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photo by Ron Magill, courtesy of the Patronato Amigos del Aguila Harpia

Panama needs to conserve its best things

One of these is our national bird, the harpy eagle. We know of about 35 harpy nests in the Republic of Panama, although there are surely more. We don't know how to effectively reintroduce them into parts of their range from which they have disappeared. Dr. Eduardo Álvarez, one of the top harpy eagle specialists, was in town recently to promote an international approach to conservation and talk about the state of our knowledge about these majestic birds of prey. There were a bunch of high school kids among the birders, biologists and conservationists in the crowd at the Smithsonian's Tupper Center, and that was a positive sign. We will save our national bird by leaving it and its habitat alone, and that's a conscious decision that people have to be convinced to make. Over the long term, you get society to make the right choices by appealing to and educating the kids.

Panama tends to be even less conscientious about defending its historical legacy than it is about its natural heritage, but there are honorable exceptions. What at my first glance a little more than a month ago looked like a terrible act of cultural vandalism turned out to be not that at all, but rather the creation of a more fitting monument to a 1914 tragedy that has come to symbolize the bravery and sacrifices of our firefighters. On the other hand, most Panamanians have not been convinced that graveyards are repositories of local history and should not be disturbed.

Front and center in the national debate these days is the Panama Canal expansion program. Our opinion section leads with President Torrijos's speech at the partial unveiling of the plan, and the column following that is Miguel Antonio Bernal's legal criticism of the government's decision to declare that there will be total transparency while in fact limiting access to most of the documents supporting the project to that minority of Panamanian citizens who can read a foreign language. The proposal hasn't even yet gone to the cabinet, but the campaign is well underway, with Torrijos and the Panama Canal Authority using plenty of public funds to promote a "yes" vote but doing it so maladroitly that a ragtag, unfunded, divided opposition may well carry the day when all is said and done.

The government is disseminating some truly ridiculous claims about how many jobs will be created, generally making these assertions to foreign media whose reporters don't know enough about this country to ask the hard questions that seem so obvious to most of the Panamanian press corps. Then the pro-government media here --- most of the news outlets are PRD-aligned --- pick up those stories, or else individuals here read them on the Internet.

In this issue we look at a project that a decade ago some of the same people who are plugging this particular canal expansion plan told us would create some 20,000 new jobs for Colon. We also look at economic variables that could affect the financial success of a third set of locks one way or the other.

The central issue, however, is not a pretty one. It's about trust.

Yes, we must ask ourselves whether it's important for Panama to modernize its principal industrial asset. Personally, I believe that it is. However, we must also ask whether we can trust Martín Torrijos and Alberto Alemán Zubieta with $5.35 billion --- and most probably more with cost overruns --- worth of public works contracts. If we say yes to the first question and no to the second, a vote of no confidence means a few years of delay in expanding the canal, but won't mean that the canal will cease to function or that demand for its services will evaporate.

The question of trust is implicitly raised in the first paragraph of the president's speech. He said that "the canal has never had better indices of efficiency, safety and transparency." I don't want to revive the unfounded Zonian taunts of yesteryear but I do think that of these three claims, one is exceptionally difficult to measure, another is a dishonest comparison of statistics compiled in different ways as if they were equal, and the third is patently false.

Under the US administration there were problems with information policy, but we had the Freedom of Information Act and access to the public record about the canal was much better than it is today. It's simply not true that the canal is run more transparently than it used to be.

I remember growing up in the Canal Zone and hearing all of the trash talk about how the Panamanians could never run the canal. That was an arrogant colonialist lie, and was proven to be such even before the waterway was officially handed over to Panama at the end of 1999, because by then a canal work force overwhelmingly composed of Panamanians was doing an excellent job. The canal itself has been well run since 1999, even if some of its ancillary businesses have been neglected to the detriment of the Panamanian people. But let's speak the truth about the safety record about which Mr. Torrijos and Mr. Alemán Zubieta so frequently boast. Under the US administration, every time a ship bumped into the chamber of the locks, no matter how slightly and no matter that there was no damage, that was counted as an accident for the purposes of safety statistics. Now such minor collisions where no insurance claim is going to be filed are not counted. The comparison of accident statistics under the pre-reversion record keeping system with those generated under the present procedures is dishonest. That's not to say that the canal has become unsafe in Panamanian hands, but rather that the people who are managing it are playing corny politician games with their customers and with the Panamanian people.

And how do you determine what's more efficient? Does the ACP run a world-class multilingual print shop as well as the PCC did? (Well, no. In an exercise of the false religion of market worship, the print shop was sacrificed to the privatization god.) Does the ACP look after the public recreational uses of Gatun Lake like the PCC used to do? (No, it has done its best to eliminate these.) Does the ACP get more large container ships safely through the canal than the PCC did? (It most certainly does.) So what things will we count when trying to create some sort of efficiency index?

I would argue that narrowing everything down to tonnage that safely transits and tolls that are generated is not a healthy way to figure the canal's present performance and plan for the future. The recreational use of Gatun Lake has value. The Pedro Miguel Boat Club, which the ACP is trying to evict, also has value. The primate refuge that the ACP did evict from islands in Gatun Lake had value. The Panama Canal watershed includes a valuable but rapidly declining fishery. The electrical generating capacities of the Gatun and Madden dams are valuable, and were the canal expanded in a different fashion than that proposed, some farmers might have to be relocated but the ACP might find most of its revenue coming from sales of electricity rather than from ship tolls.

I don't claim to know it all. Between now and Referendum Day, people with different points of view, and people who know a lot more about the canal than I do, will weigh in on the relevant questions and maybe even raise a red herring or two. That's how democracy is supposed to work.

This canal debate is going to dominate the news for months, but of course it's not the only thing happening in Panama. In the past couple of weeks I have been to fight night at ATLAPA, the Mayday parade and on buses to and from Colon. The restored tower at Panama Viejo has been opened. A teak scam scandal is touching the highest levels of government. Embera basketry skills are getting unprecedented recognition in North America. Some kids at the International School are working hard for their popular upcoming annual theatrical performance.

And for all of its problems and controversies, Panama remains a wonderful place to live. Just keep your eyes open.


Eric Jackson
the editor

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