Fighting the waste in Panama

As the tropical rain pours down outside, I am sitting here hoping that the tide is out. Otherwise, tomorrow morning we are going to wake up to news and images of the flooding throughout the lower parts of Panama City.

Unfortunately, Panama City has not done a great job of “city planning”, especially in respect to natural runoffs and areas of watershed. As the population and housing needs expand, the city has expanded. Encroaching on tidelands and mangrove forests. Though there has been a move now to curb the expansion into the mangroves, there has still been a lot of land-fill of the tidelands that were once the watersheds of the river basin. So, areas which were built 40-50 years ago, which have never flooded before, now flood regularly when the high tide and tropical rain meet.

Many people accuse the government of failing to deal with the issue of waste and rubbish blocking the sewage and storm water drains. But the issue is much bigger than this; there are

  • The typical issues of rubbish bags being opened by stray dogs, cats or vultures.
  • Failure to collect rubbish regularly (most weeks our rubbish is collected on a Sunday, or not). Sometimes we simply have to call and beg them to send a special truck to pick up because it’s been so long.
  • Homes here don’t have gardens and composting: and most people don’t even know what compost is anyway.
  • This is the tropics – you can’t just leave rubbish out for more than a day without it starting to turn rancid.
  • Re-cycling is virtually non-existent here and there is only a small culture of reuse and recycle.

I’m aware of this every Saturday when I go to the market with my own bags and I still have to refuse the offer of a plastic bag at each stall. I’m aware of this when I go to the supermarket and I see that most people are not carrying their own bags. And I’m aware of it when I see the rubbish on the sides of the streets.

This issue has not been addressed by recycling stations at the primary schools or outside supermarkets or gas stations.  Even trying to recycle paper and cardboard in Panama seems to be hard work! They don’t come and pick it up – you have to drive it over and drop it off. How many companies or homes are going to take the time to do that?

But I am even aware of it in my kitchen. Every maid so far has had to be trained not to simply throw away the peel and veggies that are “up to scratch”. They don’t realize that those ugly veggies that are not pretty enough for the salad can be used to make a fabulous vegetable broth!

And then they complain to me that I don’t have any bullion cubes for veggie broth! Really?  Admittedly, my cooked veggies from the broth that I then throw away (and keep only the broth) probably decompose much faster in the rubbish than the raw ones would have – they probably smell more as well.

But more than anything, I am appalled by the packaging at the supermarkets (not that I buy my veggies at the supermarket anymore) – the way that they individually wrap all in Styrofoam and glad-wrap! As if there wasn’t enough rubbish already.

But this is definitely a modern day problem, the same way that the floating island of rubbish is a problem in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the plastic now found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench!

There are ingenious solutions found in a number of parts of the world, such as this solution to “flip-flops”:

It’s really easy to complain about the problem, it’s much harder to do something about it. Even on a personal level. I can make small choices:

  • a recycling bin in the yard (because I’m lucky enough to have a  yard)
  • the choice to take my own bags to the vegetable market and supermarkets and only buy fruit and veggies that are not pre-packaged
  • the conscious decision to hold onto the paper to take it to the recycling plant ourselves
  • metal / glass water bottles – which we refill regularly rather than buying bottled water

But the plastic bags, bottles and packaging issues need to be addressed on a massive scale if we are going to make any headway.  My little contribution is only a tiny grain of sand in the Sahara desert and that’s not enough.

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Panama, business, money, entrepreneur, business index, economy, doing business, starting a business, economic indicators, ideal business environment, import, export, fintech, incubators, assistance

Panama’s money stories – the way forward

Ranking and Index: doing business in Panama

One of the difficulties that I see on the way forward, is that Panama is not the easiest country in which to set up a business (locally) and run it.

Panama scores a low #54 in “economic freedom” according to the Heritage.org, having a score of 67.0 – because of drops in property rights and government integrity (corruption).  On the other hand, the Fraser Institute and the Economic Freedom Network place Panama for 2017 at #30 in Economic Freedom.  Forbes lists Panama as #64 in “Best Countries for Business“.  Unfortunately, economic growth has depended on debt-financed infrastructure projects, while the economy has depended heavily on transportation and logistics services.

One of the biggest problems with all the infrastructure development and spending is the burden this creates on tax payers.  General government gross debt accounted for 39% of GDP in 2017, with a fiscal deficit of 3.1% (up substantially from 2% in 2016). That said, amazingly enough the IMF estimates Panama will have the highest per capita GDP in Latin America – USD 25.712 – in 2018.

That said, Panama continues to have the fastest growing economy in the region: our well-developed services sector accounts for over 75% of GDP.   Before the crash of 2008, Panama has the highest growth rate in Latin America (close to 11%) – with real estate prices and speculation leading the rush.  Since 2013, the GDP has slowed from previous levels of 6-8%, and following on from the #PanamaPapers scandal the banking and corporate services sectors have diminished considerably.  The services which continue to contribute to GDP include logistics, banking, the Colon Free Zone, insurance, container ports, tourism and offshore services to a lesser extent.

Unfortunately, Panama dropped (2016-2017) on the global entrepreneurship index from 32.2 to 26.1, and in the innovation index ranks also #63.  In human development, Panama also ranks similarly at #61.  Likewise, in the knowledge economy index, we come in at #64.

Having looked at these indexes, it is interesting to see how well Panama is moving with respect to FinTech, blockchain and the implementation of these technologies. As Panama seeks to leave behind the shroud of “shady deals” and “Panama Papers”, the Ministry of Economy & Finance has announced an initiative to regulate FinTech, blockchain, sandboxes, crypto-currencies, and crowd-funding enterprises.

Development of the Fintech industry in Panama

Bitcoin, blockchain, fintech, crypto, currency, FinTech, disruption, innovationUnbeknownst to most people, Panama is on the list of countries that are friendliest to Bitcoin and crypto worldwide!

Panafintech is the Panamanian Association of Fintech, who so far have organised five blockchain and fintech events.  Back in 2017 they organised an event for 300 people from banking and finance, to discuss blockchain – its scope and application.  It was at this event back in 2017 that Cryptobuyer announced that it was moving to the City of Knowledge and that it would be developing Blockchain Academy Latam.

Blockchain Academy offers training not only to developers and entrepreneurs, but also for financial institutions (such as banks), organizations, schools and the government.  It also offers a bootcamp in which it is possible to learn about cryptocurrencies, industry, mining, Blockchain, opening a digital wallet and other applications of the technology.

blockchain-3212312_1280Cryptobuyer is unique in Panama, offering the “Blockchain Academy Panama“, in which it offers training and certification in programming with blockchain, and has its offices in Ciudad del Saber.  Additionally, it has installed Bitcoin ATMS in parts of Panama, such as in Banistmo (since June 2017) and has installed Cryptobuyer Pay in various local businesses (so that they can accept payments in Bitcoin and other currencies).

Cryptobuyer also set up Blockchain Embassy Panama, which opened in 2017.  In addition to offering crypto clothing and merchandise, craft beers, hardware wallets and working space, the embassy also gives cryptocurrency workshops and presentations.

The first large-scale conference on fintech & blockchain was held May 5 & 6th, at Ciudad del Saber, and called “PanamChain“, with Andreas Antonopoulos  as the Keynote Speaker (author – Mastering Bitcoin (O’Reilly Media), speaker, educator) .  This event was organised by Cryptobuyer and Panafintech.

