March for Science Panama

The marchers straggled in a leisurely stroll from the BioMuseo to Punta Culebra, where they were met by others. Absent were any signs or chants condemning any person, institution or faction in particular.

What? Your mama never told you? Science is cool…

photos and story by Eric Jackson

On Saturday, April 22 — Earth Day — some 300 or more people gathered first in smaller numbers for a day of activities at Panama City’s iconic BioMuseo and then for a march along the Amador Causeway to Punta Culebra. Such was the Panama version of the worldwide March for Science.

The march began as a movement in the United States, in reaction to the election of an anti-scientific president and congress by and large by people who believe that “alternative facts” convenient to them but which they are unable to prove are as true as those propositions for which there is solid, even in some cases incontrovertible, evidence. Among the powerful but unscientific beliefs the provoking the protest are notions of an inherent racial pecking order of superiority and inferiority, evolution as an elaborate anti-religious hoax, and above all that there is no climate change or if there is human activity has nothing to do with it. Here in Panama the scientific staff of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), formally an autonomous US government entity, is indirectly but nevertheless really vulnerable to those sorts of politics. However, there are Panamanians who work in science and many public controversies here involve science or its negation, so there is a local panoply of issues, which mobilized a mostly Panamanian (even if very international) crowd to the event.

Panama does have physicians, teachers, cartographers, entomologists, vaccine researchers, environmental sleuths, computer scientists, meteorologists, ichthyologists and hydrologists among those who are trying to bring science to bear on public policies. At the moment the hot-button issue here is whether there should be sex education in the schools. But that, like most of the other controversies on the isthmus and in the USA tend to involve the assertions of those who believe that in public policy decisions their personal economic interests or their personal religious beliefs should count more than what can be shown by evidence.

There were a bunch of Smithsonian people present, but there was no formal contingent from the institution. The politics are and always have been dicey for a branch of the US government with an international staff operating in the sovereign Republic of Panama. This particular Panamanian administration was sympathetic enough to the cause to sponsor various Earth Day observances and have the Ministry of Environment, the Gorgas Memorial Institute and SENACYT participating in the March for Science activities. But there is a lot of anti-foreigner agitation by scandal-plagued politicians looking to distract public attention from their own sordid records en route to hoped-for reelection, and it can’t be automatically ruled out that on this date three years from now eminent scientists from all over the world will be denied visas to work at STRI on the theory that those jobs ought to be reserved for Panamanians. Panamanian government workers were there, but there were any Panamanian politicians working the crowd.

There were people from a number of environmental, social or political organizations or movements present, but most in their personal capacities. An exception to this trend was Panama’s chapter of the international Climate Change Lobby, which seeks to slow climate change by imposing fees for carbon emissions that cause people and institutions to change their behavior.

Did it change anybody’s mind? There were no counter-demonstrators, nor hostile reactions from people driving by. A number of drivers did signal their sympathy with their voices or their horns. But Panama is on the whole poorly educated and this makes it a daunting task to deliver the word to the four million or so people who were not there.


The viruses and bacteria that cause tropical diseases are mutating and moving around with their vectors and the habitats in which animals that carry them live. And in Panama, there are people testing new vaccines to join the battle against these diseases.


Charlotte Elton, who was one of the key advocates of protecting the former Fort Sherman and the Piña firing range across the Chagres River from it from sale to developers, was one of three speakers about Panama’s protected areas. While the good news is that nearly half of Panama’s territory is listed as protected, in almost every case there are missing elements that lessen the protection. Sherman and the Piña Range did become the San Lorenzo protected area, but Elton’s hopes that it would become a national park have not come to pass. Meanwhile the new bridge across the Atlantic Side entrance to the Panama Canal and long-made plans to connect Colon to Bocas del Toro by a road and a power line running along the Caribbean coast suggest that the next step after the new bridge is done will be a roadway crossing the protected area and the Chagres, headed toward points west. A good or a bad idea? Elton says it depends on how it is done. But as she had no plans or proposals to cite to those who came to hear her presentation, the impression left is that there will be an opaque deal driven by construction companies and the public officials who take their bribes, in which the effects on a protected wild area will get little consideration.


march begins
A last respite of shade before marching off into the sun.


out of the BioMuseo
Waiting for people to come out of the museum before starting the march.


The drivers of cars passing by honked in support. If any of the ships passing on the other side sounded their horns, we didn’t hear them.


To certain sorts of people, the only issue related to bats is which exterminator to call. But STRI has been a center of noteworthy research on bats, which are crucial for the existence of tropical forests. The late German scientist Elizabeth Kolko headed such research at STRI and her successors have published some acclaimed new work. But scientists need funding to do well at such pursuits.


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