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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Gapping the Pan American Highway

Air Date: Week of

The Darien Gap is the thin peninsula of land that connects Central and South America . The Darien Gap remains a natural land barrier of diverse Amazonian forest despite the clearcutting and road building of vast portions of the region. The Pan American Highway extends between Alaska and Argentina except at the Gap, and now some interests would like to fill the gap and link through this land zone which is home to several tribes of indigenous people. As Bob Carty reports, the remaining Indians' lives would be permanently transformed by connecting the continent's superhighway.


(Music up and under; fade to Andean flute music)

MAN (reading Keats): Then I felt like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken. Or like stout Cortes, when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific, and all his men looked at him with a wild surmise. Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

(Flute music continues)

CURWOOD: Poet John Keats got it wrong, if course. It wasn't Cortes but Balboa who looked upon the Pacific from a Darien peak. Despite Mr. Keats' promotion, the Darien remains one of the most unknown places on Earth. The Darien is a thin peninsula of land that links Central and South America right at the juncture of Panama and Colombia. The Darien jungle is so think there's not a single road through it. It's the only place from Alaska to Argentina where there's a gap in the Pam-American Highway. As Bob Carty reports, governments and entrepreneurs wish to close the Darien Gap with a highway. Opponents say such a road would come at too high a price to humans and the environment.

(Sounds of traffic)

CARTY: The Pan-American Highway snakes through the mountains of Central America, rushes along the coastal plain, leaps over the Panama Canal on the Bridge of the Americas, and then heads toward the border of Colombia 8 hours away.

ELTON: As you go east from Panama City along the Inter-American Highway, there's a tremendous amount of deforestation. So you really need binoculars just to see the trees. I mean, it's been cut down so far either side.

CARTY: Charlotte Elton is a British-born economist, a Panamanian citizen, a director of the Center for Economic and Social Studies, and a bird watcher. So she visits the Darien's parks and Indian reserves for both research and recreation.

(Traffic sounds continue)

ELTON: And then the road discontinues and then it gets worse and you find that this -- it's mud, basically, when the buses get stuck in it. And then you get to Yavisa, which is where the road ends. And the main way of traveling around in the Darien is still by water, by river.

(A boat engine, bubbles)

CARTY: From Yavisa, where the Darien begins, you can drive back to Alaska, almost 8,000 miles, but you can't motor over to Colombia just 67 miles away. What gets in the way is a territory almost the size of West Virginia, a land of rainforests and rivers, mountains and swamps, jaguars and ocelots.

ELTON: The Darien Gap, the forest in the center of the heart of the Americas there, has been described by a biologist as the umbilical cord of the Americas. And that if it's cut open, that area, by a road, the continent will bleed to death.

(Bird calls)

COATES: The Darien of course is the -- the site of one of the more diverse tropical forests that is still essentially intact.

CARTY: Tony Coates is the deputy director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. For 25 years he's been studying the Darien because it's a unique place where the rock and animals and plants of 2 subcontinents meet and mix in an extraordinary diversity.

COATES: You could comfortably describe a Canadian pine forest with about 6 species, and most of the North American temperate forest would be easily described by 25 species. In a full Darien forest, we may well get up to something like 8- or 900 species of trees in one tiny region. Many, many more times than in all of Canada and all of North America.

CARTY: And the Darien is also home to 3 indigenous cultures: the Kuna, the Wounnan, and the Emberra.

(Children laughing)

CARTY: In an Indian village on the Sambu River, barefoot children gather around a foreigner and giggle with surprise over the operation of a tape recorder. Anthropologists believe that as many as 2 million aboriginal people once lived in the Darien. But Balboa and his Conquistadors brought muskets and swords and diseases. Ninety percent of the native population was wiped out. Today only 14,000 Indians live in the Darien. They are all desperately poor. Still, for them, the jungle is a sanctuary, and the idea of putting a highway through it is nothing less than a threat to their existence.

(Flute music)

CARTY: Facundo Sanapi is an Emberra leader.

(Flute music continues)

SANAPI: (speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: For us, development is to conserve our culture, our nature, our medicines. For them, development is to devastate. We do not want this highway. We are the ones who will suffer. It seems they think there is a gap here, a space they have to open. We don't understand this word: gap, tapon, the Darien Gap. For us there is no gap.

CARTY: But for others the Darien is a gap: a gap in a vision begun in 1923 of a 16,000 mile Pan-American Highway. One of the most ardent promoters of a highway through the Darien Gap is Colombia's ambassador to Panama, Alfonso Araujo.

ARAUJO: (speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: This is a dream of all Latin America, of all the Americas. One hundred and ten kilometers stands between South America and Central and North America. Economically the highway represents extraordinary development. There is no development in the world, in the United States or Europe, that is not based on land transportation. The road would let us go from Alaska to Patagonia, and if it is not built it would be like a wall of China put in the way of Latin American development. That's why we insist on breaching this gap.