Coming up on May 24th, Panama will host its secondDigital Business Day“, offered by CAPAtec – the Panamanian Chamber of IT, Innovation & Telecommunications.  This is a “Microsoft Experience Day” – about AI, transforming customer experiences, using ChatBots, and “intelligent billing”.

Disruption & change of the market

Fintech additionally has a role to play in Panama’s “offshore industry”. At its simplest, financial technology – or fintech – applies technological innovations to financial processes, products and services. It could easily play a large role in the lucrative business of identity verification, eKYC and fraud detection. This could also directly impact in the banking industry, if Panamanian banks could work out how to incorporate this into their account opening process.

blockchain-3019120_1280Experts in blockchain have shown that banks could easily change their account opening process to a simple 5-step process relying on this system.  Some go so far as to claim blockchain technology could transform international financial transactions in much the way the Internet transformed communications. Of course, on some levels fintech competes with the traditional financial methods of delivering financial services.

Blockchain = distributed ledger technology  – provides decentralized networks that simply record transactions.  So, for example, IBM provides “Blockchain-as-a-service” for banks.  It is interesting to see how the blockchain industry could have helped Panama avoid the #PanamaPapers, as expressed by Otonomos BCC:

Our hope is that a decentralised database, which by its very nature is secure, tamperproof by third-parties and immutable even by its very authors, can be looked at by enlightened regulators around the world. This technological architecture could ultimately become a global, cross-jurisdictional database.
At Otonomos, which represents private company shares on blockchain and makes them programmable, we have engineered a decentralised solution that performs Know-Your-Customer checks at every stage of the ownership chain of company shares, and watermarks the shares with the UBO’s identity.
In addition, Otonomos has architectured our solution with the privacy of end-users in mind. We make public only such information regulators in a specific jurisdiction require to be publicly accessible, whilst masking non-publicly disclosed information.
Finally, we future-proofed our solution by letting third-party verification agents — typically organisations such as banks who by legal mandate from their Government can perform KYC checks -“stamp” people’s KYC at the blockchain level, resulting in a layered verification process in which every check fortifies a user’s KYC.

Nonetheless, it seems that tech giants are much further ahead in disrupting banks, as these lag behind in cloud computing, AI and big data.  Fintechs define the direction of innovation in financial services, but they face a challenge in their ability to scale (something that companies like Amazon or Facebook have already dealt with).  So, for example, Amazon Web Services provides cloud computing for Capital One and Nasdaq.  That’s because of the scope of the transactions that occur on a single day, which small start up fintech companies are not ready to handle.

If what we see internationally occurs in Panama, this means that large banks are acquiring fintech companies and digital banks, as strategic acquisitions – they are simply leveraging the competition to re-establish their leadership in the market.  So, for example, in Panama we have a small crypto-currency that was recently established:  Natan Edu – created by a group of young entrepreneurs, as a payment system in education, to allow payments of online courses.  This was created by Osmar Major and Marcos Pineda (22 and 24 years old respectively).  Will this be swallowed up by bigger players in the market?  Additionally, just this week, DigitalX (the first crypto-currency fund established in Australia) indicated that it is looking at Panama to establish the Latin American financial hub.

Response from the banking sector

Panama’s banking sector, however, has been very cautious in response to fintech, indicating that until it is fully regulated, they simply see the possibilities of further scandals for money laundering.  On this note, Panama’s banking Superintendence issued a notice to banks that the activity of exchange, investment, purchasing, and commercialization of “Bitcoin” or any other crypto-currency is unregulated in Panama.

As a result, some traders were threatened with having their bank accounts closed at local banks for receiving funds from their international crypto accounts!  This seems to be completely contrary to the way it is being dealt with, for example, in the US where Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley both announced that they were going to get involved in crypto-currencies.

Nonetheless, we find that Australia (leading with DigitalX), the UK and other jurisdictions have all introduced regulations in order to create the market conditions for development of fintech, blockchain and financial services.  For example, back in 2015-2016 the UK introduced their regulatory framework, working closely with the operators, so that fintech firms could set up.  This involved the Innovation hub (similar to what Panama wishes to do in the City of Knowledge), in which the businesses can understand the financial regulations and how these might apply to their business model.

As with the Innovation Hub in the UK, the City of Knowledge will simply provide guidelines, from which the startup would need to apply for the regulatory approval from the respective agency (possibly the Banking Superintendence or the Securities Commission).  Also copied from the UK is the idea of the “sand box” – where fintech startups can test their financial products and their business model in the market, and then work out the details of regulation as the market develops.

So, as Panama looks to regulate “Specialized Financial Entities”, as it is calling fintech companies, setting up crowd-funding enterprises, incubators and sand boxes, I hope that it doesn’t simply protect the interests of the existing players (like banks), but rather innovates to draw into the country investors, know-how, and entrepreneurs that are looking to build something special from Panama.

 

 

 

Panama, business, money, entrepreneur, business index, economy, doing business, starting a business, economic indicators, ideal business environment, import, export, fintech, incubators, assistance

Panama’s money stories, part 2

In Part 1 of Panama’s money stories, I highlighted some of the sordid details that Panama has been known for and the ways that Panama has been presented and vilified in the press internationally.  In this Part 2, I want to have a good look at what Panama has to offer, the strengths and weaknesses of Panama’s location, workforce, and infrastructure.  In Part 3, I am simply going to dream of “what could be” – well, because this is PanUtopia.

Location, location, location

Like any good real estate investment, Panama has a great location.

It is the Bridge of the Americas and the Crossroads of the World: with the InterAmerican (or Pan-American) highway travelling East-West along the entire length of the Isthmus (well, except for the Darien Gap which Panama refuses to open – but that’s fodder for another post). Running North-South through the Istmus is the Panama Canal, recently expanded to allow post-Panamax ships to pass through.

The Pan-American highway has many stories to tell, haivng 14,000 miles of road (or roads) that traverse from Tierra del Fuego all the way to the Arctic Ocean. I remember at 8 years old a French couple that had started riding their motorbikes in Argentina and were heading up through Mexico, intending to get all the way to Alaska! pedal moped, riding bikes, interamerican highway, argentina, alaska, mexico, colombia, Panama, Bridge of the Americas

They were something like this – but much more worn and dirty! And fitted out to carry their bags on the back, and side-bags.  At 8 years old, I could only imagine the adventures they were having!  Roll forward to 2018 and we still get those bikers through Panama – perhaps riding better bikes, but with the same adventuresome spirits!

As the land bridge between the two continents, Panama boasts an incredible variety of species, both plant and animal life.  From North America, it has jaguars, tapirs and deer, from South America sloths, anteathers and armadillos, and from the oceans the giant sea turtles which lay their eggs in Bocas del Toro and even on the Casco Viejo beach in Panama City!

