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Paving the Pan-American Gap

by Alicia Korten

PANAMA -- IF LATIN AMERICAN governments and business interests have their way, a century-old dream to complete a trans-American highway will be realized by the turn of the century.

Not everyone shares this dream.

Snaking for 26,000 kilometers between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the Pan-American highway lumbers to a muddy halt in Panama's Darien Gap. Between this dead-end and where the Pan-American resurfaces 107 kilometers away in Colombia, lies approximately 20,000 square kilometers of primary rainforests, 6,500 square kilometers of which are legally owned by indigenous peoples.

Finishing the Pan-American would mean paving through one of the world's most biologically diverse regions and the ancestral lands of the Emberá, Wounaan and Kuna peoples. In recent decades, the livelihoods of these people has been threatened by the highway, which, in the form of a dirt road, has penetrated another 160 kilometers into the Darien Gap rainforest in the past 20 years. The dirt road, which is virtually impassable in the wet season, has nonetheless brought developers, loggers and land-hungry immigrants who have converted roadside primary forests into timber, farm land and cow pastures.

As a land bridge between North and South America, the Darien Gap is a place where species from both continents intermingle. Three major migration routes for intercontinental birds converge at this spot. The United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared Darien National Park -- the largest park in Central America -- a biological and cultural World Heritage Site in recognition of its unique ecosystems and indigenous cultures. Viewed from another perspective, however, UNESCO-style sentimentality over Darien ecosystems and cultures poses a potential barrier to trade.


The December 1994 Summit of the Americas agreement to unite North America and Latin America by 2025 in an expanded North American Free Trade Agreement has sparked an urgency among some business and government officials to complete the highway. "The Pan-American Highway is the only unfinished international highway, even though it is the most important in the world," said Jorge Bedeck Olivella, Colombia's former Transportation Minister from the César Gaviria administration, "all of humanity is awaiting."

Other promoters are less Messianic. "The highway ... will facilitate trade of petroleum, cotton, clothes, iron, steel and other goods between Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela," says Juan Castañega, director of the Latin American desk of Colombia's Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Extending the Pan-American is part of the Colombian government's aggressive development plans for the country's Pacific coast. When initially drafted in 1983, Colombia's so-called Pacific Plan said "this extensive region contains immense forest, fishing, river- and sea-based mineral resources which the country requires immediately." As revised in 1992, the plan still calls for aggressive oil exploration, mining, large-scale agriculture, commercial fishing and tourism. But the new version includes references to sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

Despite this window dressing, local people say the Pacific Plan threatens the region with massive change that will displace their communities and devastate the region's environment. "Our trees, our gold that we have used as jewelry for our dances, our oil -- all the things we have been given by Paba and Nana [Kuna gods] to take care of -- are disappearing," lamented Cacique Alvarado, chief of Wargandi, a Kuna-controlled territory in a western stretch of the Darien Gap penetrated by a dirt stretch of the Pan-American.

"There is no area in which a highway has been built in Colombia that has not had a devastating affect on the environment and indigenous peoples," says Juan Pablo Ruiz, a former director of the Colombia-based Nature Foundation.

Despite opposition, the highway plan is moving into high gear. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is putting up "$1.5 million to finance the environmental studies related to the completion of the last section of the Pan-American Highway," says a Panamanian Ministry of Foreign Relations document. This preliminary funding is significant because the IDB rarely funds studies for projects that it is not interested in financing. The newspaper Panama América reported in December 1994 that the IDB would loan $29 million to pave the Darien's stretch of dirt road.

IDB representatives, however, insist that they will not finance such a controversial project. The study is not an environmental impact statement but rather a general environmental diagnosis of the region, explained an IDB official close to the project. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said that the IDB would provide no financing for the construction or renovation of roads in the Darien Gap.

Panamanian officials say that both the construction of the unfinished segment of the Pan-American, as well as the paving of the existing dirt stretch, are part of the country's five-year, $406 million road project. IDB and World Bank loans cover $220 million of this amount, giving these lenders considerable influence over Panama's infrastructure. "No highway construction can take place in Panama in the next five years that does not follow IDB guidelines," one IDB official said.

The Panamanian and Colombian Good Neighbor Commission, a bi-national government commission in charge of negotiating the Pan-American project, is exploring three possible routes for the highway:
* Along the Pacific Coast;
* Along the Atlantic Coast; and
* Through the Panamanian-Colombian border community of Palo de Letras in the center of the isthmus.

All of these routes pass through Emberá, Wounaan and Kuna territories as well as through the Darien National Park and Colombia's Katios Park. Regulations governing both parks allow for the highway to be completed. Until recently, the Palo de Letras route was favored because it is the shortest and least costly option. In a June Good Neighbor Commission meeting, however, Panama President Ernesto Perez Balladares endorsed the Atlantic Coast route, arguing that it would mitigate environmental damage from the road. Kuna leaders say that the president may have an ulterior motive for supporting this route: to tighten control over their legally recognized land along the Atlantic Coast.


