Panama City’s skyline is breathtaking. Rising up out of the bay, it’s all high rises with black vultures circling. It’s not all buildings though—within the city limits, there is rainforest in the Parque Municipal Summit. Just a 45 minute drive outside the city, and you’re in Soberanía National Park and the Pipeline Road, one of the best birdwatching spots in the world.
Over winter break, I traveled to Panama with my parents and brother to visit cousins who live there. We were ecstatic to go visit the rainforest, but every time we mentioned it to a Panamanian, they would roll their eyes, give us an amused smile, or say “gringos.” Our cousin told us to plan our trip to the national park on a day he was busy so he didn’t have to go.
We were shocked, particularly since everyone told us to make sure we saw the canal. How could the people be more proud of the Panama Canal than the amazing ecosystem they have literally in their backyard?
Of course, it could just be that Panamanians are used to the rainforest. It’s similar to how Americans find it hilarious when Australians are excited about seeing raccoons.
There seemed to be another level to it though, and this was confirmed when we went to the Biomuseo.
The Biomuseo is a museum in Panama City all about the amazing biodiversity in the country as well as the importance of the geographic location of the Isthmus of Panama. (It’s also the only building designed by architect Frank Gehry–of Disney Music Hall fame– in Latin America.)
One of the displays in the Biomuseo mentioned that the ecological and environmental importance of the rainforest is not taught in schools in Panama, and the people do not tend to know or care much about it. This was reinforced by our experiences: my cousins never went to the forest on school trips and the guide we hired to drive us to the national park kept saying “this is my Panama?” as we were walking through the jungle.
The display said that this was one of the reasons that the Biomuseo was founded.
The Isthmus of Panama united North and South America when it rose up from the ocean, and when it did, it changed ocean currents and world temperatures, as well as allowing for a massive exchange of plants and animals across the continents–the Great American Interchange. Though extremely important to the world’s biodiversity and ecological makeup, it is not common knowledge to locals that they live in the place that one of the world’s most important geological events occurred.
Though this is a very unique historical context specific to Panama, the actual situation is not that unique. After all, who at UC Santa Cruz doesn’t take our campus for granted sometimes? Though I can’t see sloths, monkeys, and iguanas lounging in trees as I walk to class, I can and do see so many other species of animals all the time.
We have threatened and endangered species on campus, both in the grasslands between East Field and Lower Campus and in the Natural Reserves, but most students don’t know about them. Maybe it’s time we learned more about our own ecosystem.