The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which evaluates the status of threatened species worldwide, recognizes habitat loss as the primary threat to 85% of all species. However, despite widespread awareness and calls to "save the rainforest", deforestation continues in the tropics.
With the second largest amount of forest cover in Central America and the most protected areas, Panama's environment may appear safe. Yet these comparisons with other countries are a bit misleading: only three of Panama's 10 provinces (Darién, Colón, and Bocas del Toro) are considered to have sufficient forest cover.
Causes of Deforestation
The people of Panama have a long history with agriculture, especially with cows. Approximately 25% of the land use in Panama is for livestock while other stereotypically tropical crops such as bananas, pineapples, and coffee are cultivated more regionally. Most of this agriculture is commercial, although families may also raise livestock or grow crops on a small scale for personal use.
However, forests must be cut down to prepare areas for agriculture. The most common method, often called "slash and burn", involves cutting down trees then burning the area to slow the growth of the forest and expose the soil. Yet areas that use this method pay a severe price: without the forest, the soil rapidly loses its nutrients. As the quality of the soil drops, agriculture becomes less productive and more areas have to be cleared in a vicious cycle.
Exploitation of the Forest
When an area is cleared for agriculture, commercial logging concessions are often sold to gain extra income from the property. Logging activities are also common near some communities to obtain firewood.
In the Darién province, the rate of deforestation has increased so much that in 2019 the government established a moratorium for a year prohibiting new logging permits and controlling existing permits to better adhere to sustainable practices. The combination of this measure and recent improvements in the management of protected areas has reduced the burden of commercial logging, but illegal logging continues to be a problem in many places.
Construction of Highways
On of the most forested areas in Panama lies in the area known as the Darién gap, an isolated region along the border with Colombia. The forests in this areas are so dense that until now it has been too difficult to build a highway through the region, making it the only unconnected area along the Panamerican Highway between Alaska and Argentina! But this gap is shrinking as the construction of highways and other infrastructure projects are opening ancient wild areas to new settlements. Approximately 20% of the Darién province has been deforested in only the last seven years, a rate which shows no signs of slowing down.
Effects of Deforestation
Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, representing up to 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. These gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), have already warmed the planet approximately 1°C over the past few centuries. Although 1°C may not seem too terrible, the health of the environment is delicately balanced. Scientists predict that an increase of only 2°C could place 5% of all species worldwide in danger of extinction.
Yet deforestation does not only increase the rate of climate change. It also makes if harder to reduce the effects. The processes plants employ in order to survive require CO2 which they take from the atmosphere, making forests into a type of area known as "carbon sinks" (areas which help to reduce greenhouse gases). However, natural areas are actually our only carbon sinks.
We have seen the effects of climate change in recent years, as the intensity and frequency of weather events has increased. In November of 2016, for example, a hurricane in the Caribbean hit Panama for the first time.
But weather patterns are not only affected by climate change. They are also affected by natural processes, especially transpiration from plants. In short, the large amount of water that plants release into the air is an important reason why the tropics are so humid, but it also contributes to the formation of clouds and rain. When deforestation removes this water source, the risk of droughts increases greatly. Some droughts have been so severe that they limited ship travel through the Panama Canal, hitting the local economy hard.
When exotic species aggressively compete with native species or damage the environment, they are referred to as invasive species. Deforestation can make it easier for invasive species to establish by reducing populations of native species, after which the invasive species may prevent native populations from recovering.
The best example in Panama may be wild sugarcane, Saccharum spontaneum. This large, highly invasive grass grows in dense patches throughout Panama, particularly in disturbed areas such as along roadways, fields, and near the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, this plant grows so energetically that it must be removed carefully (without burning it, so as not to scatter its seeds) before we can reforest an area.
There are seven indigenous communities in Panama (Ngäbe, Buglé, Guna, Emberá, Wounaan, Bri bri and Naso Tjërdi) representing 12% of the county's population. Many of these communities still rely on the environment and Panama's biodiversity, at least in part, to survive. As these species lose their habitat, however, the availability of food and medicine for these communities is declining as well.
Additionally, conflict between humans and wildlife is becoming increasingly common as settlements expand into natural areas. The conflict between agriculture and wildlife is particularly of concern because predators such as jaguars may eat livestock when they cannot find sufficient prey in their natural environment.