Panama’s Water-Rich Eden Confronts Snake’s Temptation

North of Panama City, Lago Alajuela drains parts of Parque Nacional Chagres, a biopreserve that is home to over 50 species of birds and a rich harvest of tilapia. Photo/Keith Schneider
North of Panama City, Lago Alajuela drains parts of Parque Nacional Chagres, a biopreserve that is home to over 50 species of birds and a rich harvest of tilapia. Photo/Keith Schneider

PANAMA CITY, Panama – Quebrada Ancha, a community that settled in Panama’s thick forest 50 years ago, lies at the northern end of Lago Alajuela, a freshwater lake built by the United States at the end of the Great Depression to control floods in the Panama Canal Zone.

It takes 20 minutes in a fast 40-foot dugout boat to get there. In early morning’s luminous light and cooling breeze the trip is a passage across a water-rich green paradise. Fish eagles dive for tilapia. Hummingbirds swarm in the tangled branches of small trees. Grapefruits and oranges, papayas and mangos, coconuts and bananas ripen in a geography of wild bounty.

The long path through the forest to the community’s center is like striding down a tropical produce section.  Sugarcane and ginger and breadfruit, pineapple and marañon Curaçao, which looks like an apple and tastes like a pear, grow abundantly in the forest. Honey is collected from wild bees that nest in the village’s hives. Fresh fish is abundant.

A number of Quebrada Ancha’s adults were children when they arrived in 1976 with their families from central Panama; refugees forced out of their homes by the backwaters of the 260-megawatt Bayano Dam. Quebrada Ancha’s phenomenal natural riches now support about 100 adults and children, and attract foreigners who visit with increasing frequency.

Children of the Ancha community in Panama greet visitors in native costumes. Photo/Keith Schneider
Children of Quebrada Ancha in Panama greet visitors in native costumes. Photo/Keith Schneider

Coffee, Not Forest Clearing
In a shift that is representative of Panama itself, the residents of Quebrada Ancha see in their largely unspoiled territory potentially useful new ways to thrive in the 21st century.

For instance, instead of burning forests for new farm lands, a practice that drains nutrients from the soil, the village cultivates shaded and permanent hillside plots. In some they raise coffee bushes that in 2014 produced 75,000 pounds of coffee beans for sale to roasters in Panama City, about an hour away. A portion of the harvest also is dried in the sun, roasted over open fires, and available in the village for $9 a pound. Quebrada Ancha’s location on a high bank above the lake, set amid a grove of shade trees, is a delightful perch for savoring the strong and delicious village brand.
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Algae Blooms, A New Visitor, Ruin Sleeping Bear Dunes Shoreline

Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan's gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider
Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan’s gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, Michigan — It’s winter in Northwest Michigan, the coldest and deepest season of ice and snow in years. It’s possible that the severe winter will produce the conditions necessary to curb the newest noxious and unsightly threat to the region’s waters: the algae blooms overtaking northern Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The blooms not only illustrate the presence of rising levels of nutrients in the water. They also are evidence of the weakening resolve of citizens, their state, and the nation to secure America’s clean fresh water. Write me – – if you’re interested in organizing to halt this frustrating risk to the national park in our own backyard, and to addressing this insult to our lakes and rivers.

No place in the United States, it seems to me, is a better place to start. In 1970 the United States Congress authorized land purchases to establish Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — 35 miles of towering dunes, broad forests of maple and hemlock, and magnificent shallow blue bays along the northern Lake Michigan shoreline west of Traverse City.

In almost every way conceivable, Sleeping Bear’s founding reflected the best impulses of a nation determined to prove that economic development could coincide with new measures to conserve land, and scrub the air and water clean of multiple pollutants.

The 71,000-acre national park, founded at the very center of the five Great Lakes, met two primary national goals. Sleeping Bear restored the deteriorated bounty of soil, forest, and water that supported, into the early decades of the 20th century, a necklace of tiny maritime communities and several thousand fishing, farm, and forestry jobs.

And second, Sleeping Bear helped to prove that a new and much larger economic sector could be formed from policies that preserved a region’s ecology, limited pollution, and effectively enforced environmental law.

In the course of two generations, the air and water in and outside the park were largely cleared of pollution and improved to near pristine quality. Rivers in and outside the park grew colder and clearer, supporting active salmon and trout fisheries. Forests in and outside the park grew taller, more dense, and more supportive of wildlife, including regular sightings of bobcat, bear, goshawks, and once-endangered bald eagles.
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As We Build More, Use More, The Earth Is Pushing Back Hard

The 1989 revolution that ended Communist rule and freed the Czech people is a vivid example of human persistence and valor. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 1989 revolution that ended Communist rule and freed the Czech people is a vivid example of human persistence and valor. Photo/Keith Schneider

PRAGUE — City Square erupted at the start of the 2014 New Year with a deafening and blazing midnight fusilade of rockets and cannon blasts. The air filled with spent gunpowder and smoke so dense the brilliance of the firebursts was obscured. The Czech crowds, so slim and young and dressed in chic leather and spiked heels, cheered with the joy and lusty charm that comes with political security and social success.

