The Path of the Quetzals and the road to extinction: Panama's exotic bird under threat

Jeff Hull reports from the front line of an environmental battle in the Volcan Baru National Park
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The Independent US

Ronni Flannery heard it first: the softly insistent, slightly descendant keloo-keloo of the quetzal, strobing from the cloud forest around us.

Ronni Flannery heard it first: the softly insistent, slightly descendant keloo-keloo of the quetzal, strobing from the cloud forest around us.

We were hiking the five-mile Sendero de los Quetzales ("Path of the Quetzals"), a trail that winds through the 35,390 lush acres of Panama's Volcan Baru national park in Unesco's La Amistad Biosphere Reserve - one of the best places in the world to see the rare and visually spectacular bird.

As we stalked through the foliage the quetzal revealed itself: a male whose crimson breast radiated from a tuxedo of aquamarine, his brilliant viridian tail feathers draped two feet behind. Tilting his gold-crested head, the bird listened for a female response to his mating call - a call that, sadly, may prove to be his last if Panama's president has her way.

This footpath is now an environmental battleground, with activists and campesinos marching against government-deployed bulldozers; each side determined to decide the fate of Volcan Baru and its quetzals.

Last year Mireya Moscoso, the Panamanian president, announced plans to pave the Path of the Quetzals, which winds between the agricultural centre of Cerro Punta and the mountain hamlet of Boquete. The new road would bring commerce and traffic to the isolated enclaves in Panama's Chiriqui Highlands, where an estimated 300 to 400 quetzal breeding pairs hold out against their chief enemy, forest fragmentation.

The quetzal has been called "the most spectacular bird in the New World" but today it is listed as Appendix I in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), meaning that the species is threatened with extinction. But the quetzal is not just a bird in danger; it's an esteemed animal with a past rooted in Mayan and Aztec culture. Quetzalcoatl, a central figure in Mayan mythology, is depicted as a hybrid of a quetzal and a serpent. In ancient times, only royalty could wear quetzal feathers; possession of the shimmering plumage (valued as much as gold) by commoners was punishable by death. More recently, indigenous peoples in central America, believing the quetzal unable to survive in captivity, have interpreted it as a symbol of freedom.

By building the Sendero de los Quetzales, the Moscoso administration aims to connect Boquete with the rich farming region around Cerro Punta, where over half of Panama's vegetables are grown. The government says building a road will make the area more accessible to tourists via the Inter-American Highway (turning a one-hour drive around Volcan Baru into a 10-minute run through the park), and would shorten the distance between highland villages to the north.

So why pick a route that slices through the biosphere reserve? The Sendero de los Quetzales traverses a less rugged landscape than alternative routes, making it the least expensive option. "All residents want a road built," a government spokesman said. "The controversy arises in the route selected, not the road itself."

But opponents of the project say that a paved road would allow predators easy access to quetzal nests, destroy seed trees the quetzals depend on for food, and facilitate poaching, illegal logging, and other habitat-destroying activities. A coalition has launched a campaign to stop the road, marking the rare appearance of an environmental issue at the centre of Panamanian affairs.

Lider Sucre, executive director of Ancon, Panama's foremost environmental group, said: "Rarely have we seen such a level of activity from such a broad spectrum of entities. It's rare that an environmental issue causes so much activism in a rural area. This has really been a watershed crusade."

Despite public opposition, Ms Moscoso has rejected proposals to site the road outside the critical quetzal habitat. In December 2002, facing organised demonstrations, Ms Moscoso declared the road of "notorious urgency" - a designation intended for disaster relief for natural catastrophes - and awarded the construction contract to a firm of her choosing, avoiding review and public comment processes, and subsequently triggering a lawsuit from Ancon.

In an effort to ensure that the project would be pushed through, the Moscoso administration changed the regulations for Volcan Baru national park - the first alteration to the park's charter - and by executive fiat legalised all previously proscribed activities associated with the road's construction.

Ms Moscoso's zeal spurred allegations by the mayor of Panama City that she was primarily interested in boosting property values on land she owned along the route. She denied the charges and threatened to sue, but an investigation by the daily newspaper El Panama America revealed that she was president of a holding company that owned 2,291 acres near the site of the proposed road. A nephew of her late husband, the former president, hastily produced an unrecorded deed indicating that her company had sold three-quarters of the land in 1985 - to a company comprised of her family members, some of whom are high-ranking officials in her administration.

Speaking to La Prensa, the nephew (also an administration official) indicated that the land had been "forgotten" by the family. Published reports suggest that Ms Moscoso may retain ownership of a quarter interest in the property, but her administration denies that she has ever owned land in the area, except for a coffee plantation in Boquete.

Asked whether Ms Moscoso thought the road was unpopular, the government spokesman said: "No. The opposition has been initiated by those who favoured the alternate route, whose land and properties would have benefited from the road in their proposed route, and they in turn have motivated political adversaries from outside the area to protest the road."

At the root of the presidential soap opera is the fact that Panamanian politics are known for corruption. Since taking power in 1999, Moscoso's administration has suffered scandals and resignations. The president herself has been accused of stealing from the public treasury: Over the past few years a fleet of presidential cars has gone unaccounted for and a taxpayer-funded beach house ended up in her brother's name.

The president fares poorly in public opinion polls and many of her countrymen have expressed relief that her term ends in September and that she will not stand in the 2 May elections.

The good news for environmentalists is that all the major candidates oppose the road so if Ms Moscoso cannot finish it before she leaves office, it is unlikely to be completed.

On 11 December, Ancon filed its third lawsuit, this one claiming that Ms Moscoso's alterations to Volcan Baru's charter were illegal and violated international treaties establishing the park. But bribery scandals involving legislators, who allegedly accepted millions of dollars to confirm Supreme Court justices - and Ms Moscoso's close relationship with the presiding magistrate in these suits - have cast doubts on any notion of a fair hearing.

In the meantime, Unesco has saidthat it does not support the road, and international environmental groups have condemned it. In mid-February, the director of Panama's environmental department rejected the proposed road in an ecological-impact statement, and then resigned (allegedly under pressure from Ms Moscoso). The position is now vacant.

Winter in Panama is drawing to a close and the April-to-November rainy season will bring conditions that will make building the road nearly impossible. Environmentalists are crossing their fingers that time will run out. Mother Nature may just give the birds the last laugh.

Jeff Hull is a contributor to Outsideonline.com

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