Panama, Isthmus, land bridge, Bridge of the Americas, Crossroads of the WorldPanama is blessed in its location: we are protected from the hurricane belt, getting pelted only by tropical storms and heavy rain.  While Panama rests on the Pedro Miguel fault line, it does not have a history of seismic activity.  You might read about the 1621 earthquake, or the 1991 Bocas del Toro earthquake (which actually happened in Costa Rica, but caused considerable damage in the neighbouring Bocas area).  This is one the strongest recorded earthquakes in Costa Rican history, registered at 7.7! But, as noted, it was actually in Costa Rica…

Since the 1500s (you might remember the pirate stories) Panama has played an important role in international trade routes: from Peru through to Spain, with the French and the United States heavily interested in participation in the possibilities of this location.  Even today, Taiwan and China dispute investment and participation in the Panamanian economy (the ports), and a US presence is continually felt under the terms of the 1979 treaty in spite of the removal of a military presence.

Hub of the Americas

Panama Canal, Miraflores, locks, logisticsFrom this location, Panama has become known as “the hub of the Americas” – one of the most significant transportation and logistics countries in the world.

As a travel hub, Panama has developed Tocumen International Airport to attract flights from Europe (KLM, Lufthansa, AirFrance, Iberia, Turkish Airlines, & Condor), China, and North, Central and South America.  The recent investment in the expansion of Tocumen is about 84% completed, with an expected completion in the third quarter of 2018.  This investment project was above US$900M, taking it up to 54 gates and extending the runway for larger aircraft. By 2025, the two terminals are expected to handle some 25 million passengers per year.

Panama has also become an important hub for telecommunications, with the Submarine Cables passing through Fort Amador and Colon (such as the Arcos Cable that connects Central America, Florida and the Caribbean and the South American Crossing cable).  In 2010, Panama became one of the first countries in the world to offer free wireless broadband access nationwide through the National Internet Network project, which provides free wifi at libraries, some busstops and other government sites.  In Panama City, connectivity is pretty easy to get, but there are generally fluctuations in the areas where there are not fibre-optic connections.  For businesses that rely on fibre-optic level connectivity, there are a limited number of neighbourhoods that can guarantee this service.

Panama, shipping, transportation, logisticsAs a logistics hub, Panama intends to make the most of its geographical location, creating the largest logistics conglomerate in Latin America. Shipping, logistics and trade contribute close to 35% to the national economy, making the concept of “hub” vital to Panama’s growth.  It uses the Canal, the ports on the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans (MIT, CCT, Cristobal, Balboa & PSA), the train line between the ports, and Tocumen International Airport (Copa, DHL, FEDEX & UPS), to provide multi-modal solutions.  This is all interconnected with the Colon Free zone and Panama Pacific zone.  The logistics industry is expected to create 10,000 or more jobs per year for the next 10 years or so – over 100,000 jobs in a growing industry!

Obviously, in order to fully develop this hub, Panama needs to continue investing in additional infrastructure for distribution and storage essential to the international business community.  Georgia Tech maintains a Logistics Innovation and Research Center in Panama, aimed at aiding the country to become the trade hub of the Americas.

Open for Business

Panamanians are complaining that the economy has really slowed, and yet it continues to be the 2nd fastest growing economy in Latin America. While the growth rate dropped from 11% in 2013 and 5.3% in 2016, it is still over 4.6% in the first quarter of 2018!  Infrastructure investments are underway in a number of areas, including the building of the second metro line in Panama City and the studies underway for another bridge across the Canal, which will include a metro rail bridge for the third line.

Depending on who you believe, and how the scoring is done, Panama ranks #3 in being “open for business”.  The World Bank rates Panama as 79th, taking into account a number of factors, and 39th for the ease of starting a new business.  Apparently registering for and paying taxes in Panama is one of the most difficult aspects of doing business in Panama!  But, hopefully that ranking will change, with the adoption of the online tax payment system implemented recently.  Panama is also ranked 54th in Economic Freedoms, which looks at rule of law, government size, regulatory efficiency and open market criteria.

That said, Panama continues to consolidate its position as a business hub, as the headquarters for more than 130 multinational companies!  The principal business and investment attractions for Panama are:

  • corporate headquarters & regional services
  • multimodal logistics
  • infrastructure development
  • maritime services
  • light manufacturing (free zones)
  • renewable energy investments
  • tourism

This translates into the following prime locations/special laws and incentives:

  1. Panama Pacific 
  2. Ciudad del Saber
  3. Colon Free Zone
  4. Special Free Trade Zones (dotted around the country)
  5. Multinational Headquarters

In terms of quality of life, Panama is ranked #1 in Central America and #4 in Latin America (UNDP).

Workforce & other challenges

workforce, employees, professional, training, educationAs I pointed out in my previous blog post about Panama’s money stories, corruption is probably the biggest obstacle that Panama faces – and it certainly is as far as perception goes. While Panama’s economy is stable and Panama has a well-developed services sector (most employment in the areas of banking, commerce, tourism and logistics), Panama continues to under-prepare its workforce for modern challenges. The poorly educated workforce ranks as the third obstacle in business for firms!

Education standards are considered to be poor by the World Economic Forum. The quality of public school education in Panama is still under fire, with a World Bank study indicating that upon completion of secondary school, the quality of the education is equivalent to 8 years of education, rather than 12.   Panama has taken important steps in improving the level of English in the public school education system, but still needs to modify the focus at Univeristy level.  Nonetheless, tertiary education is not in line with the needs of the marketplace – as social sciences, administration and law continue to be the predominant choices for students, rather than technology and sciences!

Back in 2016, news sources were reporting the problems employers faced at job fairs: while 72,000 jobs were on offer, only 25,000 people joined the labour market through these fairs, because they were under-qualified or lacked experience.  Call-centers in Panama provide about 14,000 jobs to the Panamanian workforce – the principal ones in Panama are Dell and HP.  But there continues to be a need for better qualified English-speakers for Call-Centers.  Even in 2018, Panama faces these same challenges in logistics, tourism and even the construction industry.  Among the listed skills required are “soft skills”, such as discipline, punctuality and others.

At the same time, it appears that Panamanian firms do not do well in offering formal training to their employees, which does not assist employees in getting the industry specific training that they need.  Training for tourism or customer services is virtually non-existent and foreigners are constantly complaining of the bad service in restaurants.

Retraining, especially in technical schools, is very low.  There is a “stigma” attached to working in “manual labour”, and yet a dearth of properly qualified electricians, plumbers and specialist construction workers. Improvement is especially necessary in the vocational and technical areas. Everyone is a “handyman” and “knows how to do it”, but the reality is that you wouldn’t be able to pass inspections!  And as Panamanians have sought to move out of “menial labour”, Nicaraguan, Colombian & other immigrants have taken the posts of maids and housekeepers.

There are laws protecting many professions, such as law, medicine, dentistry and engineering. This means that foreigners cannot practice in these professions in Panama.  Yet, one of the fallacies is that chemical engineering is reserved solely for Panamanians – but Chemical Engineering isn’t actually taught in Panamanian Universities! Guess how many chemical engineers we have…

Inflexible labour laws are another cause for complaint among prospective investors into Panama: firing is heaving regulated, labour mobility is limited and labor typically costs 41% more than the paid salary (including social security, holiday pay, liquidation costs, etc.).  Panama’s minimum wage is the highest in Central America, and it is often difficult to find fluent English speaking employees.  Panamanians typically have an intermediate to advanced level of English, but are seldom proficient in business writing and customer service level English.

 

All of that said, Panama continues to be one of the most attractive places in Latin America for investment.  And yet, with respect to innovation, Panama still has so much to learn.

