The Panama Canal: From the conquest of nature to the construction of new ecologies

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The City of Knowledge Foundation presented a collection of essays on environmental history entitled The Panama Canal: From the conquest of nature to the construction of new ecologies, published this year, in March, by Environmental History, a journal of Oxford University Press for the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society.

During the activity Marixa Lasso, Professor of the History Department of the National University of Colombia, and Megan Raby, Professor of the Department of History of the University of Texas at Austin, presented a summary of their studies.

The event began with the presentation of Marixa Lasso entitled “From Citizens to ‘Natives’: Tropical Politics of Depopulation at the Panama Canal Zone”, where shelooked at the relationship between US ideas about Panamanian natives and the depopulation of the Panama Canal Zone. For Lasso political rhetoric facilitated regional depopulation by recharacterizing Panama’s republican citizens, most of whom were black, as “natives.” Once this ideological transformation took place, it became easier to enforce depopulation policies that forever altered the Canal Zone landscape by converting what had previously been one of the most densely populated regions of the country into a jungle landscape.

Meanwhile, Megan Raby spoke about “The Jungle at Our Door”: Panama and American Ecological Imagination in the 20th Century. Accodrding to Raby historians have not fully recognized the degree to which encounters in Panama have shaped biological understandings of tropical forests. The history of Barro Colorado Island (BCI) offers a critical case in point. This island, a by-product of the construction of the Panama Canal, became the site of a biological field station in 1923. Its position in the Canal Zone encouraged generations of US biologists to work there, helping to make it a model tropical forest. Although scientists initially characterized the forest as typical, by the 1950s they questioned how knowledge of the forest on BCI could extend to tropical forests in general. Was the jungle at their door really a door to understanding the jungle? This essay considers the legacy of the Panama Canal for ecological understandings of tropical forests.

About the essays
The construction of the Panama Canal is often narrated as a tale of triumph in which the US government conquered tropical nature using modern science and technology: dominating diseased landscapes, unpredictable rivers, and even physical geography itself.
This publication, which includes works by seven researchers, contributes by making this familiar story more complex, exploring new ecologies that emerged around the canal during its construction and subsequent decades. Collectively, these essays demonstrate how "the Zone" and its border areas became sites of ecological contact, important to imagine, understand and manage tropical environments transformed by human activity.