As plans for the highway move forward, opposition is gaining momentum, as the project even draws criticism from Panama's National Association of Cattle Ranchers and Colombia government-run Institute for Development and Natural Resources (INDARENA). Ranchers are concerned that it will facilitate the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease into North America. Another concern is that the road will accelerate drug trafficking into the region. INDARENA recommended in December 1994 that the project be quashed because of its threat to the Darien Gap's ecosystem and indigenous cultures.

This ecological concern is international. Representing more than 800 organizations worldwide, the Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature passed a resolution opposing highway completion in January 1994. "The construction of a highway across the Darien Gap would constitute an ecological crisis, according to Archibald Carr, a biologist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. "If the Darien is a biological plug, a barrier to a biological upheaval that could affect both major continents in the region, then it achieves greater conservation significance than any other forest."

For Darien indigenous groups, conservation of the region's ecology amounts to nothing short of cultural survival. In 1993, a coalition of indigenous peoples in Panama formed the Indigenous Pan-American Highway Commission (IPAHC), which has sought a voice in upcoming project negotiations. The Commission consists of four indigenous congresses representing more than 50,000 people. "We are demanding our legal rights to consultation regarding any plans the government has for our ancestral lands," explains Clasmere Carpio, ex-coordinator for IPAHC and mayor of the Darien's Sambu territory.

While some indigenous peoples enjoy legal title to their lands, others do not. These groups fear that, without formal titles, they will be unable to defend their ancestral lands from developers and land-hungry immigrants. Providing land titles is "a critical step to preserving the area's rainforests, as indigenous peoples, whose way of life depends on the rainforests, protect the forests better than any other landowner in the region," says Hector Huertas, of Panama's Center for Popular Legal Assistance.

Indigenous leaders have indicated through resolutions and meetings with the national government, that they "reject the construction of the Pan-American Highway, a railroad or any other project through our lands without our consent." One resolution passed at a national indigenous meeting in October 1994 demands "the legalization and demarcation of the Madungandi, Ngobe and Búgle and Wargandi Comarcas [legally recognized indigenous territories] and that collective land titles be provided to the Emberá and Wounaan [who live outside of such comarcas] in order to protect the natural resources of our territories. We refuse to accept any project if these demands have not been met."

In July 1995, IPAHC sponsored its third national conference to discuss ways to influence plans targeting member homelands. The event was attended by the traditional leadership of the Kuna, Emberá, Wounaan, Ngobe and Búgle ethnic groups. At this meeting, those living in western parts of the Darien Gap that have already been penetrated by the Pan-American Highway cautioned others about what they can expect if the road comes through.

"I invite you to visit my people. You will no longer see our straw huts, but cement houses," said Cacique Alvarado of the Kuna-controlled Wargandi territory. "You will no longer see our beautiful trees that we have tried to emulate -- tall, strong, brilliant, whistling as the animals. You will not hear the songs of the animals. They have gone far away where there are still trees. All is gone. These are the problems the highway has brought us."

Indigenous peoples, whose homelands and cultural subsistence are at stake, are excluded from discussions. "The government has blocked all indigenous participation from the negotiations," said Edy Degaiza, IPAHC's coordinator.

Darien D-Day

It is unclear whether the Pan-American missing link can be stopped or, if it is not, whether its environmental and cultural destruction can be mitigated. "I am quite sure that Colombia would be willing to finance this project on its own," says a U.S. State Department official. "If we decide that it is not in our national interest, then we won't support the project. But Colombia will make inroads anyway. We may want to help with environmental impact statements and technical assistance to ensure the project is done properly."

Others advocate alternatives. "We need a serious study of alternatives to building the highway that will meet our intercontinental transportation needs," argues Juan Pablo Ruiz. "Our governments are moving forward with plans, yet no one has done such a study."

Victor Manuel Cucaloen, head of international economic relations for Panama's Foreign Affairs Ministry, points to a recently installed ferry that runs passengers, cars and cargo between Panama and Colombia. "Four or five ferries between Panama and Colombia could do the job just as well as a land route," he says. "Ferries would be much less costly than the funds we would have to spend building the highway and patrolling the Panama-Colombia border once it's built."

Cucaloen and other Panamanian officials do not believe that finishing the Pan-American will be much of a benefit to an economy that is driven by the Panama Canal and the finance industry. In addition to concerns about the road boosting drug trafficking in Panama, many Panamanians worry that the road would bring a flood of Colombian immigrants seeking higher paying jobs in Panama.

The potential victims and beneficiaries of the expanded trade route vehemently disagree over whether the benefits are worth the costs. The export-oriented government of Colombian President Ernesto Samper is committed to completing the highway regardless of costs. But where the rubber meets the road in Panama, there is strong and mounting resistance to paving the Darien Gap. Doing so threatens to overrun the region's unique ecosystem and indigenous cultures while offering few tangible benefits to the local service economy.

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