Panama, business, money, entrepreneur, business index, economy, doing business, starting a business, economic indicators, ideal business environment, import, export, fintech, incubators, assistance

Panama’s money stories

Last month I saw this tweet regarding Panama’s money story:

In Panama, there are three types of money: old (from the grandparents), corrupt (from politicians and friends) and dirty (drugs, weapons, laundering, etc.)

Panama’s reputation as a country of carpetbaggers, “cocaine towers” (from the Tailor of Panama), the “home” of #PanamaPapers (even if most of the guilty parties were spread across the four corners of the globe), the country where Odebrecht continues to receive government and municipal contracts in spite of the scandals and admissions of guilt, and the general “juega vivo” precedes it.

But how true is this really? Is the only money in Panama really old money, corrupt money or dirty money?

In this post, I want to have a look at how Panama suffers from both a reality issue and a perception problem.  In my next post, I want to look at the opportunities that Panama offers, the free market, the incubators and technological advantages, as well as looking realistically at challenges (labour force, incentives for small & medium businesses) and close with a third post offering some suggestions for those living or moving to Panama that can make this country the land of opportunity that it really is: the “bridge of the Americas”, the “crossroads of the world”.

The strikes against Panama:

A history of #Pirates and #Carpetbaggers

Anyone in Panama can tell you the history of “Captain” Henry Morgan, the “privateer” who invaded Panama in 1671!  It is an extraordinary story in military history – the capture, sacking and burning of Panama City – especially when you consider that it wasn’t a military campaign. It was just plain piracy by an intrepid Welshman and his “men at arms”!  With 37 ships and possibly 2000 men, Henry Morgan set out for Portobelo, Panama, to pick up the gold that passed through from Peru on its way to Spain.

A few years earlier, he had asserted himself in Portobelo.  Instead of hitting the two fortresses that guarded Portobelo from the sea, where they would have been seen and expect, Morgan landed elsewhere and then marched his men through the jungle and attacked one of the forts from the landward side, in a surprise assault. They took the fortress over quickly, massacred the defenders and blew up the armaments!  The attack on the 2nd fort had many casualties, but was still effective.  Holding these two strategic points, Morgan sent a ransom demand to the Spanish governor of Panama: 100,000 pieces of eight – possibly some $12 million today.  At that time, he took his money and left.

Portobelo, Panama, ruins, pirates, Henry Morgan
Portobelo ruins

But now, set with some 48 cannons and more than 30,000 pounds of gunpowder, Morgan set out to attack Panama City itself (on the Pacific side, not the Caribbean Sea).  To do this, he had to take his men by boat up the Chagres river, so they first hit the Chagres fort. By luck, a shot from one of the pirates set fire to the Spanish magazine, with the resulting explosion devastating the fort and allowing the pirates to storm its walls.  Leaving a small garrison of men behind to guard the fort, Morgan lead some 1,200 men into the jungle to cross the isthmus on foot.

They almost starved to death, crossing the Isthmus, as the Spanish burned and stripped everything in their path, knowing they were coming. They were anticipated when they arrived finally in Panama City with a contingent of 3,600 Spanish troops, some of which were cavalry.  To Morgan’s advantage, the ground was boggy and the horses were unable to maneuver. They cut down most of the cavalry with accurate fire, and when the Spanish tried to stampede a herd of cows, they gratefully slaughtered and barbecued the beasts!  Seeing their cavalry cut down and their stampeded herd slaughtered, the Spanish infantry fled, clearing the way for Morgan’s assault on Panama City itself.  Morgan eventually returned to Portobelo with 175 pack animals laden with treasures. As history books go, the “pirate” Henry Morgan died as “Lieutenant Governor Sir Henry Morgan”, rich and respectable.

Panama City, ruins, pirates, attack, Henry Morgan
ruins of Panama Viejo

As history and geography would have it, the Camino de Cruces of Panama – the legendary trail across the Isthmus – lies between two rich colonial ports, with a history rich in gold and gold that was plundered by pirates!

Most people don’t know that the treaty “The Hay–BunauVarilla Treaty (Spanish: Tratado Hay-Bunau Varilla)”, signed on November 18, 1903, by the United States and Panama, was signed by a French-man with the United States.  This treaty established the Panama Canal Zone and the subsequent construction of the Panama Canal. History kindly refers to Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla as “the French diplomatic representative of Panama”, many Panamanian historians describe this treaty signing process a little differently (like how the Panamanian representatives were told to “shut up”).

Panama deals, Panama, carpetbaggers, taking advantage, pillage, raping the natural resources, scoundrels

It is said that Bunau-Varilla was an important shareholder in  Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, which still had the concession, as well as certain valuable assets, for the building of a canal in Panama. He had not been in Panama for seventeen years at the time of representing Panama before the United States and never returned to Panama after the negotiations. For some reason, as part of the treaty negotiations, the US bought all the shares and assets of Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama for US$40 million (yeah, $40 million in 1903).  I’m not saying he was a carpetbagger: you can draw your own conclusions.

The “carpetbaggers” come down from “the north” seeking private gain in the underdeveloped “south”.  According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a carpetbagger was an

“Epithet used during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) to describe a Northerner in the South seeking private gain. The word referred to an unwelcome outsider arriving with nothing more than his belongings packed in a satchel or carpetbag. Many carpetbaggers were involved in corrupt financial schemes.”

Unfortunately, I have seen my fair share of foreigners coming into Panama with an idea to “get rich quick” and then making off with “the spoils”, leaving their investors (often other foreigners) high and dry.  There’s also some stories about Panamanians having done the same, such as the title dispute in Bocas over Hospital Point:

“Stephens, 75, an entomologist, came to the isthmus in 1959 to work for the fruit company. In 1970 he bought Hospital Point, two acres in area, with title dating from 1899. Later on, he bought possession rights to several acres south of the point. His neighbors are a Gnöbe Indian village and another American, Jon Nilsson, who bought possession rights to twelve acres south of Stephens and build a vacation home.”

But a guy showed up with a hand-drawn map, claiming his grandfather had left him that land. When his map was found to be faulty, “no problem”,  “My surveyors will fix that”.  The claim is going through the court-system.  For more on this story: http://laestrella.com.pa/panama/nacional/carpetbagger-hospital-point/23749723 

But most of the cases are like those of “Too Good To Be True” – foreigner on foreigner. Developments and investments where the developer has “gone bankrupt” or left the country with the purchasers money before finishing the project and delivering.  The best advice I read in that article was:

If it seems too good to be true, it most likely is. Panama has many flaws that will not be seen on a two week visit.

Due diligence is required for Panama to be right for you.

Even the late Lee Zeltzer warned in 2011 of a guy “doing the rounds” in Boquete, trying to get people to invest money in a marina project that he wasn’t the owner of!

