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Panama’s Big Hairy Wart

Panama can be described, as a beautiful princess. A princess who although stunningly beautiful, vibrant and bursting with energy, has one obvious disfigurement, she has a large hairy wart! Even though it dominates the tip of her dainty button nose, she seems oblivious.

If I were forced to describe Panama in one word  – that word would have to be “Trashy”.

As visitors to Panama, your first impression will probably be the one we experienced. There is trash everywhere! Trash in the ditches, in the streets, plastic bags in trees, and trash piled in front of homes.  At the feet of Panama City’s impressive skyline is an amazing mess of clotted traffic and stinking, unhygienic piles of garbage. The waterways that run through the city into the Bay of Panama, straddle the line between river and open sewer. The assailing stench of the brown garbage slush that passes for water grabs you by the gut and twists violently.

 Panama City-15

Panama has a problem, a trash problem. A problem shared by much of the developing world. Unlike most of the developing world, Panama has a booming economy, which leads us to ask why can this not be handled. Is our princess really so oblivious to her big hairy wart?

Panama’s ability to generate garbage far outstrips its ability to deal with it, or at least the funds allocated to facilitate its proper disposal.

As observers bought up with a no littering mentality, we cannot fail to note that there appears to be a cultural aspect to the trashiness of Panama. Many Panamanians are very casual when it comes to garbage. We have witnessed this on a daily basis, people simply toss garbage over their shoulder once done with. The thousands of plastic plates, forks and styrofoam containers used by the cities food vendors are tossed away once done with, either onto the street or out their car window–apparently, without any thought at all–it appears that garbage is somebody else’s responsibility.

The piles of gaping bags which line the streets and the junk littering the beaches not only offends the tourists but also has festered into a public health issue. When we visited Panama 6 months ago, the stories on the evening news were the same as they are today – the piles of stinking trash are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and rats, causing a real concern for public health.

Panama City-3

Mosquitoes can breed in small amounts of water, even those found in a beer can, a stryofoam container or an old tire. Dengue fever is a problem in Central America, especially in Panama. There were 3,232 cases reported in Panama in 2013, three times the amount reported in 2012. The nationwide Dengue alert is now at epidemic status.

Even when the garbage is collected – the health issues are still present. Panama’s garbage landfills often catch fire, blanketing its downwind citizens in a cloud of toxic smoke. The majority of dumps in Panama are located in shrubby areas, swamps and riverbanks. Residents in Playa Uverito near Las Tablas speak of seeing overflowing dumps bulldozed into the mangroves. This garbage often ends up on the beaches after heavy rainfalls. 

Panama Trash-3

Another concern with many garbage dumps in Panama is the lack of proper environmental engineering practices. Protective membranes with layers of earth covering the garbage are often nonexistent. This is a real concern when you consider that some of the municipal water supply comes from nearby wells.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. The same may be said about what a nation does with its garbage.

Things do change with time. I remember not too long ago in North American smoking was good for you and drinking and driving was considered a sport!

Awareness appears to be growing; is there change afoot in Panama? Concepts such as recycling, sustainability and environmental awareness are appearing more in the media. Beach clean ups are common occurrences especially in the Beaches area outside of Panama City. Yet some beach goers still consider it too much effort to take their trash home with them or to walk a few feet and toss it into the nearby trashcan (if it is not already overflowing). Instead, it litters the beach or washes out with the tide, laying broken bottle and rusty can traps for the unwary wader and floating plastic hazards for marine life.

Maybe the Dengue hazard will be the incentive for the princess to spend a little money, a little effort and get that big hairy wart removed. Hopefully Panama will soon no longer be a country of plastic bag trees and garbage choked gutters.

Panama Trash-10

About the author: Apparently born under a wandering star, Michael spent hours as a kid poring over maps, atlases and plotting where he wanted to travel when he grew up. Sadly Engineering school got in the way….. “it takes 5 years to complete and a lot longer to get over”. He still considers himself a “recovering” Professional Engineer. He escaped the rat race at 44 and now pursues his passions for travel, photography, Tai chi, scuba diving, cooking and sampling the world’s wines. Michael is also… Fiercely independent, a bit of a rebel, is on a self-imposed media diet & married to an incredible lady.

10 comments… add one
  • Barry

    Wow, nice to see an article not seemingly sponsored in some way and glossing over some real issues. I salute the writer and also truly hope it can in some way further push efforts to make the change needed to make Panama the beauty it surely can be.

    • mbauche

      Thanks for the comment Barry – No sponsorship here – just the facts! We call it like we see it.

  • Thanks for this very insightful article about Panama, Michael. It’s sad that such an obvious need can’t be addressed.

    • mbauche

      I hope we don’t dissuade people from visiting Panama, it is a wonderful country. Like everywhere else in the world there is always room for improvement.

  • After the dump clean up in October that was organized locally here in Playa Uverito and facilitated by the governor, we have seen some changes for the better in the local trash problem. Trash barrels have been added to the dump entrance and, Gasp!, are actually being used. Local authorities have talked with people at the dump and dictated a “no burning” policy which has been adhered to so far. Some expats are teaching by power of example, picking up trash on the beach with a number of Panamanians following suit. I believe a deposit/return program on plastic and glass bottles would help diminish the trash problem as people would be more likely to return cans and bottles for refunds. The very poor would also help by combing litter for those cans and bottles to supplement their income. Educating school children in eco friendly stewardship would be beneficial too. Plant the seed of environmental responsibility now and watch for future harvest. One step at a time, one article at a time, and one person at a time, Panama is changing.

    • mbauche

      Change does happen! I believe leading by example is the best way of promoting change.

  • Keep on writing, grea job!

  • Wow it’s amazing how much advertisers try to hide the real truth about some places.

  • I’ll be staying in Panama for 3 months the street that my girlfriend lives, trash pick up three times a week, Yet people walk down the street with arms full of trash and deposited big pile in front of federal government offices.

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