36 hours in Panama

36 hours in Panama

L to R: Professor Victor M. Tafur; Dr. Donaldo Sousa, Dr. José María Barsallo, Dr. Harley Mitchell Moran

To celebrate its 25th Anniversary, Universidad del Itsmo (UDI)—with presence in Panama and Guatemala—held its inaugural “Jornada de Derecho Ambiental” (First Conference in Environmental Law) in Panama City on March 20, 2012. I was invited to address recent developments in international environmental law, particularly the Rio+20 processes, and to discuss environmental implications of the recent US-Panama and US-Colombia trade agreements. It was a short, two day visit, and it was my first visit to Panama. I tried to make the most of it, as reflected in the short note below, inspired by the New York Times “36-hour” travel journals (but without any fancy restaurants and hotels—although I have no complains in that respect).

First day: The Conference at UDI

During the past 25 years, UDI has gained well-deserved recognition, mainly in the fields of Administration, Engineering, Maritime-related, Tourism, and Law. A key part of the celebration, the inaugural March 20th Conference in Environmental Law filled the conference room for about 80 persons, including students and faculty. To open the event, the Director of the Faculty of Law and Political Science, Dr. José María Barsallo, explained the goal and themes of the Conference, underscored the significance of this first Conference for the UDI, and introduced the President of the University, Dr. Henry Avila. During the President’s address a special announcement was made: the University will make an effort to insert sustainability across the curriculum, and to consider offering new courses and programs with such emphasis.

After the introductions, Dr. Donaldo Sousa, President of the Panamanian Ecologists Association, opened the academic session with a talked titled “Dimensión Ambiental, Derecho y Sistema Político” (Environmental Dimension, Politics, and Law). Dr. Sousa gave a background of environmental law in Panama during the last four decades, and provided an analysis of accomplishments and limitations in the larger political context. His presentation strongly criticized the lack of implementation, or sometimes wrongful implementation, of Panama’s framework environmental law, Law 41 of 1998 (“Ley General de Ambiente”), which he helped draft. The second speaker was Dr. Harley Mitchell Moran, a practicing environmental lawyer, the son of a well-known Supreme Court Judge in Panama, delivering a lecture titled “Fundamentos del Derecho Positivo Ambiental Panameño” (Fundamentals of Panamanian Environmental Law) to discuss the Panamanian environmental legislation in detail. Dr. Mitchell’s presentation clearly showed the lack of coherence of the many environmental laws in effect in the country.

Large Ship in Panama Canal, between the set of locks Miraflores and Pedro Miguel

Notably, both panelists mentioned some of the current environment topics and projects in Panama: the expansion of the Panama Canal (discussed below), copper mining and hydropower projects in territories populated by the largest indigenous group—the Ngöbe-Buglé—as well as in other regions of the country, land clearing in the Darien region—and PES and REDD projects to ameliorate the problem—, management issues of protected areas, and the never-ending dispute regarding the construction of a highway that would connect Central and South America. I closed the session with a discussion on the status of international environmental law and the road to Rio+20. I also had the chance to present and discuss the recent trade agreements between the US and Panama and the US and Colombia, particularly the environmental aspects.

Second Day: The Canal, UNEP Latin America, ANCON, and the Old City.

The second day, on my way to a meeting at the “Ciudad del Saber” (City of Knowledge), in the so-called Reverted Areas by the US to Panama, home of the United Nations Information Center (UNIC or CINUP for its initials in Spanish) for the Latin American Region, I had a chance take a brief road-tour of a section of the Panama Canal. On the Pacific side, the set of locks Miraflores and Pedro Miguel are the gateway to the 80 kilometers long connection towards the Atlantic, which functions exclusively with fresh water from various watersheds. At that stretch, work on the Panama Canal Expansion Project—Third Set of Locks—is clearly visible.

Approved by a national referendum—with 77 percent of the vote on October 22, 2006—the expansion project will double the capacity of the canal by 2014, allowing larger ships to transit. The project involves the removal of approximately 133 million cubic meters (83 Mm3 excavation, 50 Mm3 dredging) of material, affecting about 500 acres. The project is primarily an open pit excavation effort and dredging. An environmental impact statement (EIS) was completed in July 2007, and includes an Environmental Management Plan with the following main components: Mitigation Plan, Monitoring and Follow­up Plan, Risk Prevention Plan, Wildlife Rescue and Relocation Plan, and Contractor’s Contingency Plan, among others. Fascinating, but I could not spend any time in the visitor’s center; I had to make a 9:30 meeting at the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), Latin American Office. The UNEP office is led by a Colombian biologist, Margarita Astralaga, with an amazing track record working for the Colombia Environmental Agency, UNEP, and CITES and RAMSAR conventions. I had a chance to learn about UNEP’s priority areas and projects in the region: climate change, disasters and conflict, ecosystem management, environmental governance, harmful substances, and resource efficiency. I also met the Legal Officer, Andrea Brusco, an Argentine with another impressive track record, in charge of spearheading initiatives to advance environmental law in the region. On my way back, I stopped at the main office of the ANCON, “Asociación Nacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza” (National Association for Environmental Conservation), also celebrating its 25th Anniversary. This is perhaps Panama’s most prominent environmental NGO, with the goal of promoting conservation projects and sponsoring conservation policy initiatives for Panama. Actually, Ancon is the name of that northern section of the city and Ancon Hill is also the name of a large hill that overlooks Panama City, which has been designated a nature preserve, a great place for bird watching.

Finally, I stopped for a walk in the Old City (Casco Viejo) of Panama City. This section is the old quarter of the city, but is entirely “under construction”. Nonetheless, it is very charming, with historical plazas, churches, and important governmental buildings, including the Office of the President. The magic of the Old City, however, was a bit lost when I had to make a quick stop at a shopping mall—as fancy or more than any up-scale mall in the US—to buy a souvenir for my 5-year old daughter Victoria; I could not show-up after 36 hours in Panama with empty hands!

Old Panama City, from Ancon Hill


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