Magazine article World Watch

Pandora's American Highway

Magazine article World Watch

Pandora's American Highway

Article excerpt

The Pan-American Highway runs unbroken from Alaska to the shore of Magellan's Strait, save for one gap: the 185 kilometer expanse of Central America's largest remaining continuous rain forest. The Darien forest, which spans the Panama-Colombia border, covers 1.6 million hectares. Hoping to increase trade and tourism, Colombia and other South American countries, as wall as South American corporations, are eager to complete the highway. Conservationists and people who live in the forest fear that the project will damage the ecology, and indigenous cultures of the Darien.

As the geographical bridge between two continents, the forest is home to species from both eco-systems and a number of species unique to the area. Over 30,000 indigenous people from the Kuna and Choco groups also live there. For them, the Darien is far more than just a source of beauty and recreation. Rafael Harris, a Kuna chief, says, "For me, the forest is my pharmacy. If I have sores on my legs, I go to the forest and get the medicine I need to cure them. The forest is also a great refrigerator. It keeps the food I need fresh. We Kuna need the forest, and we use it and take much from it. But we can take what we need without having to destroy everything."

In Latin America, road construction has tended to increase access to forested areas, allowing colonizers to move in and clear the land for cultivation. Since 1947, forest cover in Panama has fallen from 70 percent of the country to 30 percent. Over three quarters of Colombia was forest in 1960; now less than half of that cover remains.

In Panama, where most of the Darien lies, the Kuna and the Choco people live on semi-autonomous homelands where they retain rights to the land and its above-ground resources. Leaders of the six largest indigenous groups in the Darien have formed a political organization to oppose the highway, the Indigenous Pan-American Highway Commission. …

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