CARTY: But breaching the gap will not be easy. Up until the 1950s, highway builders were defeated simply by the impenetrability of the forests and rivers and swamps. Then the plans were put on hold. It had been recognized that the jungle was a natural barrier that kept hoof in mouth disease confined to South America. In the 1970s another attempt to build the highway was halted by environmental protests in the United States. Now, the old dream has been revived by the talk of expanding continental commerce under free trade treaties. The most eager promoters are Colombian government officials, plus exporters and truckers throughout the region. There is also some interest and some outstanding promises up in Washington. Economist Charlotte Elton.

ELTON: Most recently, in November '95, the Congress passed a law requiring the Department of Transportation to do studies about that missing link for free trade and promoting trade in the Americas, particularly what it would do for US trade. The US government, in fact, has a commitment to pay two thirds of it if it were built, so more pressure is built up for a highway.

CARTY: In Panama itself, though, opinion is very mixed. Native groups and environmentalists are stridently against the highway. Cattle ranchers are worried hoof in mouth disease will spread from Colombia. On the other side of the debate, business in the Panama Free Zone argue that a highway will stimulate exports. Banana, logging, and mining companies would welcome a road to open up the untapped natural resources of the Darien. And so, the Panamanian government's position is ambiguous.

ELTON: At the moment the official position seems to be against it, but at the same time a willingness to go along with studies, a willingness to go to meetings to talk about it. It's always a good idea to hedge your bets. This is the way that business is done in Panama.

CARTY: Panama's equivocal posture on the Darien Highway stems from a number of economic, legal, and technical concerns. The highway would be relatively expensive to build and maintain. If it is to be built with dollars, it would have to satisfy environmental impact concerns established by US courts when the project was halted in the 70s. There's still the question of keeping South American diseases from coming north, and police forces complain that a highway would make it easier for traffickers to ship cocaine out of Colombia. Colombian ambassador Alfonso Araujo believes he has an answer to all the objections.

ARAUJO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: We have a campaign to eradicate hoof in mouth disease. By the time the road is built, hoof in mouth will be gone. I believe the land border would be more controllable with a highway. Now, there is no control. There are narcos in the area. I would say a highway would make it more controllable. We argue that the highway can be built without damaging the environment. If it is destroyed it is because of the incompetence of governments which do not take measures to avoid damage to ecosystems. There are many highways in the world which do not destroy the environment.

(Bird calls)

CARTY: Tony Coates of the Smithsonian disagrees. Dr. Coates says wherever a road has been built into a Latin American jungle, it has brought loggers and ranchers and settlers, and predictable results.

COATES: A road into the heart of a forest is like a knife into the heart. A couple of decades or so ago, the Inter-American Highway was built all the way to the town of Yavisa and the Darien, and if you drive that road now you will see nothing but smoldering remains of forests on either side. You will see enormous trucks with trunks of trees that have diameters of 6 to 8 meters being hauled out of that road. It's an agricultural frontier that inexorably eats its way across the country, destroying both the forest and the indigenous cultures that live within them.

(Bird calls)

CARTY: For environmentalists, there is an irony in the Darien Highway debate. The roadway is not required by the volume of trade it might carry, they say, and there are alternatives. Juan Carlos Navarro is executive director of the National Association for Conservation of Nature in Panama.

NAVARRO: The safest, quickest way, smartest way to travel, between Panama and Colombia today, is simply to fly. The prices are competitive and the service is very good. You can have a container ship go from Cristobal in Panama City to the port of Cartajena in the Caribbean coast of Colombia quicker than it would take you to go by car. Finishing the Pan-American Highway between Panama and Colombia is totally unnecessary and would be a tragedy.

CARTY: And the highway proposal is not the only threat to the Darien rainforest. Environmentalist Juan Carlos Navarro points out that at the current rate of deforestation, it could be all gone in a matter of decades.

NAVARRO: In Panama specifically, we're losing about 100,000 acres of rainforests every year. And most of the deforestation is taking place in Darien. You have on the one hand mining companies that are getting concessions in the area. You have logging companies that are going into the area. You have indigenous people who are selling out their native lands to logging companies. The pressure on the existing forests is already reading the limits of the Darien National Park and Reserve, and also the limits of the indigenous territories.

(Laughing children, flute-like noises)

CARTY: In the village of Sambu, children show a visitor how they can make flute-like noises with their hands. It is hard, perhaps impossible, for them to imagine how a road could destroy their way of life. But then, their ancestors might have thought the same thing about a couple of hundred Spaniards. Dr. Tony Coates of the Smithsonian says what's at stake here is fundamentally a question of values and priorities.

COATES: There will always be interests in any developed country for a highway that increases commercial interchange. It's sort of like asking the Department of Commerce whether it wants to have more interstates. The price you pay for that increased convenience in commerce is the death of an incredible pharmaceutical source of new products, the loss of 3 cultures, and I would suspect that if we did a careful cost-benefit analysis it wouldn't be worth it.

CARTY: What's going to happen?

COATES: My gut feeling is that there'll be an enormous fight and it'll go on perhaps for a decade or 2, but unless human politics changes dramatically it will eventually get built.

(Bird calls)

CARTY: In the short term, the future of the Darien depends largely on a study being done in Washington. Last year Congress instructed the Department of Transportation to evaluate the benefits of a Darien Gap highway for American industry and trade. That macro-economic pre-feasibility study is expected late next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty on the Sambu River in the Darien rainforest of Panama.



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