#Corruption

Since 2016, Panama has been immersed in the “Lava Jato” scandal of Odebrecht.  So far, 43 people have been charged with corruption and related crimes and have been identified as having received money from the Brazilian giant.  News outlets world-wide have outed many politicians, and locally we read news articles that express the following:

  • “In Panama there is a feeling that many people of the current Government are involved in the Odebrecht scandal.”  “Despite of rumors and accusations against government officials involved in the Odebrecht case, no clear evidence has been laid on the matter.”  “Fernando Migliaccio da Silva, executive of the Brazilian construction company, responsible for paying the bribes of the company and close friend of Marcelo Odebrecht, said that two people associated with the company, Luiz Eduardo Soares and Rodrigo Tacla Durán, repeatedly traveled to Panama to avoid the government’s cooperation with the investigation.”   http://www.panamatoday.com/special-report/odebrecht-corruption-scandal-has-left-traces-panama-4624
  • “Odebrecht has become the largest government contractor in Panama in the past decade, with contracts totaling upwards of US$500 million, including one for the construction of a subway line in Panama City.” In these cases, there is $59 Million identified as having been paid out/received by the 43 implicated and charged.  “Although a number of defendants in the case have remained anonymous in order to preserve “the principle of presumption of innocence”, according to a statement from the Roland Rodriquez, spokesperson for the Prosecutor’s Office, some of the high profiles charged with bribery are ex-president of Panama Ricardo Martinelli and his children, among other well known officials.”  https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Suspects-in-Panama-Odebrecht-Corruption-Probe-Rise-to-43-20170727-0010.html
  • “Third witness says Varela {current President of Panama} took money from Odebrecht”  “Now the specific allegation is that his party’s 2009 campaign — which was dropped after an alliance with Ricardo Martinelli was formed at a meeting at the US ambassador’s residence — got $700,000 from Odebrecht via a US foundation.” “In the October 30 online edition of La Prensa, it was reported that former Panamanian ambassador to South Korea and Panameñista Party activist Jaime Lasso told anti-corruption prosecutors that the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht gave $700,000 to President Varela’s 2009 presidential campaign.”  http://www.thepanamanews.com/2017/10/third-witness-says-varela-took-money-from-odebrecht/

Lava Jato, Odebrecht, corruption, stadiums, World Cup, scandal, investigations, politicians, corrupt businessmen, kickbacks, kick back, bribes

On the other hand, almost 1/3 of Brazil’s current ministers of government are under investigation.  In Colombia a former senator and the former vice-minister for transport have already been charged.  In Venezuela a number of people were implicated, all the way up to the President Nicolás Maduro. Peru has two ex-presidents under investigation, and even the opposition leader Keiko Fujimori has come under investigation.  (more at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-41109132) This is considered to be one of the biggest corruption cases in history!

#Dirty Money

After all that history of Panama’s money stories, how much more can I say about the dirty money in Panama? Almost thirty years ago when you mentioned “Panama”, everyone responded with “Noriega”. If you were lucky, someone had heard about the Panama Canal and that would be the topic of conversation, rather than Noriega and the 1989 invasion!  Twenty years ago you mention “Panama” and everyone is talking about John le Carré’s book “The Tailor of Panama”, the cocaine towers, and his own description of how he”was drawn by the obvious corruption of Panama and the wonderful collection of characters you meet there”. Ten years ago, you mention “Panama” and every one says “oh, the canoe lady“, referring to the Anne Darwin case of the missing canoeist who showed up alive and well in Panama, alleging “amnesia”.  Role on 2016, twenty years after Le Carré’s publishing of The Tailor of Panama and you get the #PanamaPapers!

Panama, Darwin, canoeist, missing, scandal

A 2003 examination of tax havens by Jeffrey Robinson quotes a US Customs official as saying:

[Panama] is filled with dishonest lawyers, dishonest bankers, dishonest company formation agents and dishonest companies registered there by those dishonest lawyers so that they can deposit dirty money into their dishonest banks. The Free Trade Zone is the black hole through which Panama has become one of the filthiest money laundering sinks in the world.

Of course, Robinson’s book then goes on to say:

It is a path that leads ultimately to the dealing rooms of New York, the vaults of Zurich and the plushest boardrooms of the City of London.

But most people get stuck on the first quote.  And this perception of Panama is shared by all the publicity on #PanamaPapers, which focused on “The Secrets of Dirty Money“. Of course, the name itself fails to remind readers that most of those secrets were because Mossack Fonseca had “offices in more than 35 locations around the globe” and that most of the referrals of clients were from “first world” countries – bankers, lawyers and other professionals.

PanamaPapers, Panama, money, dirty money, scandal, challenges

On the other hand, there are issues that Panama is tackling in the non-financial institution sectors.  As highlighted in Open Democracy:

the task force identified nearly 730.000 Panamanian businesses considered to be at “high risk” of participating in money laundering. The group found that supervision of these entities is low, and that most of them are still active.

Nevertheless, in 2016 and 2017, Panama took some significant steps in legislating and implementation to clear up those areas of business which were previously unregulated or unsupervised:

The final challenges – perception & development

I can remember speaking with a client on the phone in 1996, who would be visiting Panama for the first time, and he asked me what kind of clothes he should bring and how far out of town the airport was.  I don’t know what got into me that day, but I told him to wear his khakis, and that we would have a white land-rover at the airport to pick him up, and that he shouldn’t worry too much about the accommodation, because we had managed to put air-conditioning in our “huts” in “town” with generator electricity. When he arrived in our office a few days later, he was livid at me! He’d only brought khakis and taken everything I had said seriously!

Image result for caesar park  hotel panama cityHe really did think that he would “walk down the steps” off an airplane at a “jungle airport” where a driver would pick him up in a white land-rover and drive him into “town” which was basically huts. When he got through the airport and the driver ushered him into a sedan and took him to the Caesar Park hotel, he realised that I had been pulling his leg!

In my defense, I was young, with a sense of humour! But those are the images that he had in his head of what he was coming to in Panama!

Some rustic huts, sitting on the beach, perhaps?

Panama, development, challenges, infrastructure, perceptions

It really is all about the perception!

And Panama continues to battle with the perception of how life is in Panama – “Banana Republic”.

 

But, I disagree with Ursula Keiner – I think there is a lot of room for money to be made in Panama by honest, entrepreneurial investors.

Water: choose your words wisely

Growing up in Panama, in a little place called Tolé, I remember frequent water shortages. Now, it wasn’t that we didn’t have water around (there was a spring that never dried up even in summer and we had a pump), but we frequently had no running water. The town pump broke down, they turned it off, they were conserving electricity and so it wasn’t running. That was usually all summer long. I seem to recall spending more time waiting for the water to come on than having water!

garden-water-pumpIn a pretty typical summer, I spent a lot of time at the garden water pump, using a wheel barrow to carry 5 gallon tanks of water back to the house for chores, or showers, or washing the clothes. And if the town water supply went off for long enough, then we would go down to the spring with buckets to get drinking water. We didn’t drink the water from the well, because it wasn’t filtered.  But it was good enough for everything else.

I remember being conscientious in my use of water for showering, using the water from the washing machine to water the plants, and washing dishes in a bowl on the back porch. Even that water was thrown on the plants.  Carrying the water that we used made us judicious about how it was used.

Roll forward to 2018, March 22 – World Water Day – and we have a director of IDAAN standing before the national legislature alerting to the need to conserve water. Unfortunately, he chose his words badly. He failed to truly address the most basic of issues regarding water in Panama.  He would have fared much better if he had started his tirade addressing the need for education at all levels regarding water usage.

He didn’t.

He went straight to saying that the problem in Panama was the “marginal communities” who use plastic pools, purchased in Do It Center for $79.99, who empty their pools daily and misuse “all the water”. And he got roasted on social media for it!

