Habitat loss is the main threat to species worldwide.

Yet, despite calls to "save the rainforest", deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate in many areas of the tropical Americas.

At first glance, Panama's environment may seem secure, with the second-highest forest cover and greatest number of protected areas (representing 1/3 of all its rainforests) in all of Central America. However, these comparisons can be misleading: only three of Panama's 10 provinces – Darién, Colón, and Bocas del Toro – still have good forest cover remaining. If we want to reverse this trend, it's vital to understand what is causing deforestation in Panama and the effects it has.

"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."

– Dr. Heckadon-Moreno,

Director of Communications and Public Programs of the Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory, in an interview with the New York Times

Causes of deforestation


Panama has a long history with agriculture, especially cattle ranching. Around 25% of land use is dedicated to cattle, while crops such as bananas, pineapples, and coffee are grown more regionally. Although most of this production is commercial, many families also raise crops and livestock on a small scale for their own consumption.

All of these pastures, plantations, and garden require the removal of the forest. The most common method of clearing, often called "slash and burn", consists of first cutting down a section of forest then burning it to quickly expose large areas of soil. However, this process works against the farmers in the long run: areas cleared in this way quickly become sterile as important nutrients are leached from the soil. As the soil quality drops and yields fall, farmers soon have to clear new areas of land in a vicious cycle of deforestation.


Companies often purchase logging rights in areas planned to be cleared for agriculture or construction. They target large trees with prized timber, such as mahogany, and often buy them at surprisingly low prices: before we were able to form the Cerro Chucantí Private Nature Reserve, we had to buy back the rights to dozens of huge mature trees that had been sold to a lumber company for only $12 per tree!

However, even after an area has been cleared and a settlement has been established, non-commercial, small-scale logging practices continue as people collect wood for fuel. Furthermore, while improvements in protected area management have reduced the burden of commercial logging, illegal logging continues to occur.

Road construction

One of the largest remaining forested regions in Panama is found within the Darién Gap, a remote region along the Colombian border. It is the only area where the Pan-American Highway connecting Alaska to Argentina is broken: the forests of the Darién have so far been too dense for a highway. But this gap is narrowing; As road construction and other infrastructure projects push deeper into the Darién province, they are opening up the forests to new settlement and logging efforts. Roughly 20% of the Darién province has been deforested in the last 7 years alone, a pace that shows no signs of slowing down.

Effects of deforestation

Climate change

Deforestation is one of the main contributors to climate change and represents up to 25% of the global emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2). These gases have already warmed the earth by an average of 1°C over the past 100 years. Although this may not seem serious, the earth's environment is delicately balanced: scientists predict that 5% of all species on the planet may be in danger of extinction with only 2°C of warming.

But deforestation not only speeds up climate change, it also makes it harder for us to reverse the process. Since tropical plants use photosynthesis to produce their own energy, they need large amounts of CO2. On a large scale, this process converts tropical forests into carbon sinks (areas that remove CO2 from the atmosphere). However, these natural systems are currently our only carbon sinks – and many are under threat.

Effects on animal communities

Of course, deforestation has obvious effects on Panama's resident animal and plant species who literally lose their homes. However, many well-known migratory species from North America, in fact, spend most of their lives in Central America (migrating and hibernating) – up to 200 days a year! This means that habitat loss in Panama has the potential to cause a significant decline in the population of these species throughout the Americas. Some models have even suggested that within the next 40 years, deforestation in Central America will become the biggest threat to these birds.


We have seen the effects of this climate change over the last 50 years as the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events have increased. In November 2016, a hurricane that formed in the Caribbean affected Panama for the first time in recorded history.

However, these weather patterns are not only driven by rising global temperatures. They are also influenced by a process used by plants called transpiration (which works in a similar way to how we sweat). Water released into the air by transpiration is what makes tropical regions so wet but it also contributes to local cloud and storm formation. When deforestation practices eliminate this water source, the risk of drought increases considerably. Some recent droughts have been severe enough to limit sea travel through the Panama Canal, dealing a severe blow to the local economy.

Effects on human communities

There are 7 indigenous peoples in Panama (Ngäbe, Buglé, Guna, Emberá, Wounaan, Bri bri and Naso Tjërdi), which represent 12% of the total population. Many of these communities still live off the land and depend on Panama's diverse variety of species for their survival. However, as indigenous flora and fauna lose their homes, the availability of food and medicine is diminishing for many local communities.

Additionally, human-wildlife conflicts are increasing as settlements continue to expand in previously wild areas. Farmers often have problems with jaguars because they often hunt livestock, for example, but this is usually because the jaguar's other food sources have become scarcer due to deforestation.

Invasive species

When non-native species aggressively compete with native species for resources or damage the environment into which they have been introduced, they are called invasive species. Deforestation can help invasive species establish themselves in the environment by reducing populations of native species, after which the presence of invasive species often prevents healthy forests from reestablishing.

Perhaps the best example in Panama is wild sugarcane (Saccharum spontaneum). This large, highly invasive weed 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 must deliberately and carefully remove it (without burning it, which spreads its seeds) in order for the forest to grow back.