Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

3. Colonization in Panama

Institutional Aspects of Colonization in Darién
Current Problems Associated with Colonization in Darién


Although Panama is one of the most developed countries of Central America, it faces grave ecological threats to its economic base. It has avoided the more typical "banana republic" dependency on agricultural exports through the income and employment generated by the canal and through an economic diversification into manufacturing and banking activities. This development unfortunately has been accompanied by the underdevelopment of the agricultural sector, in which destructive, land extensive agricultural techniques are still used by the majority of Panamanian farmers.

Panama is at the point of being overtaken by the underdevelopment of its agriculture. Historically, the existence of employment alternatives reduced the pressure on Panamanian agricultural lands, so the use of land extensive production techniques presented no problems. In fact, they may have been seen as positive in some sectors since they allowed for a massive conversion of "unproductive" forest into agricultural, and more specifically, ranching activities. Nevertheless, as the agricultural population has increased, these extensive techniques have created land shortage and land use conflict. The agricultural use of the Panama Canal watershed threatens not only the use of the canal but the hydroelectric capacity to supply major cities (Wadsworth 1982). Darién Province contains the largest remaining forest area in Panama and provides a large proportion of national wood production as well as new agricultural lands. As land in other areas of the country has been occupied, Panamanians look more to Darién for their agricultural future.

Map 4. Panama: provinces, physical features, and relief.

Unfortunately, the colonization of Panama's Darién contains all the elements of an ecological disaster. Deficient soils, uncontrolled land use, extensive logging, the potential for the introduction of hoof-and-mouth disease from Colombia through a deforested Darién, and a deficient research base - these factors combine with an administrative chaos which does not permit the enforcement of existing laws or the execution of present mandates to create an ecologically dangerous situation.

Several attempts have been made to control land colonization, but none has been effectively implemented. Extensive forms of land use in other parts of Panama create a large migrant population hungry for new lands and which has flooded into Darién with the completion of new access roads. An apparent lack of awareness or concern with environmental problems at an official level has led to the exaggeration of political and economic forces which impede appropriate land use.

On the positive side, at a lower administrative level there are technicians and institutions with promising ideas. A basic framework for investigation is now in place (although it lacks co-ordination and financing), and local level government technical employees understand the problems they face and their alternatives.

Colonization and Agriculture in Panama

The relative strength of the non-agricultural sector in Panama's economy has been accompanied by an indifference to policies which could serve to further agricultural development. Agriculture has come to be dominated by large and relatively unproductive enterprises to the extent that Panama must import food. Small farmers (who are traditionally producers of basic grains) have been squeezed out of older agricultural areas and are being forced to relocate on new lands.

Table 7. Gross Domestic Product, Panama, 1982

Activity % GDP
Agriculture 8.8
Mining 0.2
Manufacturing 9.3
Construction 8.9
Electricity, gas, water 3.6
Transportation and communication 11.6
Trade and finance 15.8
Public administration and defence -
Other 41.8
Total 99.9

Source: Kurian 1987.

Unlike other countries of Central America, Panama derives relatively little from agriculture nationally and internationally. Manufacturing, commerce, finance, and of course the Panama Canal provide a strong non-agricultural base for the Panamanian economy (table 7). While Panama is a net exporter of agricultural products, basic foods must be imported (table 8). Land use in Panama has been concentrated in a few areas: the major population and manufacturing centres are found near the canal, and agricultural activity has been concentrated in two fairly restricted areas. The provinces of Los Santos and Herrera on the Azuero Peninsula have traditionally been the heartland of Panamanian small-farm agriculture and areas of small-farm economies bordered by cattle haciendas in the neighbouring provinces of Veraguas and Coclé (Jaen Suarez 1978), while the more humid provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro have been utilized for large-scale banana production for export.

The recent process of agricultural "development" in Panama has been characterized by the formation of large cattle ranching operations and the displacement of small farmers (Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982). While there is some question as to the date when land concentration began in Azuero, the process has become more accentuated in recent years. Even the relatively recently colonized lands of Tonosi have been quickly transformed from a lush tropical forest area, containing some of the most fertile lands of Panama, into a pasture land (Heckadon Moreno 1983).