  • He got roasted for saying they were marginal.
  • He got roasted for specifying plastic pools.
  • He got roasted for saying they were from Do It Center.
marginal02 marginal04 marginal01
If you don’t have a cement or tiled pool, “you’re marginal” Don’t be marginal, use balls! So if I buy my plastic pool in Novey’s and not in Do It Center… am I less “marginal”?

Memes abounded! And we all had a good laugh.

marginales03
“You are invited this Saturday, March 31, to the Marginal Pool Party. Invitation by IDAAN”

But, unfortunately, he failed to get any of his true message across or voice any concerns for a real issue that does need to be addressed: water conservation.  World Water Day, he has an invitation to address the national legislature to voice his concerns, and he blows it!

No one heard the message.

And there were people that got it – that understood that it was World Water Day and there was supposed to be a message about water conservation – and they tried to make their message heard.

They were drowned out by the “marginal memes”.

Every few years Panama has a water shortage at the end of our “dry season”. That usually means that it’s late March and rains are not expected until mid-May, and so we have restrictions for four to six weeks. April 2015 was the last one, and even that was not very serious.  Three times in the 20 years I’ve been living in Panama City.

It’s not a common problem.

And even then, they restricted air-conditioning use and asked everyone to be careful with their electricity consumption before they applied any measures to water usage.

We have two seasons: wet and dry. Or, as some like to call them “green season” and “summer”. Our average annual rainfall is between 76-91 inches (Panama City side) and about 130-170 inches on the Portobello side.  We live in a tropical climate, and have the only capital city in the world to have a tropical rain forest in the city (Metropolitan Park).

marginales06This year it was still raining in January. Our usual summer (starting mid-December) had not yet begun. We started the year with 15 days of solid rain.  So much so, that Gatun Lake, which feeds the Panama Canal was overflowing! I was staying at a friend’s on the lake, and the water was up over the sidewalk. Their floating dock was higher than the sidewalk!  They’ve never seen that before.

La precipitación de lluvias acumulada del 1 al 17 de enero de 2018 es de 245 milímetros. Es 427% por encima del promedio histórico en la Cuenca del Canal.
Los reservorios multipropósitos nos permitirían acumular esta agua para la temporada seca.

— Jorge Luis Quijano (@jorgelquijano) January 19, 2018

According to the Director the Panama Canal (Jorge Quijano), the rainfall from January 1st to 17th this year was 245 mm.  That was 427% higher than the average for the entire history of the Canal.

This water is stored in the extra flooded areas that allow it to be stored for dry seasons to come.

But that was only this year.

A few years back there was concern that we might go a whole year without a proper rainy season, getting only occasional showers, rather than rain from May through November.

At the beginning of March, National Geographic published an article regarding Cape Town running out of water, and having a quick look at what other capital cities or major cities might be next.

Why Cape Town is running out of water, and who’s next?

Cape Town is considering a future of water shortages – “a water scarce future“.

A 40% water deficit is expected worldwide by 2030.  5 bn are expected to be affected by 2050.  But we don’t have to go very far: a little bit north and we get to Mexico with water shortage problems. A little further to the south and we have Lima, Peru with severe water shortage problems.  Unlike Panama City, which is in a rich tropical basin, Lima sits on a desert, which is the 2nd driest capital in the world.

Here in Panama, we take the issue of water with a pinch of salt. Living happily in a “dream world”, far removed from the possibility or any planning for what could happen if for just one year we got scattered showers, rather than proper tropical rain. Reforestation is simply an immigration program, rather than a way of life or requirement for development.  There is no real effort made even to reforest along the banks of the rivers and lakes that supply our city supplies.  Instead, we have rolling, grassy hills.  Water that simply evaporates because it is unprotected.

And then, when it rains too much, we complain that the water treatment plant got shut down because it got clogged up with mud (because there were no trees to hold the erosion back).

To add insult to injury, we have faulty maintenance that leaks water all over our streets.

rosita-waterbubblingup

So, yesterday, for example, the water got turned off for a couple of hours while the road was dug up and the water supply pipes were fixed.  Now, these pipes could be over 100 years old – I know the street was there before the church was built. And in 2014 the church celebrated 100 years of being founded and 2026 it celebrates 100 years of being completed as it is today.  But that wasn’t the only wastage yesterday.

There were numerous other reports around town of broken pipes gushing clean water into the streets.

 

Water just wasting away.

So while the director of IDAAN is complaining about all those “marginal communities” that are misusing the water in their plastic pools, the water is simply spilling into the streets in various parts of town from lack of maintenance and an adequate prevention plan.

Unfortunately, for 2018, the opportunity for a real discussion about the importance of water on World Water Day was lost. And I don’t see this director of IDAAN finding an audience willing to listen to him in the near future. That opportunity to make a significant difference was lost by a few misplaced words at the beginning of his presentation!

Education in Panama – hopes and dreams

Last week was the first week of school for public schools in Panama.  Universities typically finished their “summer holidays” at the end of January, but primary and secondary schools still have a three month summer vacation.

And after seeing headlines in Panama in late February, I’ve been asking myself: What has happened during these three months of school holidays? What efforts are made to ensure that when students return in the new year, the teachers will be better equipped as well as the schools in a better state?  And what can we do differently?

Panamá Bilingüe:

I was stunned by the news a few weeks ago that of 5,200 teachers sent abroad to study, only 1.5% (70) teachers were “certified”. Of course, it turns out that headlines sell newspapers, but don’t tell you the whole story!

During these summer months, about 1,000 Panamanian teachers and 500 students traveled from Panama to the US, England, Canada and Barbados for full immersion English classes through the program “Panamá Bilingüe”.  The Panamá Bilingüe program has a budget of over 100 million dollars for the five year period it is intended to run, and costs about $8,000 – $12,000 per teacher for training, airfares and accommodation costs.

When this program started in 2015, it was slated to be the beginning of a new era of education in Panama.  Unfortunately, if you look at the quality of the translation on the President’s website, you may be forgiven for thinking there’s not much hope for the future if this is the best that can be done for the President!

During the 5 year program (2015 to 2020), some 10,000 teachers are slated to receive instruction both in English and educational classes to improve the quality of the education received in Panama in public schools and at public universities.  A further 20,000 high school students and 30,000 primary school students are expected to also benefit from this program.

Teacher Training:

  1. national – before they are given any opportunity to study abroad, all expenses paid, the selected teachers are given training in Panama, in order to reach a certain level in English (Private & Public).  They are then given an exam (such as TOEFL or Cambridge) to see the level of their English before they go.
  2. international – 10,000 are being sent overseas. They will not only study English, some will also be studying in science and Education. Of these 10,000 teachers that are slated to go overseas before 2020, 5,200 have already completed the training internationally.  When they are sent overseas, they are expected to work (side-by-side) with teachers internationally (some 25-35 hours per week), as well as study at their designated University.

