In 1996, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Republic of Panama's Environmental Authority, with support from the United States Agency for International Development, undertook a comprehensive program to monitor the ecosystem of the Panama Canal watershed. The goals were to establish baseline indicators for the integrity of forest communities and rivers. Based on satellite image classification and ground surveys, the 2790 km2 watershed had 1570 km2 of forest in 1997, 1080 km2 of which was in national parks and nature monuments. Most of the 490 km2 of forest not currently in protected areas lies along the west bank of the Canal, and its management status after the year 2000 turnover of the Canal from the U.S. to Panama remains uncertain. In forest plots designed to monitor forest diversity and change, a total of 963 woody plant species were identified and mapped. We estimate there are a total of 850-1000 woody species in forests of the Canal corridor. Forests of the wetter upper reaches of the watershed are distinct in species composition from the Canal corridor, and have considerably higher diversity and many unknown species. These remote areas are extensively forested, poorly explored, and harbor an estimated 1400-2200 woody species. Vertebrate monitoring programs were also initiated, focusing on species threatened by hunting and forest fragmentation. Large mammals are heavily hunted in most forests of Canal corridor, and there was clear evidence that mammal density is greatly reduced in hunted areas and that this affects seed predation and dispersal. The human population of the watershed was 113 000 in 1990, and grew by nearly 4% per year from 1980 to 1990. Much of this growth was in a small region of the watershed on the outskirts of Panama City, but even rural areas, including villages near and within national parks, grew by 2% per year. There is no sewage treatment in the watershed, and many towns have no trash collection, thus streams near large towns are heavily polluted. Analyses of sediment loads in rivers throughout the watershed did not indicate that erosion has been increasing as a result of deforestation, rather, erosion seems to be driven largely by total rainfall and heavy rainfall events that cause landslides. Still, models suggest that large-scale deforestation would increase landslide frequency, and failure to detect increases in erosion could be due to the gradual deforestation rate and the short time period over which data are available. A study of runoff showed deforestation increased the amount of water from rainfall that passed directly into streams. As a result, dry season flow was reduced in a deforested catchment relative to a forested one. Currently, the Panama Canal watershed has extensive forest areas and streams relatively unaffected by humans. But impacts of hunting and pollution near towns are clear, and the burgeoning population will exacerbate these impacts in the next few decades. Changes in policies regarding forest protection and pollution control are necessary.
Additional publication details
An ecosystem report on the Panama Canal: Monitoring the status of the forest communities and the watershed