One of the most destructive outcomes of the land concentration process in Azuero has been the formation of an unstable population of landless farmers. These farmers have been forced to search for new lands in the highlands of Veraguas, the provinces of Colón, Coclé, and Panama, and, since the opening of the Inter-American Highway past Chepo, the province of Darién. Part of the technological tool kit of these farmers is the ability to rapidly deforest land and sow it to pasture. Their destructive slash-and-burn agricultural techniques have been rewarded in the past by cattle ranchers willing to buy infertile pasture land. As an unfortunate side-effect of this situation, the farmers have not developed agricultural techniques for soil conservation nor improved management techniques for humid conditions, nor have they experimented with new crops which might serve to extend the productive life of recently deforested lands. Independent studies of deforestation problems (e.g. Joly 1982; Heckadon Moreno 1981b) have confirmed the role of these farmers in the creation of land use problems.

Table 8. Agricultural trade, Panama, 1984

  Value ($) % Total
Imports (000,000) imports
Agriculture, fish, and forestry total 138.13 100
Wheat 11.39 8.25
Animal products 14.938* 10.81
Maize 3.970 2.87
Beans 4.5 3.26
Onions 1.5 1.09
Potatoes 0.25 0.18
Subtotal 36.548 26.46
Exports Value ($) % Total
  (000,000) exports
Total 255.390 100
Bananas 72.569* 28.4
Fish (inc. shrimp) 74.650 29.21
Sugar 33.302 13.03
Animal products 18.219* 7.13
Rice 1.649 0.65
Subtotal 200.389 78.41

Source: FAO 1984. *Information for 1983.

As part of a campaign to strengthen agriculture, the Agrarian Reform Agency has made efforts to transform the structure of production in the countryside. The initial focus of activities was the formation of communally owned agricultural enterprises, although more recently the communal enterprises have been de-emphasized. In practice, the reform activities have seemingly followed a line of least resistance, with outright expropriations of farms making up a relatively small proportion of farms affected, and the majority of lands have come from tax payment expropriations (see table 9) or from the relatively unpopulated Darién. Between March 1973 and August 1975, 80 per cent of all land acquired was in Darién, including 88,000 ha associated with the Bayano Reservoir Project. Of 350,000 ha of land acquired before 1972, less than one-third is class IV or better, which suggests that these were lands which were not strongly contested (Shearer and Tejada Mora 1980).

Table 9. Sources of land for agrarian reform before 1972

Source % Total
Expropriation for taxes 59
Expropriation 21
Purchase 14
Donation 5
Other 1

Source Shearer and Tejada 1980

The most recent colonization of Darién is in fact a "recolonization." The 1,291 farms reported in the 1970 census represent a decrease from the 2,044 reported in 1960. The decline in farms was accompanied by a decrease in the total area in farms from 35,754 ha to 27,544 ha (Panama-OEA 1978). Forestry and plantain production were major income generators in previous years, and the current status of the area as a whole has been described as one of "decadence" rather than "underdevelopment." Nevertheless, it is clear that many areas are being opened up for colonization for the first time. The previous development of Darién had been completely based on water transport, with most of the major settlements located around the Gulf of San Miguel or on major waterways. One of the major problems foreseen in the Integrated Development Project for Darién (Panama-OEA 1978) was the dislocation of population in urban centres which declined in importance as a result of the decreased importance of water transport. Another problem of the more recent development is that the newly colonized lands are less appropriate for agriculture than those already cultivated, so there is more danger of the creation of a deforestation cycle motivated by soil exhaustion and of the successive deforestation of new lands.

The Darién "gap" highway is the last link in the all-weather road connecting North and South America. While as of 1984 this road was still not complete, its progress has opened up major new expanses of land by providing improved road transport to and from the capital. Previous to the construction of the road, all communication between the population centres of Darién and Panama was by boat or plane. Agricultural marketing was virtually impossible. The opening of the new portions of the road has provided an opportunity for development of the area, which, however, is also accompanied by serious problems.

While the present study focuses on Darién, as the largest and longest standing colonization area in Panama, it should be noted that there are other identifiable colonization fronts throughout the country. Although smaller, these fronts may be more destructive both economically and ecologically. A major concern, as mentioned above, is the problem of the Panama Canal watershed. The political fanfare which accompanied the signing of the Panama Canal treaties made it difficult for both American and Panamanian control of land clearance in the watershed, since any attempt to eliminate farmers from the area dredges up questions of nationalism as well as the domestic political problems of removing poor farmers from their source of livelihood.