This 1,000-year-old river city of 1.3 million, the capital of a first generation democracy founded in 1989, is a swirl of light and modern efficiency. Trams speed through narrow streets paved with square stones the size of Rubik cubes. Malls stir with shoppers hunting post-Christmas bargains. Cafes offer all manner of cheese, beer, bread, booze, and sweets. The sidewalks are filled with children in bright coats and knit caps running to keep pace with their parents.

The mood in the Czech Republic is so plainly defined by the satisfaction of building from the economic mustiness of Soviet repression a nation that is prosperous, clean, and among the world’s safest and best educated. Less than two generations ago bullet holes were still visible on the walls of Prague’s historic buildings. Adults huddled in attics, speaking in hushed voices with only their most trusted friends, if the subject was politics.

Prague, and the rest of this beautiful country of 10.5 million residents, provides welcome evidence of the capacity of people to agree on shared but difficult goals, and work together to achieve them. Prague represents needed hope for humanity’s ability to manage its affairs in a way that produces order from disorder, recognizes opportunity in changing circumstances, and responds responsibly to all manner of economic and ecological transition.

In neighboring Germany, there is more evidence such progress is possible. Germany is in the midst of a third industrial revolution fueled by its lower-polluting, water-conserving renewable energy sector. Almost 20 percent of the 600 terra-watt hours of electricity that Germany generates annually is supplied by power from wind, solar, water, biomass, and municipal waste. Germany’s photovoltaic solar sector alone accounts for 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity, and almost 20 terra-watt hours of electricity production. Power produced from coal-fired stations has dropped to 40 percent of Germany’s electricity supply.

And while solar yields three to five percent of Germany’s electricity production (depending on the season), that 24,000 megawatts of generating capacity is more power produced from the sun than in all of the rest of the world combined. And it’s happened very quickly. Because utilities are required to buy solar power from producers, including individual homeowners, banks of photovoltaic panels are bolted to the roofs of barns, big box stores, schools, and homes across the country.

Germany's solar sector has more generating capacity than the rest of the world's combined. Photo/Keith Schneider
Germany’s solar sector has more generating capacity than the rest of the world’s combined. Photo/Keith Schneider

As a journalist who’s now spending months each year overseas reporting on the fierce global contest for energy, grain, and water in the era of a fast-changing climate, the examples of human progress on display in the Czech Republic and in Germany are encouraging. So too, is what Ontario, Canada completed this year — a decade of policy change that has ended coal-fired power generation.

But these examples aren’t the norm.

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Torrent of Water and Big Questions Pour From Matchless Peaks of India’s Himalayan Region

North of Rampur, along the Mandakini River in northern India, the 25,000-foot snow peaks of the Himalayan Range reach higher than any of the Earth's mountain summits. Photo/Keith Schneider
North of Rampur, along the Mandakini River in northern India, the 25,000-foot snow peaks of the Himalayan Range reach higher than any of the Earth’s mountain summits. Photo/Keith Schneider

OKUND, UTTARAKHAND, INDIA – We made the crossing at night from Chamoli, reaching this Himalayan foothill town after dark. The innkeeper, anxious for guests in a travel economy that came to a standstill in mid-June, cooked dal and nan bread for dinner and then showed us to a room that was unlit and unheated.

It didn’t matter. Thick blankets kept us warm. And at dawn we awoke to strong black coffee and the sun lighting the 21,000-foot Sumaru summit, turning the rock and snow from pink to orange to white. The lower slopes, terraced by generations, dove to the fast-moving Mandakani River. The current poured over gravel and boulders, the sound of it rising out of the tight valley like a beast’s heavy breathing.

For five long days I traversed this region of the Himalayas in the company of Dhruv Malhotra, a young New Delhi-based photographer, and Vinod, a professional driver raised in the hills. I’d come to understand the consequences of a flood in June that trapped and killed 30,000, maybe 40,000 Hindu pilgrims during days of terror.

Steep mountains. Fast moving water. Active towns are the principle metaphors of the Himalayas. So is danger. This is an unforgiving landscape. On June 16 and June 17 the mountains unleashed such fury that four towns on two rivers — the Mandakini and the Alaknanda – were washed away. Entire sides of mountains slid into rivers, and with them came whole sections of mountain highways. Dozens of one-way-in, one-way-out towns and several larger cities were cut off for weeks, supplied with food and fuel by the Indian army.

I’m back in India for a month, just as I was at this time in 2012. I’m here on assignment for Circle of Blue, and our partner, the Washington-based Wilson Center. Over the last three years we’ve collaborated on our Global Choke Point project to understand how nations are responding to the resource confrontation that now defines so much of our economy and our global condition — the rising demand for energy and food in an era of diminishing freshwater reserves.

Last year in Choke Point: India I reported on India’s cycle of risk involving surplus grain production in western states and rising coal production in the east. This year we want to dig deeper into India’s coal production and consumption cycle, its solar and wind sectors, and its ambitious hydro-electric development program.

