8.3.17 | Oh, how beautiful is Panama! Nature lovers may see this differently. In a letter which was recently published in Science Magazine, a team of scientists of the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) reports about their observations in and around Panama Bay. There mangrove forests protected by government legislation are increasingly being threatened with destruction in order to develop luxury residential areas and golf courses.

Panama ranks among the top 20 countries for mangrove area. The mangroves in Panama Bay are considered to be the most important site for migratory birds in the Americas. As a nursery for shrimp and a number of fish species, they also play an essential role for fisheries in the country. In conjunction with the RAMSAR convention, an international agreement on wetlands, in 2003 a mangrove area of 856 km² in Panama was declared a protective area.

"However, without proper management and legislative enforcement, this protective status unfortunately only exists on paper," said Dr. Lotta Kluger, biologist at the ZMT and co-author of the letter published in Science Magazine. During a research stay in Panama, she and her colleagues observed how deeply into the mangrove forests backhoe loaders were excavating in the immediate vicinity of the capital, in order to cut down the mangrove trees for development. "In the outskirts of Panama City you will find golf courses, large shopping centres and luxurious apartment complexes overlooking the sea. Until just recently there were still mangrove forests there.”

The capital is located at the top of Panama Bay. At the narrowest point on the American continent, it was built in the midst of mangrove forests as one of the first settlements on the Pacific Coast of America. The short transport routes from coast to coast made it an early trading centre. The economic boom increased with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, one of the most important waterways in the world.

Due to the country's liberal tax policy, Panama City has become an important international banking location. Since its development into a financial centre and Panama’s takeover of the Panama Canal in 1999, the city, which is located at the southern entrance to the Canal, has experienced a boom in growth. It is also benefiting from the expansion of the Canal, completed last year, which is now navigable for significantly larger container ships.

"Here, as in many other tropical countries, economic considerations have top priority. The state has no real interest in protecting the mangroves," said Kluger. Along with the mangrove forests, however, a protective barrier against erosion and storm surges is also lost. The local news media have reported repeated floods, which not only affect the wealthy residential areas near the coast, but also the adjacent low-income areas. In the Gulf of Panama the same development is looming like that which took place in Singapore, where in less than 200 years 90% of the mangroves disappeared, the ZMT scientist warned.

G. Castellanos-Galindo, L.C. Kluger, P. Tompkins (2017) Panama's impotent mangrove laws. Science 335:918-919