The lines of worry across Venancio Aquilar's face are deep as
he unloads his fishing net, a small motor, and 12 pounds of fish
from his small canoe.
For Mr. Aquilar, it has been a disappointing morning's
fishing on the murky green waters of Lake Madden. "In reality, I'm
fighting," he says, as he carries his equipment to a small house
built of wood and unplastered concrete blocks. The 12 pounds of
fish will net him $6, barely enough to feed his family for one day
after he pays for the gas spent out on the lake.
The economic plight of Aquilar and thousands of others living
in the Panama Canal watershed area - 805,776 acres of land
surrounding the waterway - has become a big problem for the
government's Panama Canal Commission (PCC). Scientists from the
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama City are
warning that population pressure, corruption, and unchecked
urbanization could seriously affect the watershed environment and
with it, future canal operations.
"Panama is a gift of the Chagres," notes Stanley Heckadon, a
senior scientist at STRI, equating the river's importance with that
of the Nile to Egypt. Without the Chagres River, United States
construction of the Panama Canal from 1903 to 1914 would have been
tough at best, he says.
The source of the Chagres is high in what is termed the
"Upper Watershed" - a series of emerald-green mountains blanketed
by tropical cloud forest. This ecosystem ensures that billions of
gallons of water run into Lake Madden and Lake Gatun, which provide
the necessary draft for transiting ships through the vital link to
The forest canopy prevents the canal's worst enemy - silt due
to soil erosion - from blocking both the dams and lakes and in
turn, the waterway itself.
This huge water reserve provides the millions of gallons
needed to operate the canal's three lock systems and, perhaps more
important, clean drinking water for Panama City. Some 80 percent of
the capital's residents rely on the lakes for their water.
In recent years, however, migration has put the fragile
watershed under pressure. Population in the area has soared since
the opening of the trans-Isthmian highway in 1947. In 1960, just
37,000 people inhabited the area; now more than 150,000 live there,
many below the poverty line. Many rural Panamanians see subsistence
farming as their only means of survival, leading to increased
While Panama has relatively more tropical forest cover than
any other country in Central America, it's also clearing its
forests faster than any other, at a rate of 148,200 acres each
year. The situation is not much better on the canal watershed,
although it has dramatically improved since the 1970s, when studies
by STRI revealed alarming rates of deforestation.
The creation of national parks has helped, but forest cover
over the entire watershed has dropped from 80 percent in 1952 to 20
percent in 1985. A new STRI study is due to be published next year
that will define the post-1999 environmental policy of the Panama
Canal Authority (PCA) - as the commission will be called when the
waterway reverts to Panamanian control. …