Unfortunately, the initial (and badly explained) results that came in February 2018 were not very promising. Of the 5,200 teachers who have traveled internationally so far in this program, only 70 (1.5%) have  obtained the Cambridge certification in English. However, what was important to note is that the certification in question was a certification to become examiners in Panama of students in English (i.e. it was not whether they had attained or not a proficiency in English, but whether they had a proficiency and the additional certification to be an examiner in Panama).  Five hundred teachers volunteered to participate in the courses for certification, of these 389 have a level of proficiency that are certified, and 70 have actually received the Cambridge certification as examiners.  So, while it sounds terrible that only 70 of 5,200 got certified, I had to read more to understand what they were getting certified in. Not half as bad as the headlines sounded!

In the explanations given by the Ministry of Education, they indicate that in terms of the English levels of the 5,000 teachers sent overseas to study, only 5% have completely failed to reach the levels of proficiency required (according to where they are at the time they start the course), and in these cases the teachers involved will be required to pay back the cost of the studies from their salaries.

What does concern me, however, is that the minimum level required is High Intermediate English. This means that the English teachers in our primary and secondary schools is possibly only Intermediate English.  These are not teachers who are speaking fluent English. So, if they are at intermediate level, how will our high school students reach anything higher than just intermediate?

Kids program:

In addition to the training for teachers, Panamá Bilingüe also offers classes for kids.  And this is for kids all around the country, not just in Panama City. Some of the kids will be from different regions, such as the Guna in San Blas, the Ngobe in the Ngöbe comarca between Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro. Of the 13,000 that started in the program, some 8000 children that have been participating in Panamá Bilingüe for the first three years were tested and 82% have reached Intermediate Level (as gauged by the TOEFL exams).

School buildings: Gazebo schools

Of the 1,080 gazebo schools (escuelas ranchos) found to exist in July 2014, the Ministry of Education has only been able to replace 504 so far with school buildings (some still under construction).  As expected, this project is taking longer and costing more than the current administration anticipated: they are half way there with only little more than a year left before elections (5 year term).

Although the numbers mention 1,080 “schools”, this really means buildings or class rooms, rather than the entire school.  So, for example, in 2018 they are undertaking 16 projects for 69 properties, which will eliminate 209 gazebo schools.  The new school properties will include dormitories for the teachers (as some are in remote areas), as well as play courts (with roofs) which can be used for assemblies as well as for exercise and gym class.

One of the biggest difficulties being faced is the remoteness and access of the regions where these gazebo schools exist.  Many contractors are not interested in bidding for the projects in these areas, because of the transportation issues (materials as well as workers).  So, the Ministry of Education puts out the details of the public bid, and no one responds.  And the Panamanian Ministry of Education does not seem to have its own maintenance and building division for these particular cases.

In these regions, the debate continues to be over school buildings, with no debate being entered into regarding the quality of the education that these children are receiving.

How do we combat poverty in these regions without any infrastructure to speak of?

Public Schools not ready

In addition to the issue of Gazebo schools, which is gradually being addressed and faced, every start of the school year, we hear of schools that simply are not opening for the first day of school because basic maintenance work has not been done.  So, for example, on March 5th we read that some 20 public schools were not ready and a further 32 schools were opening, but with either infrastructure issues or not having enough teachers.

Of these 20 schools, 10 are simply not opening and ready, and a further 10 are using alternative properties for the school year while their schools are being maintained. Once again, we’re talking about whether there WILL be any education, not what the quality of that education will be!

What makes for a first world education system?

When we look at the question of education, obviously these are very basic issues that Panama is facing.  Quite unlike the kinds of issues that you would face in say New Zealand or the Netherlands. Panama says that it aspires to be like Singapore, and yet Singapore often comes out as the best education worldwide!   If we look at the World Education Rankings, Panama doesn’t even make it onto the graph! Even the articles that criticize the US education system, providing graphs that include our neighbors Costa Rica and Colombia, completely ignore the existence of Panama.

How did (or does) Singapore make it to the top? For starters, education spending makes up about 20% of the annual national budget! Yes, you read that right: TWENTY percent.  Panama spends only 3.5% of its budget on education!  We get what we pay for!

English is the first language in the education system (since the 1960s), meaning that all children are fully bilingual, usually reaching fluency in primary school.  Admittedly, during the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore adapted their “survival driven” system into one which could provide a skilled workforce for their industrialization. They have also adopted the requirement that throughout primary and secondary school, all children must participate in one after school program (performing arts, clubs, sports, etc.).  Maybe these children aren’t perfectly well-rounded, but they are at least socialised and with some leadership skills.

Upon completion of secondary school, Singapore offers vocational education (since 1992), Polytechnics and Arts Institutions, Junior Colleges (2 years, pre-University), and Universities.  It also offers other alternatives, and encourages students to pursue further studies even after completing their Polytechnics or vocational training.

This strong focus on education in Singapore should be a shining example to Panama, as like Singapore, we lack natural resources (other than the Canal) and we need to develop our human resources and manpower to build a knowledge-based economy.  Obviously, there’s a lot more we could look at in Singapore’s system: meritocracy, investment and the priority that it has been given.

Get away to a little piece of paradise

If I had more days like today, I might forget all the pet peeves I have about living in Panama. Today I’m in Pedasi with Bonnie Muenz. And it has been an amazing day! Bonnie’s home, where we are staying, was built by Roy Caduri, and is a gorgeous little 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom place! The back yard is ideal for kids to play and run around, but not too big to be unmanageable. And I love the finishing touches of the cement floors! I will take polished cement any day over tiles installed in Panama! But there’s a craftsmanship to it also. Not everyone can get this mix of colors, swirls and almost marble look.

Of course, it is wet season at the moment, so the lush green back yard is only temporary: I know what this looks like at the end of March or April before the rains start. Cracked earth and yellow straw grass. Impossible to walk around barefoot without hurting your feet, unless you have leather soles.

I thought the same thing as we sat at the beach club at Andromeda. The setting was wonderful – a small pool compared to some other places, but beautifully set above the beach with a view of the ocean. As it was overcast and had rained at midday, it was quite cool and not humid. But I can imagine that in March the dry heat with lack of breeze would make it royally hot! And parched grass everywhere and the scene changes completely.

Don’t get me wrong – I much prefer the “summer” months over rainy season, but when you get to the end of the Panamanian summer and the humidity is high, and breeze is low, and the clouds roll in and “trap the air” but don’t refresh with any rain – that’s not utopia.

Utopia is what I had today!

Walking in Panama

So, if rubbish is one of my pet peeves in Panama, sidewalks/pavements (or the lack thereof) is another one. I took a moment to search through Twitter and other media alternatives for some great photos of what I’m talking about. Here are just a few examples:

Aceras amigables: gran convivencia peatones – conductores en Panamá @LaRevistaMNpic.twitter.com/bufQxPHswF

— Manuel Núñez®  (@ManuelNunezN) June 27, 2017

A diario cientos de peatones arriesgan sus vidas, tratando de llegar a su destino, en medio de las calles, debido a la falta de aceras.
Source: Panamá, una ciudad sin aceras

DDXV4fhXcAAtSTb
— Manuel Núñez®  (@ManuelNunezN) June 27, 2017

http://tucomunidad.com.pa/2017/03/residentes-necesitan-sus-aceras-en-san-francisco/

 

 

 

 

 

These photos don’t really represent the worst dangers of walking in Panama: I couldn’t find the ones where the manhole covers had been removed or stolen. Then there are the streets which lack repairs over the storm water drains, where there is a 6-ft drop into the abyss of garbage below. Especially on corners. I’ve even seen a Diablo Rojo stuck in one of these holes, where they drove up onto the pavement, and it gave way under their weight. Walking in Panama could mean taking your life into your own hands.

