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Panama's legendary Darien jungle has defeated the Pan-American
Highway and numerous attempts to tame its pristine
wilds. But, as loggers and settlers close in, one of
the world's richest wildlife habitats is headed for
the buzz saw, reports a DEET-slathered Scott Doggett.

Birds versus buzz saws in jungle joust

September 21, 2004|Scott Doggett

Darien National Park, Panama — Stumps, chuckholes, vipers and foliage have fogged into a brown-green blur. Eight river crossings have soaked through the duct tape I've wrapped around my feet to avoid what's now happening.

Led by Hernan Arauz, the son of Panama's foremost explorer, I've come to retrace the old gold route through one of the most formidable slices of jungle in the hemisphere and witness the forces gutting this once-forbidden realm. With each step, blisters ignite and mortal ambitions falter.

No surprise. The Darien jungle has never taken kindly to drop-ins. In 1699, 900 Scottish settlers rushed headlong into the jungle. Indians or malaria killed most within months. In 1854, an American expedition began hacking through the tangle of deadly snakes and Gordian roots in search of a canal route. They wound up lost and so hungry they ate their dead.

Even now, the 60-mile-wide Darien Gap is a chaos of deadly snakes, caimans, crocs, narco traffickers, mercenaries, guerrillas and bandits. Despite these deterrents, the Darien has long been coveted, first by Spanish conquistadors driven by gold lust, and now by loggers and settlers who threaten to destroy one of the Americas' richest wildernesses.

The conflict pits politicians and poachers against the indigenous Embera, Kuna and Wounaan who make the Darien their home, and environmentalists and eco-entrepreneurs who see forest green as the new gold, luring future flocks of adventure travelers and bird-watchers -- there are almost as many species of birds in the Darien as there are in the entire U.S. and Canada.

The key threat at the moment is Panama's accelerating effort to lay asphalt and improve a stretch of road that dead-ends at this jungle. The Darien Gap is the only break in the 16,000-mile Pan-American Highway, a string of roads proposed by the United States in 1923 to whisk American goods south, and endorsed by the South American nations through which it now passes.

Laborers throughout Latin America leveled dirt and laid asphalt on what had been horse and pedestrian trails, but work stopped at the Darien's labyrinth of rivers, swamps, rain forest and mountains.

Once technology caught up to geography, other concerns stymied the highway, including fears that roadwork would lead to widespread environmental damage; that foot-and-mouth disease would spread north from South America; and that the highway would launch Colombia's drug lords on an expressway to U.S. consumers.

Despite such worries, the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Development Bank, the largest public lender to Latin America and an aggressive proponent of the road's completion, is financing upgrades of the dirt and gravel stretches leading to the gap.

In two years, road builders will finish blacktopping the final segments of the existing highway, luring ever more loggers, farmers, cattle ranchers and developers. Proponents say this not only will aid the nation's progress but will also improve the lives of the Darien's native people by making it easier to sell their goods in Panama City, increasing their access to educational opportunity and healthcare -- and generally extending the virtues of civilization.

Environmentalists warn that the incursion will wipe out the wildlife -- and eco-adventure -- that many see as Panama's true economic hope.

Today, trucks stacked with logs 30 feet long and thicker than BMWs rumble by en route to mills closer to Panama City. "Every log that you see coming out represents the end of life for not only the tree itself but also for a myriad of insects and birds and to plants that were attached to it," says nature guide Arauz, machete in one hand, shotgun in the other. "It is a big loss. A big loss."

Hernan is the son of legendary explorer Amado Arauz and the late Reina Torres de Arauz, the country's most accomplished anthropologist. The stocky guide remembers his cleanshaven father heading off on expeditions and returning from the jungle thinner, his beard full, and brimming with stories. "I have many recollections of Indian chiefs coming to our house to talk to my mom about the issues they were dealing with on the indigenous reservations."

Hernan Arauz scrapped the cushy life of a career diplomat 15 years ago to become a naturalist guide and follow his parents into the jungle, where, in his own way, he continues his parents' efforts to increase understanding of the Darien.


No tourist attraction

Currently, fewer than 700 tourists visit Darien province's rain forests each year, spending an estimated $300,000. As many as 700 visitors a day may traipse about looking for monkeys and quetzals in one of neighboring Costa Rica's much smaller national parks. Ecotourism in Panama brings in $20 million a year, while Costa Rica nets $360 million annually from travelers visiting wild places. Arauz believes Darien National Park could attract 500 visitors a day without harming the environment.

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