Plan To Sell Off Panama’s ‘Crown Jewel’ Of Protected Areas Has World Worried About Similar Schemes Elsewhere

Debate has erupted over a development plan for Panama’s Coiba National Park — a World Heritage Site.  Critics are worried it could unleash harmful development and be a bellwether for plans to degrade and damage other protected areas around the world.

Coiba is an island chain and vast marine area in Panama’s Pacific coast.  It contains massive reefs and among the highest fish diversity documented anywhere.

The United Nations has threatened to declare Coiba a World Heritage Site in Danger due to concerns about over-fishing and the aggressive development plans ahead.

MANY PROTECTED AREAS IN PERIL

The story of Coiba — the current push and pull — is reflective of many debates around protected areas, both terrestrial and marine.

How much should we economize our protected areas?  How much infrastructure is too much?  How many tourists can a site really support?

We all want protected areas with at least some access — but at the same time we want environmental protection.

Proponents of private enterprize in protected areas argue that much can be gained by strong public-private partnerships, including saving parks that have essentially been abandoned by governments.

But the details always matter: What exactly is being privatized?  For how long?

In the U.S., the Trump administration has been criticized for suggesting privatizing campgrounds, selling off public lands, and proposing a massive hike in the numbers of allowed visitors for some national parks.

A plan to privatize England’s forests was abandoned in 2011 after mass protests, but environmentalists contend it is happening anyway.

The Brazilian state of São Paulo has recently privatized 25 of its state parks leading to an outcry among environmentalists and politicians.

PRIVATIZE PARKS, OR KEEP THEM MORE PRISTINE?

Parks are too often ignored by our governments — but when they aren’t, they are often seen as direct money generators, not conservation landscapes protected for all generations.

Research shows that protected areas are good for both local and national economies, so long as they are well-managed, smartly-designed, and valued not just for tourism but for protection.

Panama needs to decide just what it wants out of Coiba National Park: an industrialized tourism bonanza, or a place rich in wildlife and ecosystems that supports smaller locally-owned tourism ventures.

Many other nations are facing difficult decisions as well.

Jeremy Hance is a leading environmental journalist and regular contributor to ALERT.