The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which evaluates the status of threatened species, recognizes habitat loss as the main threat to 85% of all species. Yet, despite widespread awareness and calls to “save the rainforest”, deforestation is continuing at a startling rate in tropical America.
As we outline the major reasons for deforestation in Panama and its resulting effects below, however, it is vital to remember that the majority of people clearing forests have good intentions. Most deforestation is related to the colonization of forested land, usually by impoverished communities that lack environmental education and use forests as resources to provide an income.
Causes of Deforestation
Much of Panamá’s population is agricultural. Livestock represents the majority of agricultural land use–about 25% of Panamá’s total land area–while other stereotypical tropical produce such as bananas, pineapples, and coffee are grown more regionally.
To clear forests for these pastures and plantations, a traditional slash and burn method is used in which the forest is cut down then burned to expose large areas of soil used to plant crops or pasture grass. But this process actually works against farmers in the long term: land cleared this way quickly becomes sterile as runoff pulls away important nutrients from the soil.
One of Panamá’s largest remaining forested regions lies within the Darién Gap, a remote region along the Colombian border. The Darién forests are so dense that it is the only break in the Panamerican highway that otherwise connects Alaska to Argentina–but this gap is shrinking. As road construction and other infrastructure projects push deeper into the Darién province, they are opening wild areas to new settlements and logging efforts. Approximately 20% of Darién has been deforested in the last 7 years alone, a pace that shows no sign of slowing down.
Commercial logging concessions are often sold for extra income in areas that were already planned to be cleared for agriculture or infrastructure. Even after settlements have been established, however, non-commercial logging practices continue as individuals gather fuelwood.
In the Darién province, deforestation rates have increased so much that in 2019 authorities established a one-year moratorium prohibiting new logging permits and controlling previously authorized permits to remain in line with sustainable practices. Although this measure and improvements in the management of protected areas have reduced the burden of commercial logging, illegal logging practices often continue on a smaller scale. Many people have been caught in the act: as Dr. Heckadon-Moreno, the Director of Communications and Public Programs at the Galeta Point Marine Laboratory, said, “With the chain saw these guys can do anything. They look at a mahogany tree and they cut it on the weekend, saw it in slabs, get it on someone’s pickup. It’s a problem.”
Effects of Deforestation
Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for up to 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These gasses, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), have already warmed the earth by an average of 1°C over the past few hundred years. Although this may not seem severe, the earth’s environment is delicately balanced–scientists predict that 5% of all species on the planet would be at risk of extinction with only 2°C of warming.
But deforestation does not only accelerate climate change. It also makes it harder for us to reverse the process. As tropical plants use photosynthesis to make energy for themselves, they need large amounts of CO2. On a large scale, this process makes tropical forests into carbon sinks (areas which remove CO2 from the atmosphere). Natural systems are currently our only carbon sinks, however–and many are under threat.
We have seen the effects of this climate change over the past 50 years as the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events has increased. In November of 2016, for example, a hurricane that formed in the Caribbean affected Panama for the first time in recorded history.
These weather patterns are not only driven by increasing global temperatures, however. They are also influenced by a process used by plants called transpiration (which works similarly to how we sweat). The water released into the air from transpiration is what makes tropical regions so humid, but it also contributes to the local formation of clouds and rainstorms. When deforestation practices remove this water source, the risk of droughts increases greatly. Some recent droughts have been severe enough that shipping travel through the Panama Canal was limited–a severe hit to the local economy.
When non-native species aggressively compete with native species for resources or otherwise harm the environment they have been introduced to, they are referred to as invasive species. Deforestation can help invasive species gain a foothold in the environment by reducing populations of native species, after which the presence of invasives often prevents healthy forests from re-establishing.
Perhaps the best example in Panama is wild sugarcane (Saccharum spontaneum). This large, highly invasive grass grows in dense patches throughout Panama and is particularly associated with cleared areas: roadsides, abandoned agricultural fields, and along the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, this plant grows so aggressively that people have to purposefully and carefully eliminate it (without burning, which spreads its seeds) for the forest to regrow.
Effects on Human Communities
There are 7 indigenous peoples in Panama (Ngäbe, Buglé, Guna, Emberá, Wounaan, Bri bri, and Naso Tjërdi), representing 12% of the total population. Many of these communities still live off of the land, relying on Panama’s diverse array of species for their survival. As native flora and fauna lose their homes, however, the availability of food and medicine is decreasing for many local communities.
Additionally, human-wildlife conflicts are increasing as settlements continue to expand into previously wild areas. Farmers often have issues with jaguars because they often predate upon livestock, for example, but this usually occurs because the jaguar’s other food sources have become rarer due to deforestation.