Panama's history has been shaped by the evolution of the world economy and the ambitions of great powers. (US State Department 1998)
Environmental action is never a purely apolitical and scientific endeavor. It is always a field of complex, competing relations and interests, social dispositions and political aspirations, economic, and periodically, environmental, concerns. It is at this intersection of complex factors that the cohesion and contestation of formal and informal relations becomes evident and the ever-morphing constitution of a “culture” of conservation is shaped and reshaped. The FIDECO Fund and Fundación NATURA is certainly one such site of multiple interests.
Panama’s social, cultural, political and economical constitution is tied directly to its geography. This geographic emphasis is not based on the extraction, development or trade of national resources and/or products, but rather on Panama’s role in facilitating and servicing the trade of other nations’ goods. Due in large part to the 45 mile span between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the thinnest slice of land in the Americas, as well as Panama’s position as link between Central and South America, Panama has been in the business of servicing trade between other nations and individual enterprises since long before the Spanish arrived on its Atlantic shores in the late 16th century. This concentration on services that funnels external interests into and through Panama has set the tone for the political, economic, social and environmental personality of Panama, causing an on-going schism between Panamanians’ own sense of pride in nationhood and the need to support external interests and exertion of power.
In this chapter, I argue that the service mentality is being replicated in Panama’s newly emerging environmental agenda. Recent economic concerns over the operation of the Panama Canal have caused a previously disinterested upper class to become involved in environmental initiatives. Environmental disinterest in Panama is based in the historical disconnect between the elite, merchant class and the rural, lower classes. Developments in Panama’s economic modernization scheme have furthered the disparity between the economic and environmental agendas continuing to concentrate on service industry enclaves rather than a broad national economic agenda. This economically, politically and socially contingent relationship has been at the root of the lack of environmental initiatives in Panama until the very recent past when national and international concerns over the Panama Canal watershed have entered into the elite-controlled political and economic arena.
The reasons for the national attention being paid by prominent Panamanian politicians to the subjects of civil society and the environment are directly linked to Panama’s role in the global economy and to the multiple interests concentrated on the reversion of the Panama Canal. As such, the environmental movement in Panama should be understood within the context of Panama’s historical development as a service economy, the canal-related conflicts with the United States, and the political disconnect between the interests of the elite class with those of other classes in Panama.
This chapter begins with a review of the social, political and economic conditions contributing to and being produced by its history of service. This is followed by a history of Panama in light of its geopolitical identity of “service” to national and external corporate interests. Through examining these interests, Panama’s relationship with the US throughout the twentieth century based on its role of servicing the United States via the Panama Canal and the use of Panama as a military staging ground in Latin America are emphasized. Included is the history of deforestation in Panama, particularly during the last half of the twentieth century, and the role of the United States in the recent campaign for reforestation as a key part of managing the Panama Canal and its watershed. I then introduce the FIDECO environmental trust fund created with the goal of spearheading the efforts to rebuild the Panama Canal watershed. The organizations central to this story are the three donor organizations that created the FIDECO fund, namely the government of Panama (GOP), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Nature Conservancy (TNC). Also central is Fundación NATURA (NATURA), the organization the donors created to manage the disbursement of trust funds through community organization and NGO grants programs. Reviewing how the FIDECO fund came into existence, the creation of Fundación NATURA, the financial breakdown of the investments and the yearly expenditures through a national grant giving program could give the illusion that this environmental trust fund is a fairly straightforward proposition based on the fulfillment of formal contracts and agreements. However, when interweaving the processes of environmental NGOs in Panama with the specific processes associated with Fundación NATURA, this illusion quickly dissipates. I suggest that a new set of norms and practices associated with Panama’s new environmental agenda are emerging. The specific dynamics of formal and informal economic networks and relations rooted in the service enclave mentality are being interwoven into a newly developing culture of conservation in Panama featured in the development of Fundación NATURA.