According to some officials, just three of Panamá’s 10 provinces have good forest coverage remaining. About 50% of Panama’s forests have already been lost, and Panamá continues to lose more than 1% of its old-growth forest every year.
As we outline the major reasons for deforestation and its resulting effects, however, it is vital to remember that the majority of people clearing forests usually do so with good intentions. Most deforestation practices are related to colonization of forested land, usually by impoverished communities. These communities often lack environmental education and cut down forests as a means to provide an income. To learn more about how we can avoid these issues, check out our approach to reforestation and how you can help.
A significant portion of Panamá’s population relies on agriculture. The majority of agricultural land use is used for livestock – 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 land for these pastures and plantations, however, a traditional slash and burn method is used in which an area of forest is first cut down and then burned to expose large areas of soil that can then be planted with crops or pasture grass. This process actually works against farmers in the long term, however: lands that have been deforested in this method will quickly become sterile as runoff pulls away important nutrients from the soil.
One of Panamá’s largest remaining forested regions lies in in area known as the Darién Gap, a remote region along the border with Colombia. The forests in this area are so dense that until now it has remained the only gap in the Panamerican highway that otherwise connects Alaska to Argentina – but this gap has slowly been shrinking. As road construction and other infrastructure projects push deeper into the Darién province, they seem to be opening previously 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.
Logging is a curious cause of deforestation in Panamá, as it tends to be a contributing factor to the previous causes. As people settle new areas of land, they often sell commercial logging concessions for areas they were already planning to clear for agriculture. Even after establishing settlements, non-commercial logging practices continue for gathering fuelwood. These two logging methods – agricultural clearing and fuelwood – account for approximately 90% of clearcutting in Panamá.
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.”
Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for up to 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions are primarily caused by the slash and burn agricultural practices described above: both fires and livestock are major sources of greenhouse gases such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2). But deforestation does not only accelerate climate change, it also makes it harder for us to reverse the process. Because of photosynthesis, the process by which plants make their energy, tropical forests are major carbon sinks (places which pull CO2 out of the atmosphere). Therefore, when these forests disappear more CO2 will remain in the atmosphere. Weather patterns are already changing in response, bringing more severe storms and droughts that deforested landscapes are unable to handle. In November of 2016, for example, a hurricane that formed in the Carribbean affected Panamá 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 known as transpiration. It’s similar to how we sweat: plants release water from their leaves, like we release water from our skin. As this water evaporates into the air, it cools off the plants – this is why tropical regions are so much more humid. Eventually this evaporated water will condense to form clouds and rainstorms (There’s a reason they’re called “rainforests”!). When areas are deforested, however, they stop releasing water through transpiration and may cause serious droughts.
As noted above, deforestation can cause severe droughts as Panamá has see in recent years. Some of these droughts have been severe enough that shipping travel had to be limited through the Panamá Canal, a severe hit to the local economy.
Yet deforestation has severe consequences on watersheds even when rain comes as expected. The amount of water is not usually the issue in Panamá, some areas experience an average rainfall of 3 meters (10 feet) per year. But this rain does not fall consistently throughout the year: the rainy season brings intense storms that drop the majority of the country’s rain in just over half the year. In forested areas this surplus of water soaks into the ground and is then filtered slowly back into streams and rivers. In deforested areas, without plants to anchor the soil, strong rains can wash soil and sediment into local rivers, creating banks that are significant obstacles to ships. As this water erodes the soil, it also carries away important nutrients that heavily impact agricultural crops. Finally, by running directly into rivers and to the ocean, water that is not captured by forests will not be available during the dry season when few storms pass by to hydrate the remaining habitats.
There are 7 indigenous peoples in Panamá (Ngäbe, Buglé, Guna, Emberá, Wounaan, Bri bri, and Naso Tjërdi), representing 12% of the total population. Many of these people continue to live off of the land, and depend more directly on natural resources than other communities. Deforestation therefore has a disproportionate effect on these individuals. Climate change is a contributing factor, such as in Guna Yala, where some islands have already been lost to sea level rises, but habitat loss is perhaps the most direct threat.
Panamá is a haven of biodiversity, and the indigenous peoples rely on the wealth of species for their survival. As the native flora and fauna lose their homes, however, the availability of food and medicine is decreasing for local communities. Additionally, as more people turn to other methods of survival, such as raising livestock, human-wildlife conflicts are increasing. Farmers feel threatened by Jaguars, for example, because they often predate upon livestock. This mainly occurs, however, because the Jaguar’s other food sources have become rarer due to deforestation.