Covid-19: A make or break moment for Panama
Uncertainty breeds fear. As we sit quarantined in our homes, waiting for the all-clear to once again mingle with our fellow humans, the uncertainty of things to come has a constant foothold in our lives. We try to occupy ourselves as best we can in order to dislodge this feeling...to make things seem "normal". But there are only so many menial tasks we can assign ourselves before we feel the weight of reality climbing to the forefront of our consciousnesses. And then, despite our best attempts to generate optimism we find our thoughts drifting toward a dark place.
The reality is that as Americans, we will make it through this. Our economy will suffer, our lives will be changed forever, but we will make it through this hardship. Perhaps the more important question is: what will happen in other countries? Will smaller countries with weaker economies and a higher rate of infection and mortality be able to recover from this debilitating pandemic? That answer is impossible to predict at the moment. But one thing is for sure: you may be instrumental in helping these countries recover.
I just left Panama before the country decided to close its borders to all non-residents. The Panama-based airline, Copa, has shuttered its doors and will remain closed down for weeks. The country is losing a tremendous amount of money and the inhabitants of Panama will be all too eager to find sources of income once the country starts its economic engine once more. As ecotourists, our job is clear: make that source of income one that is tied intimately to the preservation of biodiversity.
At present, the logging rights to many Panamanian forests have been sold to the country of China. Massive amounts of timber are being removed from once pristine rainforest and untold species are suffering as a result. China also has plans to construct a bullet-train in the country and these are all the WRONG sources of economic gain for a country with such a wealth of natural resources. Not only because these industries are bad for the environment, but more because of how they operate.
In the United States, our economy relies on our workers. We have mechanisms in place to protect them and their jobs and many of the goods produced in this country remain here to be sold. Cost of living and minimum wage adjustments help workers meet the costs they face in their daily lives and retirement plans exist to ensure a comfortable life post-career. In many Central and South American countries, like Panama, industry exists for the sole reason of sending goods created in the tropics to the developed nations of the world. In this age of globalization, massive corporations set up shop in these countries because conditions are right to produce their goods and labor is cheap. Very little consideration is given to the rights and well-being of the employees and when there is a downturn in the economy, as is the case right now, entire workforces are fired, because it costs less to close shop until the economy recovers. In many locations, the displaced populations that have lost their jobs begin claiming the only land they have available to them...the rainforest. Through land-clearing and burning, the edges of the rainforest begin to erode as once employed citizens set up subsistence farms to get through an economically difficult time. And, when businesses do re-open, they will have no shortage of new employees, eager to make any sum of money after a long period of stagnation...setting up a feedback loop that enforces economic disparity and habitat destruction.
This dis-articulation of economy is one of the main contributors to deforestation in the tropics. When combined with logging operations and cattle production, a huge toll is enacted on our world's rainforests. We cannot blame the average out-of-work Panamanian for trying to make a living for their family at the expense of the rainforest. But, we can do something about it.
When Panama re-opens its doors to global travelers (and it will), there is no doubt that corporations will see the opportunities that await in a tropical country with a severely debilitated economy. Sadly, most Panamanian residents will not think twice about taking new jobs in the natural resource extraction industries that are likely to flock to the country. There is a very real chance that the landscape of Panama will change rapidly and irreversibly once this pandemic ends...and not in a good way. Fortunately, a great deal of ecotourism industry already exists in Panama, although many will struggle to make it through this economic stall successfully.
At Antbird Tours, we are committed to our mission of furthering tropical conservation through immersive experience. Once Panama has re-opened its borders, we will be scheduling a number of trips to the country to see the amazing birds, staggering diversity and breathtaking natural landscapes. Now more than ever, these trips will have a VERY important purpose...to show the citizens of Panama that an economy can gain strength from ecotourism. We will run trips to the Darien to see Harpy Eagles, we will travel to Central Panama and see the most biodiverse rainforests in the country, we will head for the hills and witness the breathtaking beauty of the Panamanian Highlands and starting this fall we will begin offering an all-new coastal trip to explore the mangrove, sandy and forested coastlines of the country.
We will double-down on our touring...and every dollar will be placed into the hands of local Panamanians. We will do our part to make it clear to the Panamanian citizens and government that the future of our world is a healthy rainforest.