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The Panama Canal is one of the largest transportation projects of the 20th century that continues to play a critical role in global shipping routes in the modern-day. A recent expansion of the canal has accentuated the complexity of its exploitation in terms of ecological development. The political challenges around the canal as an international project with local consequences has compromised its efficacy as an ecologically viable project. The construction of the Panama Canal has profound local environmental impacts which are based on socio-political management of the project that has demonstrated the infrastructural and ecological interdependence of its service as a global transportation hub.
The transit of a cargo ship through the Panama Canal leads to 52 million gallons of freshwater draining into the ocean. The water comes from the local river which feeds from Gatun Lake and Alajuela Lake. The canal’s infrastructure is increasingly detrimental to the local environment by draining its watersheds, resulting in massive deforestation and biodiversity loss over the decades of its operation. The paradox lies at the ecological dependence of the canal’s function to the existence of rainforests which are rapidly destroyed. As a massive infrastructure project, the canal made a tremendous impact on the local ecology which led to the creation of a new hybrid natural environment for any involved ecosystems 1. The environmental cost of the construction of the canal had a long-lasting impact as it shifted the local ecosystem. The result was not only evident in practices such as deforestation and freshwater loss but complex phenomenon as fragmentation impacted the migration of both marine and tropical species.
Political factors formed the water management system of the canal, and then the project began to play its role as a political force itself. During the canal construction, thousands of people were displaced and cut off from traditional water sources. Furthermore, the hydrological reliability of the canal became dependent on the flow of traffic rather than controlled by Panama itself which significantly decreased available water volume. The canal serves an infrastructural organism that is based in the socio-politics of the region. There are specific laws, agendas, and treaties which govern the canal’s operation that is necessary for its function. Carse points out that the canal has come into conflict with the rural development of infrastructures of the Panamanian state. Each of these infrastructures has given rise to political ecologies with winners and losers.2 Infrastructure projects and standards stand as the center of political contention. However, the traditional political forces are also challenged as the destabilization allows the rise of advocates and activists which may mobilize pro-environmental support. It allows collective action to establish standards and infrastructure which benefit local economic development and social priorities rather than the global commercial interests.3
The impact of the canal has shown the interdependence of the infrastructural project, and the natural environment as new dynamic socio-ecological conditions are created with further expansion. These consist of invasive species, public health concerns, and water quality management. From the very origins of the canal construction, the infrastructural objective was to ‘triumph’ over the local tropical environment. It was described as “dominance by design,” a project which conquered geopolitical, economic, and ecological challenges. Historically, it was viewed as the conquering of the environment through engineering means to create a manageable habitat for civilization in tropics which were once inhabited by natives. In retrospect, the Panama Canal became a territory of hybrid environmental management which requires a competent approach to maintain the human and ecological balance.4
Carse emphasizes infrastructure as a process of ‘relationship-building.’ Regional infrastructural developments focused on local water circulation is aimed to perpetuate the functioning of the Panama Canal is a global commercial transportation enterprise. The corroboration of the canal facilities with the local natural environment creates a unified and interconnected infrastructural project. However, it requires complex technical, administrative, and political governance that must maintain a sprawling socio-technical system of the canal’s transportation network. Often, global politics overpower a need for local environmental services. Therefore, engineering systems such as the Panama Canal require a reevaluation of ethical and socio-political utilization of natural infrastructure in a manner that is equitable for the regional environment and population.5
The construction of the Panama Canal has had profound environmental impacts on the local ecosystem and water circulation. The socio-political developments around the canal’s exploitation have shown that there is an inherent interdependence between infrastructure and ecology. The canal is an engineering feat that disturbs the local natural environment in an attempt to manage it for human needs. However, it results in unintended ecological and socio-political consequences which require a rebalanced approach of using local resources for global commercial purposes. As further plans to expand the canal are designed, a competent approach should be made to accommodate socio-ecological factors for Panama to prevent its further exploitation.
Carse, Ashley. Beyond the Big Ditch. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014.
Carse, Ashley, and Joshua Lewis. “Toward a Political Ecology of Infrastructure Standards: Or, How to Think About Ships, Waterways, Sediment, and Communities Together.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 49, no. 1 (2016): 9-28.
Krishnan, Siddhartha, Christopher Pastore, and Samuel Temple. “Unruly Environments.” Environmental and Society Portal. Web.
- Ashley Carse, Beyond the Big Ditch. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 5.
- Ashley Carse, Beyond the Big Ditch. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 6.
- Ashley Carse, and Joshua Lewis, ” Toward a Political Ecology of Infrastructure Standards: Or, How to Think About Ships, Waterways, Sediment, and Communities Together,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 49, no. 1 (2016): 13.
- Siddhartha Krishnan, Christopher Pastore, and Samuel Temple, “Unruly Environments,” Environment and Society Portal, Web.
- Ashley Carse, Beyond the Big Ditch. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 11.