Shirley Binder is the National Director of protected areas and biodiversity of the Ministry of the Environment. She tells us about the possibilities of Panama to develop in a sustainable way into a green tourism destination.
My experience in Panama since 2013 includes work as a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Fundación MarViva and at the Ministry of the Environment, in the Directorate of Coasts and Seas, before doing a master's degree in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University, New York, to return to the Ministry of the Environment as the National Director of protected areas and biodiversity. My job consists of safeguarding the protected areas and biodiversity of our Panama, both terrestrial and marine. More than 33% of the territory and 13% of the waters of Panama are considered protected areas, where the conservation pillars that maintain the ecological processes necessary for humans are concentrated. My job is to regulate their protection, the development of management plans, which establish what can and cannot be done in each area, to coordinate the daily work of surveillance and control together with the park rangers, but also the whole issue of biodiversity, wildlife and research.
The Isthmus of Panama is unique in terms of biodiversity, being one of the reasons why the foundations of many investigations were laid here. It is necessary to publicize the importance of this biodiversity and its benefits; It is necessary to educate as to why environmental protection is important, not only with a conservation aim, but for the country's economy. Without forests, for example, we would lose a large part of the consumable water and there would be no water for the Panama Canal’s operation. That is why the entire Canal basin is full of protected areas, that safeguard the forests so they continue providing water to the Canal, our economic pillar.
Another social and economic benefit that protected areas provide and for which they are important is for tourism, although now it is severely hit by COVID-19. Tourism in the protected areas of Panama is growing and many communities around the country depend on it. In order to educate, it is important to point out the social and economic benefits that a healthy natural environment provides us, among those benefits tourism, a non-extractive activity that, if well managed, promotes the conservation of these areas. Costa Rica bet on green tourism since the 70s, and we have been able to appreciate how the country has developed an economy around it. Here in Panama things started to move and we are betting on it. After COVID, tourism demand is expected to be concentrated in natural, open and well-ventilated places, so protected areas are ideal. Unlike other countries we have forest covered national parks in the backyard of the city. For example, Panama has Pipeline Road, in the Soberanía National Park, one of the best bird watching places in the region, just 30 minutes from the city, but if you are not a bird watcher you probably did not know.
We must correctly promote our natural heritage, encouraging sustainable green tourism, something that is already being seen. I want to emphasize the word sustainable: It is not opening up to mass tourism, as many people may think, but one that is controlled by respecting the conservation values of protected areas, the regulations established for their creation and always safeguarding wildlife within of these areas. Within these protected areas, there are zones of absolute protection, where you cannot build even a cabin, but there are also other parts where some type of low-impact development is allowed that serves for surveillance and control activities but also for visitation. Something important in these types of developments, which probably should be an alliance between the government and private companies, is that the surrounding community benefits from these activities. That line between absolute conservation and sustainable development is super thin and for me it is a challenge that must always be taken into account.
As for what we can do to promote the conservation of these areas: go and visit them. Every time you visit the protected areas of Panama you fall in love and start to promote their conservation. Also, when going to protected areas, you need accommodation, food, sometimes transportation and guides or other local services that help pushing a whole economy around your visit.
Shirley Binder is on Instagram @ShirleyBinder