Over the not-so-long term, the deforestation of the canal watershed will present serious problems for Panama. The most obvious problem is the functioning of the canal, which requires the discharge of large amounts of water as the locks are filled and emptied with the passage of ships. Lake Gatún serves as the reservoir for water to be used in the locks and is, at the same time, the waterway crossed by the ships between the sets of locks. The waterway can be kept open simply by dredging a canal through the silt buildup in the lake, but dredging cannot make much impact on the total capacity of the reservoir. In recent years, low rainfall and low rates of recharge in the reservoir have caused a limitation in the use of the canal due to insufficient water. These problems will necessarily become more serious as farming increases in the watershed.

Lake Gatún also serves as a hydroelectric reservoir for both the canal operations and the cities outside the immediate canal zone. As the reservoir capacity decreases, Panama will increasingly be forced to decide between electrical generation and the operation of the canal during years of low rainfall.

Two other areas of forest clearing and land settlement can be identified. The first is in the Caribbean lowlands of Colon and Bocas del Toro provinces. The Caribbean fringe of Panama has long been bypassed for agricultural settlement because of extreme humidity and problems of transportation, but with increasing population pressure, the land has become more attractive in spite of these limitations. The settlement of the Caribbean coast is principally in the areas west of the canal, for the simple reason that to the east is the comarca of San Blas, homeland of the Kuna Indians. The Kuna have been very successful in defending their territorial claims against non-Indians and have managed to exclude settlers for the most part. For their own purposes, the Kuna are principally fishermen and small-scale swidden agriculturalists/forest farmers; combined with their relatively low population density, there is little agricultural land clearance in the area.

The second new area of land clearance and settlement is along the Chiriqui-Bocas del Toro highway. In 1984-1985 an asphalt highway was completed between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts near the Costa Rican border. Prior to that time, the only access to Bocas del Toro was by air or by sea from Panama, although there was a road connecting it to Costa Rica through Changuinola. Without road access, the lands of the upper Caribbean slope had been used only by Indian groups (the coastal lowlands are used for banana and cacao production), but the opening of the road has brought a flood of colonists to a previously untouched forest area.

Table 10. Land use potential in Darién

Land use Area (000 ha) % Darién
Intensive agriculture 106.70 6.4
Pasture, permanent crops, and    
forestry 441.90 26.3
Forestry only 575.80 34.3
Protection and reserves 512.80 30.5
Rivers 43.10 2.5
Total 1,680.30 100.0

Source: Panama-OEA 1978.

General Description of Darién Province

The province of Darién covers 1,680,300 ha, making up 22.2 per cent of the total territory of Panama. The major life zone for the area is tropical wet forest (Holdridge 1979). Rainfall averages between 1,400 and 2,500 mm annually, and a three month dry season extends from January to March (Panama-OEA 1978). The driest areas of Darién are the coastal areas around the Gulf of San Miguel and the low-lying valleys of the Chucunaque and Tuira rivers. Recent data indicate that the strip of tropical dry forest on the coast near Sambu extends as far as La Palma, and a large area should be considered tropical dry forest transition to humid forest. Only 6 per cent of the land was found to be suitable for intensive agriculture (see table 10), while the majority of all land is unsuitable for any non-forestry activity. In 1971 and 1972, 5 million board feet of lumber were extracted annually, constituting 21 and 26 per cent of the national lumber production in the respective years. RENARE officials now report that Darién's contribution to total national lumber production may be as high as 80 per cent.

Ethnic Groups in Darién. The occupants of Darién can be divided into four general ethnic groups: Dariénitas, colombianos, indígenas, and colonos. Dariénitas are nonIndian people born in Darién. Colombianos are non-nationalized Colombian blacks. Indígenas are Indians of either Kuna or Embera descent, and colonos are the immigrants from the provinces of Los Santos, Herrera, Chiriquí, etc. (also known as interioranos), who come in search of new agricultural lands (Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982). In 1972 the Dariénitas were the largest population group (see table 11), but recent migrations of colonos are likely to have made migrants the major population group.

The economic activities of the indígenas and of many of the colombianos and Dariénitas are quite similar. Swidden agriculture is practiced on a very small scale in forest clearings. An important part of the diet and income comes from hunting and fishing, and no cattle are kept. Settlements border water courses.

Another production pattern is commercial plantain production. In Darién National Park, plantations border rivers and may extend as much as one kilometre from the bank. These are maintained by indígenas, but the production of plantain is generalized in Daríen.

