excavated are grasslands and secondary forests, that the raising of Gatun Lake's level won't affect the Smithsonian's Barro Colorado Island laboratory very much and that there has been some good thought put into less harmful places and methods to dispose of the dredged sediments.

And what about the mangroves? Heckadon pointed out the promise --- part of the ACP's publicity campaign but not their $5.25 billion project budget --- of a world-class institute to study climate change, including how it will affect the mangrove swamps.

Conspicuously absent from Heckadon's presentation was anything about salt water intrusion through the new locks into Gatun Lake. This reporter raised the issue in the question period after the main presentation, but Heckadon ducked the question and merely stated that US Geological Survey hydrologist Robert Stallard says that there is no problem.

(This reporter tried to contact Stallard by email with no success, and also tried in vain to find any public statement or document by which he addressed the specific issues of the canal expansion project.)

However, the crowd contained many skeptics. One was a physician who noted that he sees children from the metro area with gastric disorders caused by the lack of clean drinking water in their urban neighborhoods, and expressed his concern that in terms of both quality and supply the canal expansion could worsen the water problems.

At that, Heckadon noted that the Smithsonian has not done the relevant hydrology studies but in any case opined that "the city has got to get other water sources" than the Panama Canal waters.

"We have to make the decision to rescue the city's rivers," he argued. He said that climate change is happening and it's impossible to predict, and that in the face of urban sprawl the IDAAN water and sewer utility and other governmental agencies really don't have an adequate response.

"The centralist Panamanian model has failed," Heckadon opined, and argued for giving municipalities rather than the national government responsiblity for and power over their own water supplies.

Others in the audience opined that whether or not the canal expansion project is itself viable, the politics here are so corrupt as to make a disaster out of the best plans. There were complaints about a generalized incompetence in public affairs, and few opportunities for citizens to do or say anything about it.

That got the discussion back to the proposed climate change institute and some specific questions about its governance. That, in turn, led to Heckadon's harsh critique of the Panamanian educational system at all levels. "If Albert Einstein were Panamanian and living today, he couldn't be rector of the University of Panama" he lamented, admitting that political considerations trump academic excellence there.

But despite all such concerns, Heckadon remains convinced that it's in the national interest to modernize the Panama Canal and that the proposal before the voters is a reasonable way to do it.

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