On May 23 a good-sized crowd for Panama’s relatively small environmentalist movement showed up at the New York Bagel Cafe on Via Argentina for a forum on Isla Bona. CIAM, Panama’s environmental law center, and other guest presenters explained the situation and set their sights on the next moves. Much will depend on where Nito Cortizo and the new PRD majority in the National Assembly stand and whether the oil terminal’s promoters, Bona Pacific Corporation, spend the next month killing off the island’s birds and vegetation to present accomplished facts to the next government. Photo from CIAM’s Twitter feed.
This legislature won’t save Isla Bona’s wildlife, but that may not be the end of it
by Eric Jackson
President Varela has put out the call for the last special legislative session he will call. Making a wildlife refuge of Isla Bona — a speck of land about 28 nautical miles from the Panama Canal’s Pacific entrance and about 10 nautical miles from Taboga, in which municipal district it is a part — will not be on the agenda.
So does that leave things in limbo, or is it something more definitive?
Notwithstanding the efforts of the world’s maritime shipping industry and UN agencies that regulate it to reduce the carbon emissions of seagoing vessels, a company named Bona Pacific Corporation wants to turn the island into a petroleum fuels terminal. The publish quite the greenish website to defend what they intend.
The company got Ramón Ramos, the mayor of Taboga, to sign a lease agreement with the Panamanian company of apparent Israeli ownership and management, in 2017. This met with no objections from the Ministry of the Environment or, at first, the president’s National Economic Council (CENA). With the council’s unanimous approval at the end of March of a 20-year rental agreement at $1.7 million per year for about half of the island’s nearly 75 hectares. On or adjacent to these nearly 35 hectares there would be three berths for post-panamax ships to refuel, eight semi-buried fuel tanks, a helicopter pad, a weather monitoring station and buildings to house employees. The first two years of rent would be waived.
But Comptroller General Federico Humbert found that the papers were not in order — right in the middle of a declared marine animal migration corridor and no environmental study of that, and in any case an unacceptably low rent. President Varela chimed in, objecting that it was a bad deal for Panama with many of the irregularities that critics had been citing. In the legislature there was a move to declare the island a protected wildlife sanctuary, which would put an end to the project.
But in the week after this, environmentalists complained, the company began to fell trees in the island. In the mad late-April rush to pass things before the legislative session ended, the sanctuary proposal was taken off the agenda. Some critics point at former PRD legislator and current National Assembly secretary general Franz Wever for that move.
In any case the session ended and CIAM et al were pressing for the sanctuary proposal’s inclusion on a special session agenda. And less than a week after the regular session’s end, the voters threw Ramón Ramos out as mayor, effective July 1.
Ramos, insisting that a deposit has been paid, maintains that the project must go ahead. Varela has punted the issue to the next administration, which may be dealing with a denuded half an island before it can take up the matter. So CIAM is calling Varela to issue a decree to stall things in the meantime.
Where is Cortizo at about this issue, or actually, any environmental issue at all. In his and his Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) campaign he scrupulously avoided any mention of environmental issues, including climate change. But Mayor Ramos is Cambio Democratico, so there would be no obvious partisan imperative to uphold the project. What payments or assurances come into play, and whether the Israeli government insists on a contract signed by one of its citizens, those matters remain undisclosed if they exist.
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