When the Panama Canal was constructed in the early 20th century, it was an engineering marvel and the result of a complex mixture of political intrigue, ambition, vision and new technology. It was not a project designed to enhance the natural environment or preserve unique habitat. But the Canal’s locks use huge amounts of water each time a ship travels through, so the watershed surrounding the Canal was protected to maximize the water supply to the locks.
Today, the unexpected consequence of these design choices is the basis for an important part of Panama’s 21st century economy. This watershed’s tropical rainforest is home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals and other creatures. Now a National Park, the area is large enough to provide habitat for jaguars and other species with large territories. This environmental asset now supports an ecotourism industry that provides jobs and income for Panama’s people. International visitors come to places like the Canopy Tower to experience the rainforest and learn about its plants and animals. Economic development results from the preservation of environmental resources, which exist today because of the demands of new technology almost 100 years ago.
It is particularly wonderful that this serendipity can be experienced at a lodge that is itself an adaptive reuse of a former U.S. Air Force radar installation, and that is only 45 minutes from Panama City. This view, from the top of the Canopy Tower, shows the interplay between nature and city. The unintended consequence of yesterday’s design choices demonstrates the potential for communities that build future economic growth on their natural environmental assets.