It’s the latter that prompted this trip to the Himalayas, where India says it wants to build the bulk of the 292 new hydroelectric power projects that are either under construction or proposed. India already has 176 operating hydro projects that account for a bit less than 20 percent of the country’s electrical generating capacity. There are – or were – 15 operating projects in Uttarakhand before the flood. One was buried under boulders and rubble on the upper Alaknanda. Another was damaged by silt from the flood tide that poured into its powerhouse and fouled generating turbines.

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BEIGIN 2013: A Conference That Thrilled Students, Stirred Lifelong Friendship

At play on China’s Great Wall with five friends, from left, Luka Lesson (rapper, poet), Karima Grant (author, children’s museum founder), me, Geoff Morgan (educator, school builder), Bob Nameng (founder Soweto Kliptown Youth foundation), kneeling, Linda Ragsdale, artist and teacher of peace. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW YORK — Five years ago Linda Ragsdale, an artist and mother from Nashville, survived a terrrorist attack in Mumbai, India that killed 166 people. In a keynote speech at the BEIGIN H2O conference in Beijing, Linda described the orderly persistence of the attack on the hotel where she stayed. Not a soul stirred in the auditorium at the International School of Beijing as she recounted the sound, the smell, the sight of the gun barrel, and the determined and surprising empathy she felt for the attacker (he was about the same age as her son).

That gunman, neatly dressed in khakis, strode into the restaurant where she sat and unleashed bursts of bullets, like angry bees from a hive. One of them slashed through three feet of her torso. She was saved by strangers who pulled her into the restaurant kitchen and then into the back seat of a taxi that raced to the hospital. In the years since, Linda told 500 students, she’s devoted herself to founding a non-profit group, The Peace Dragon, and its signature The Peace Master Class, which helps students around the world “engage their human powers of view, voice, and choice to have a super life.” Her story, personal and riveting and inspiring, is all the more courageous because her life could be riven by resentment and revenge. “I know what a bullet can do to the human body,” Linda said. “And I’ve never held a gun.”

In early November I spent almost a week with Linda, and with four more people of accomplishment at BEIGIN 2013, a conference designed to immerse students from 42 elite international high schools from across Asia in the specifics of a dozen risks to global sustainability — among them global warming, fisheries depletion, poverty, disease, pollution, conflict, labor, deforestation, migration, weak Internet infrastructure and access, and water supply.

That’s a heavy list for the millennial generation to accept even as it’s compelled to think about solutions. It’s a dispiriting list for baby boomers. My generation developed and enforced the modern environmental policy and regulatory apparatus to limit industrial depradations in the West. We’ve been unable, though, to muster the resolve to adapt the rules to new conditions, and utterly failed to gain a grip in the developing world.

But it’s also a list that can be solved with the help of the fine young minds coming up the pike. That was the point of the BEIGIN conference, which was organized by faculty and staff at the International School of Beijing. The conference’s transactional and communications hub was a three-person team that included Simon Parker, the assistant director of student activities, and his faculty colleagues Zerlina Cheng and Brad Philen. Parker, Cheng, and Philen clearly set out to make a strong case for what the conference smartly referred to as H2O – Hope. Humanity. Opportunity.

Indeed, the world contends with all manner of environmental and economic risks, much of it caused not by a shortage of resources or of recognition, but by a desert of empathy and a barren storehouse of courage to act.

In Australia, a nation wracked by drought and water scarcity, much of it influenced by burning the nation’s abundance of coal, new elections bring to power lawmakers that are set on producing and combusting even more coal.

In India, where water supplies are draining from beneath the land and coal production is soaring to keep pace with escalating energy demand, the 700 million people connected to agriculture are provided free energy and free water as a function of 50-year-old law and policy. The national decision to drive economic growth with reckless resource policy encourages more profligate water use, much higher climate-changing coal consumption, and built-in inefficiencies that are doing the opposite of what India wants. India is producing massive food surpluses that rot in warehouses. And the country’s economy is slowing.

I could go on. More than 40 years ago my Great Lakes home region in the United States helped lead the work to enact the Clean Water Act, which scrubbed industrial and municipal pollutants out of the five big lakes. The nation acted with intelligence and persistence to enforce the law. The water got clearer, in fact much clearer. New conditions today, though, are pouring phosphorous into the lakes, leading to great blooms of toxic algae, now the most important and visible threat to the Great Lakes. But the states and the nation that embraced the Clean Water Act are politically and culturally helpless to respond to these new conditions, the result of a democracy deformed by economic fear, selfishness, and irrational ideology.

Young people today are aware of the challenges they face. What they say they need are new operating principles, an approach to engaging information and the world that leads to promise in an era of apparent peril. In choosing the conference’s keynote speakers and workshop leaders, Parker and his colleagues sought people who could help lay that kind of pragmatic intellectual and emotional foundation.

What the keynoters and workshop leaders discovered during the six days we spent together — teaching in classes, hanging out at meals, touring the Great Wall, drinking beer downtown — was that we were as open to learning from each other as the students.

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