Table 11. Ethnic groups in Darién, 1972

Ethnic group % Darién population
Dariénitas 52.00
Indígenas 24.00
Colombianos 17.50
Colonos 6.50
Total 100.00

Source: Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982.

Colombianos are characterized by people of Darién as loggers. Their major economic activity is tree cutting, either as day labourers, small-scale land-clearing contractors, or as regular employees of lumbering concessions.

The practice of combined farming and ranching is associated with the colonos, the recent migrants from other parts of Panama. The activities of these farmers have been discussed extensively in other publications (Heckadon Moreno and McKay 1982; Heckadon Moreno 1981), and they most significantly include the use of slash-and-burn agriculture as a process for clearing land for pastures. While the most notorious source of migrants is Los Santos, the first colonos in Darién were chiricanos (from Chiriqui Province), as are many of the more recent colonists.

The colonos have also become associated with commerce. They run stores and restaurants and act as middlemen in the commercialization of agricultural products and lumber.

The Process of Deforestation in Darién. The two major motives for deforestation in Darién are logging and farming.

Large-scale lumbering is carried out within a framework of concessions granted by RENARE, which authorizes the exploitation of 5,000 ha areas for a period of two years. Concessions are now quite distant from the highway, in areas which are thought to be generally uninhabited.

During a visit to Darién in July of 1984, a constant movement of lumber out of Darién was noted on the highway, mostly in the form of whole tree trunks. A visual inspection of passing trucks and lumber patios found 100 per cent of the lumber to be cedro espinoso (Bombacopsis quinatum) trunks of diameters in excess of 0.7 m and up to 2.0 m. No explanation was encountered for the predominance of Bombacopsis observed.

Small-scale logging is carried out by individual farmers. A few trees are felled on the farm and cut into tablones measuring from 12 x 12 cm to 40 x 40 cm and 3 to 6 m long. These tablones are dragged to the roadside to be sold to middlemen. A few mahogany tablones were seen.

Intermediate-scale logging is carried out on farms distant from the highway, where transport is extremely difficult. Log extraction in this case is carried out by small operators who use their own agricultural tractors to bring wood to the roadside. The cost of transport in this case is so high that it is only profitable for tractor owners to operate in this fashion.

Small- and intermediate-scale lumbering is an integral part of the colonization process. Lumber is extracted in the process of clearing the farm and to generate income. Most colonists seem to be poor, so short-term income and capitalization needs can only be financed through wood sales.

Problems of Colonists in Darién. A series of open-ended interviews were carried out with colonists of Darién to determine their perceptions of the problems and possibilities of agriculture in Darién.

A major problem perceived by colonists is their lack of knowledge of viable farming alternatives to apply in the area. For most farmers, cattle-raising has been an important source of income in other areas, but in Darién the programme for control of hoof-andmouth disease restricts marketing possibilities. * Nevertheless, all farms include an extension of pasture far in excess of their current needs. Farmers are clearly relying on their traditional agriculture strategies, even though they are inappropriate to the current situation, because they have not discovered more promising alternatives.

The quality of the soil is a major limiting factor in Darién agriculture. Some farmers report that good yields can only be expected for one or possibly two years. Such a rate of exhaustion would lead to an accelerated rate of conversion of farm land to pasture and forest to farm land.

Potable water presents a major problem in Darién. In the eastern part of Darién, water has a high mineral content. In the western part along the highway, water shortage is a limiting factor. While the normal dry season in Darién lasts three months, in 1981-1982 it extended to nearly seven months, and the colonists blocked the main highway to pressure the national guard to bring in drinking water, a practice which has been continued every year (Waterman 1984). Some areas, such as the higher parts of Nicanor, experience permanent water problems, and farmers along the highway plan to rely on piped public water sources. An especially doubtful element in their expectations is that the Filo de Tallo Biosphere Reserve will be the source of this water; the current deforestation of the reserve is not presently being controlled, which is having obvious effects on this crucial water supply. Significantly, one farm visit carried out in Darién was in the company of the director of the Agrarian Reform office and the judge of La Palma; the purpose of the visit was to view the arbitration in a farm boundary dispute which centred around access to a dryseason water source.

Finally, agricultural marketing for all products remains a problem and a disincentive for increased production. Local problems of transporting products to the main road, inadequate storage, and monopsonistic middlemen are major problems of the marketing system cited by farmers.


Contents - Previous - Next