Barro Colorado Island — which is owned by the Smithsonian Institution — sits on the main passage of the Panama Canal. It managed to remain under U.S. control even after the U.S. ceded rights to the canal to Panama in 1999.
The canal keeps Panama’s economy afloat. Its surrounding rainforest preserves are a huge part of that — their runoff allows millions of gallons of fresh water to be flushed in each time a ship passes through.
Many Panamanians would prefer to diversify their economy by farming, but that would cause deforestation, limiting freshwater flow into the canal — something that both the Panama Canal Authority and global interests strongly oppose. Many Panamanians consider the the canal authority undemocratic, and they are uncomfortable with its level of control over their country.
We talk with anthropologist Ashley Carse about how the Panama Canal’s infrastructure has wide-reaching social and political implications.
On the creation of the canal’s U.S.-owned island
Ashley Carse: If you visited Barro Colorado Island, you’d think it’s just this pristine, natural tropical island in this beautiful lake, set in the middle of Panama. But if you start to look into the history of the island, you realize that it’s actually an artifact of a massive engineering project.
When the Panama Canal was created by the U.S. government between 1904 and 1914, they decided to build a lock canal. And that meant that, in effect, every ship that passes through the Panama Canal goes up effectively three steps to 85 feet above sea level. There’s a large dam that blocked the original flow of the Chagres River towards the Caribbean, and then water flows through the locks with the ships.
So it’s a massive lake that was created primarily to move ships through the oceans, but when they did that, of course they flooded the entire region. So the entire Chagres River valley, which was a place where there were many small Panamanian communities, was flooded. And a lot of the kind of natural history of the region was lost in the flooding of the canal as well.
And what that led to was the creation of all of these islands in the lake that were former hilltops. And one of those is Barro Colorado Island.
On the canal’s rainforest preserves
Carse: Over the past 30 or so years, there’s been rising concern in Panama that the deforestation of the watershed [the region around the canal that drains fresh water into the canal itself] threatened the freshwater available to move ships through the canal. Every ship requires 52 million gallons of freshwater to pass between the oceans, so that’s a real concern.
So, the U.S. and Panama have worked together to preserve the rainforest around the Panama Canal. The trees came to be reimagined as a kind of natural infrastructure that provided water not only for the Panama Canal but, in a sense, under-guarded global shipping.
On competing visions for Panama’s economic development
Carse: For hundreds of years, one view has been that Panama is blessed with its geographic position, as a key site for transportation of all kinds. But, of course, that only involves certain sectors of society — everybody in the country doesn’t benefit from that. So there’s also been pushback — political movements, social movements to imagine the economy in ways that involve other people and other parts of the country that are far from the canal.
So when these watershed management efforts that I described earlier came into being in the 1980s and 1990s, what that meant was to support one vision of the economy, one that’s organized around shipping. The environment that provided the water for shipping through the canal, it meant restrictions on a different vision of economic development, which was much more organized around small-scale agriculture.
Some see the Panama Canal Authority as continuing the practices of exclusion that date back to when our country, the U.S., was running the canal. Other people see them as redistributing the benefits of global transportation and trade across the country. That is a really important debate that’s happening in Panama. So all this money is being generated by the canal. … How will that money be redistributed across society, and how does it benefit sectors of society that do not directly receive employment from the canal?
On the ramifications of the canal’s major expansion
Carse: There were these ships — called Panamax ships — that were specifically designed to fit through the locks of the canal and maximize the dimensions of those locks. As ships got bigger and bigger over the last few decades, eventually the biggest ships … outgrew the Panama Canal. They couldn’t pass through the locks.
So if you were shipping something from East Asia, and you wanted to get them to the East Coast of the United States, what that meant was that rather than going through Panama, you would ship to the deep ports on the West Coast.
So they said, “Oh, we need to make the canal bigger to accommodate these massive new container ships.” So way back in 2006, they had a referendum in the country, and they basically asked Panama citizens, “Do you want to expand the Canal to compete in global shipping?” And it was a very contentious process, and it was a simply yes or no question.
Around 78 percent of Panamanians who voted said yes, and around 22 percent said no. It was pretty overwhelming. It was initially a $5.25 billion project. It was supposed to be finished in seven to eight years, in 2016. So it’s been opened for almost a year now. And it accommodates this new class of massive container ships. Of course if you move more ships through the Panama Canal, then you use more water.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.