A Train Ride and the Fight to Save the Rainforest
There has been a railroad going from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean across the isthmus to Colón on the Atlantic Ocean for over 150 years. It is such a great way to cross the country. Can you believe it only takes and hour!? The train station is just at the edge of Panama City. When it leaves from there at 7:15, the train starts to climb up through the mountains toward Paraiso. At one point you even go through a tunnel! After you pass the small town of Paraiso, the landscape changes to mostly tropical rainforest. Some cars on the train have windows so you can see the trees as you ride through the forest. Best of all, we were lucky to spend that hour with Dr. Stanley Morreno-Heckadon. He has been working with the Smithsonian for many years and has many stories to share.
We were most impressed with his story about how he and a few others saved a part of the rainforest. There is a large area of land located in the former Canal Zone. This is land that was occupied by the United States so that they could be in charge of the canal. When the U.S. gave the canal and all of the land back to the Panamanians, some developers wanted to build big businesses and factories on that land. Dr. Stanley wanted to save that forest land.
So how do you save a tropical rainforest?
The birth of ecotourism
Dr. Stanley is a very smart man. He has written many books and knows lots of people. He cares deeply about the people and the land of Panamá. He talks with communities and their members all over the country, he visits villages and cities to meet their leaders, he works with scientists from around the world, and he has to meet with the politicians who make decisions about how the country should run.
Years ago when the U.S. began the process of turning the Canal Zone back over to the Panamanian people, there were many decisions to make. The majority of land on both sides of the Canal Zone was still heavily forested but had a few towns that housed some of the people who worked for the Canal and the two big port cities, Panama City and Colón.
At that time many of the politicians and rich business owners wanted to cut down most of the forest along the canal in the name of progress. Dr. Stanley explained that for them, progress would be businesses and jobs. They thought that factories and warehouses along the canal would be a better use of the land and that they could make lots of money. But he also explained that progress for the people who lived on that land meant losing their homes and having to find another place to live. For the animals progress meant that their habitat would be destroyed. The animals would lose everything. All of the plants and trees would also be torn down. Dr. Stanley wanted to save that land. Fortunately, he was asked to participate in the conversation and be a part of that decision.
Knowing that they wanted to cut down the forests, he knew he had to change their minds, but how?! He knew that they would want to hear how the land could make money. But he wasn't sure himself.
One day, he mentioned this problem to a scientist who studied crickets in Panamá. The cricket scientist, who wanted to save the forest because it is home to many crickets, was also concerned. After thinking about it for some time, he asked Dr. Stanley, “do you know how many Japanese tourists come to look at birds here in Panamá every year?”
Dr. Stanley thought that was interesting.
The next time they saw each other the cricket scientist asked, “do you have any idea how many Americans come here each year and buy tee shirts with butterflies printed on them?”
It was clear. The forest didn't have to be cut down to make money. The forest could be used to make money!
The next time they saw each other they continued to talk about many of the animals and plants that were found in Central American Rainforests. They talked about how many people from all over the world would spend money in Panamá just to see the amazing plants and animals. Dr. Stanley knew that he had to get the cricket scientist to meet with the Panamanian politician who wanted to cut down the forests for ‘progress’. He knew the cricket scientist would be able to convince them to leave the forest be.
Dr. Stanley found his chance. He knew the person who made appointments for the politician. He had her schedule a meeting with the cricket scientist and the politician on a helicopter so that everyone could see the land and the forest and no one could walk away. We don’t know exactly what was said during the flight over the Canal Zone, but when they got off of the helicopter, the decision had been made to protect the forest! Soberania National Park was established in 1980 along much of the eastern side of the canal.