I took this photo yesterday, as a drove home. Unfortunately, you don’t get a good perspective of the depth of the hole. But imagine stepping in there.

I used to live in El Cangrejo, still one of my favourite parts of Panama City. But just try walking from your apartment to the Andres Bello park with a child (and forget trying to take the dog with you for a walk). It’s taking your life into your own hands. If she was in the push-chair, you could guarantee that I would have to walk on the road part of the way, either because the pavement was missing or because there was a car parked over it. Pedestrian rights? None.

Change is coming

There are always good intentions and some attempts at planning and implementation. I’ve seen more disabled crossings installed (but they fail to take into account in many places that the pavement itself was impassable). And in the last 18 months I have seen a strong move in Calidonia and other parts of downtown to give pedestrians safe spaces.

Con el Proyecto de Intervención de Aceras se busca rescatar la movilidad peatonal de los transeúntes. #MasAceraspic.twitter.com/5A6yAhRIxj

— Municipio de Panamá (@panamamunicipio) December 4, 2015

La Ciudad está cambiando. Paso a paso, construimos una Ciudad más amigable al peatón. Las nuevas aceras tendrá árboles y más iluminación. pic.twitter.com/PFyCf2rF4m

— José Isabel Blandón (@BlandonJose) May 26, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, this implies that Panama needs a better public transport system. Especially since in many of the areas getting a face-lift, they have condemned parking spaces to make room for the pedestrians. Improvements are obviously being made to public transport, but these are long term plans. Line 2 of the Metro (which runs from 24 de diciembre through to Gran Estación in San Miguelito) will be ready in 2018. But feeder buses are still insufficient, especially small ones that can fit in the narrow streets of many communities.

There is, of course, one problem that infrastructure cannot fix: the humidity. Panama is always going to be hot and humid. We are in the tropics. And so, having a leisurely stroll at lunch time isn’t an option: unless your office provides showers and changing rooms. And that’s something that even after 20 years, I still struggle to accept. I miss the pedestrian lifestyle of the big city. I miss walking to work in the morning and home after work. If you live downtown, it could be a walkable distance, but you need a shower when you get to work. Even at 7.30 am.

But, there are thousands of people, working & lower middle class, who do not have the luxury of owning a vehicle and who rely on public transport. So it’s essential that Panamanian local governments ensure that the streets are pedestrian friendly. I dream of a day when the owners of cars respect the pedestrians and the pavements!

Crystal clear streams & rivers

So, in the midst of all the discussion worldwide regarding climate change and whether the extreme weather conditions in the US (fires in Washington, Oregon, Montana & California and flooding in Texas & Florida from two mammoth hurricanes) are somehow man-made; with more than 41 million displaced in Asia from monsoons and rains with flooding in too many places to count, Panama seems idyllic!

So, it was with considerable amazement that I watched a rather well-known figure in Panama get trolled for polluting the environment. Contributing to the problem? Definitely. She should definitely have known better! (First rule – don’t get caught. Assume that someone is following you and filming you in everything you do).

Well-dressed, in high-heels, she took bags of rubbish out of her car and proceeded to push them through the railings into the stream and watershed below. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one way that you get rubbish in the waterways!

Shame! Shame! Shame!

panutopia-rubbish-fine75

panutopia-rubbish-trolled-twitter

This poor lady was all over Twitter, Facebook & WhatsApp in Panama, with a zoom in on her number plate, and shortly thereafter, the Traffic authorities tracked her down, and gave her a fine.

A paltry, measly and worthless US$75.00 fine!

That’s what you get for throwing rubbish out of your car window. Or, in this case, for taking bags of rubbish out of your car and pushing them through the railings and into the stream below.

The internet was having none of it! They tracked her down and then they blew her up. They trolled her, they tracked her and they made sure that she knew “everyone” had seen her.

And then they started asking: “what was in the bags that she couldn’t just throw them into a rubbish bin somewhere?”

So much so, that some reporters actually climbed down into the gross and dirty waterways to rescue those rubbish sacks and open them to have a look!

I have no idea what people were expecting them to find, but the reporters seemed to be quite disappointed when they opened the bags and simply found rubbish.

So, while the rest of the world is either on fire or flooded, Panama is on fire because some unrefined lady (and I use that term very broadly) threw a couple of rubbish sacks into a river that may (or may not) be part of the bigger problem of flooding in Panama.

So, some of water is not quite so crystal clear. More like, shirty (yes, I made up a word) water.

Let’s put this in perspective, shall we? Just for a moment?

We’ve got:

 

Because we have fires from California to Washington, from Montana through Idaho and Colorado: and no hope of rain for that part of the country.

And then you have #HurricaneHarvey and #HurricaneIrma tearing through the Texan gulf and the Caribbean: Harvey was a Category 4 by August 25th. The flooding in Houston is still not cleared, even after 3 weeks. And so you end up with tweets like this:

Across the world, 41 million are displaced from flooding in Pakistan, India & Bangladesh. Mumbai flooding:

Honestly, why would we even think Panama has a problem? In the August flooding, there were only 283 homes affected, possibly some 2,000 people. This was the worst of the flooding:

Some houses just had to clear out the water but there was no major damage. But I know these parts of town – they are old parts (well, by old I mean built more than 30 years ago). Before this, they have never been susceptible to flooding. So what changed?

In other flooding in September 2017, there were a grand total of 7 houses affected. Yes, you read that right: 7 houses.

Siete casas afectadas por inundaciones en San Sebastián. Vía @Sinaproc_Panamapic.twitter.com/58f9ZB4Kpx

 

— TVN Noticias (@tvnnoticias) September 9, 2017

But then there’s the news and allegations that the garbage that caused this flooding:

A little bit of hard work and maintenance clearing those waterways, and we’ll be all fine and dandy, right?

Unfortunately, it rained after all of this work was done, and today everything got flooded all over again!

What could be worse than a culture that does appreciate clean & tidy? How about a culture of corruption where building permits and landfills are approved for wetlands and swamp areas, clearing of mangroves to build communities, thus blocking off all the exits for that water when the rains hit?

I’m told that just downstream from all these affected areas there are new landfills for housing developments. But that’s all – rumor has it! Of course, I don’t see anyone trolling the developers and construction companies? It’s much easier to blame the poor than to think that maybe it’s our development that is partially responsible for the destruction to the environment.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for development. There is a lot of need for good housing in Panama. But there is also town-planning or city-planners and responsibility to do it properly without cutting corners. I have a feeling some corners may have been cut here!

PanUtopia:

Utopia would be living in a country that provided an education to the engineers, architects and city planners that included respect for the environment. Where rather than regulating them out of business and making compliance impossible, there were incentives for full compliance; where approval processes were simple, yet effective in ensuring that proper planning and projections were completed. It’s not enough to consider whether “your development” will get flooded: “love thy neighbor” should mean that you don’t cause harm to another either.

Utopia would be a country where this actually got investigated and studied: where University students were actually out in the field looking at these difficult cases and working out what should have been done differently, so that when they are professionals and working, they have seen the actual effects of cutting corners.

But that would be Utopia.