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Build it and they will come

For better or for worse, nothing in the development arsenal can match the power of a road to transform the land and the lives of its inhabitants.

Particularly in frontier areas, roads often set off a chain of events that are difficult to anticipate. New residents clear the land and establish new production systems. While the changes create jobs and opportunities, they can also destroy the environment and threaten the culture and livelihood of people already living there.

This was the scenario that planners sought to prevent in a new IDB-financed sustainable development project in Panama’s province of Darién. A significant part of the project consisted of paving a dirt highway that ends in the town of Yaviza, well short of Panama’s southern border with Colombia. The so-called "Darién Gap," a wide swath of forest along the border, has remained largely pristine and is now a national park.

For many of the local residents, the need to pave the road is compelling, since much of it is only passable during the brief dry season. But others fear that an improved road would hasten the influx of newcomers into the region, threatening the cultural integrity of indigenous peoples and destroying fragile ecosystems. In response to these concerns, the road-paving plans were made part of an integrated sustainable development project that will include protected areas, land titling, and resources to help local governments properly manage land use and development.

These goals raised important questions: How are forest resources being used? What parts of the Darién most need protection? Where should enforcement and mitigation efforts be focused?

In order to get some of the answers, the IDB financed a series of studies to predict how land use would change following the paving of the road. Among them was a spatial analysis study in which geographical and socioeconomic data were used to build a model that would indicate changes resulting from reductions in transport costs and other factors. The study was carried out by Gerald Nelson and Virginia Harris, both of the University of Illinois, and Steven Stone, an IDB environmental specialist.

Overall, they found that the road resurfacing would have relatively little effect on deforestation in the province, especially in the national park. Nor would it hasten the extraction of high value timber, largely because most of the valuable timber was removed after the dirt road was completed in 1984.

However, paving the road could dramatically reduce forests of cativo trees, a commercial species used to make plywood. The forests would most likely be replaced by pasture and later by forests dominated by cuipo trees, a species with little commercial value. Paving the road would also probably increase the area devoted to pasture by nearly 500 square km. Similarly, adding a ferry to the town of La Palma would increase pastureland at the expense of cativo forest, brush and agriculture.

In another scenario, the authors attempted to predict what would happen if the same system of property rights and land use practices currently in use on an indigenous reserve located in the northeast portion of the province were to be extended to the province as a whole. The result, they found, would be to dramatically reduce all kinds of human intervention in the landscape. The area covered by cativo forests would gradually triple, and regions now used for pasture and agriculture would revert to forest dominated by cuipo trees.

"Clearly, cultural land use ethics as well as effective property rights make a difference in land use in Darien province," write the authors of the study. As a result of these findings and a range of other studies undertaken to prepare the project, a phased approach—linking gains in land titling and demarcation to paving individual sections of the road—is being adopted to ensure that the shape of the land and its inhabitants is preserved into the future.


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