Panama’s Chagres River

The Chagres River is to Panama what the Nile River is to Egypt. While the latter is the source of agricultural life and therefore existence, the former is vital to its existence as a port of call for ships plying the Atlantic-Pacific routes and therefore life.

The system of locks built for the Panama Canal was an engineering feat in its time; it involved the French and the English using newest knowledge and the best machines then to dig basins, install humongous pipes and figure out how to fill locks with the water from the Chagres. The work was tough – they had to cut through rather hard rock which at the time was next to impossible because the technology to do so wasn’t available. So they blew up a lot of the area and in doing so affected the biodiversity a bit. In digging around, they also found fossils like the skull of the extinct giant sloth.

It seemed to me that conservation efforts there are trying hard to mitigate the inevitable negative impact the busy Canal has on its environment. But the port is key to their economy and its biodiversity is equally important given that they are at the crossroads of the two oceans as well as North and South America, they need to keep a delicate balance. Balance is also subjective since a change in something could have far-reaching effects that tip the scales.

Their indigenous people, mainly the Embera, who live along the Chagres face restrictions on the way they live exactly because of conservation and protection of the Chagres. No longer can they hunt and gather so they are kind of forced to go to the supermarkets in the city. They can still fish though. Their way of life is threatened and living gets difficult- the way out for them is actually tourism. They invite curious tourists into their homes, cook for them and sell handicrafts in exchange for the right to continue living in their lands, have at least primary-level education delivered to their homes and have solar panels to charge handphones. I kid you not. We have progressive indigenous people and I am not sure if they sometimes get confused about the era they live in. Some do choose to leave and make a life in the city. And they would not be considered an outcast for ‘abandoning’ their people.

The 96-strong village we visited with warm but shy inhabitants had their first college grad return to continue the Embera way of life. It is expensive and hard work for them to send a child off to college without expectation that the child would return but Claudio did it anyway. He said his heart is where his family is. That, to me, is someone who has had pretty good education.

Maybe the Chagres River had something to do with it.