Ecotourism Facilities as a Reality: Canopy Adventure
Presentation of Raul Arias de Para, President, The Canopy Tower
for Conservation Panama’s Panama Conservation and Ecotourism Workshop
February 19, 1998
Good afternoon, I would like to share with you some ideas on ecotourism. Ecotourism for me is an instrument of conservation. It is not an end unto itself, but a means to reach an end, which is the conservation of forests. I arrived at this conclusion through my personal, direct experience. It turns out that in El Valle de Antón, in lands belonging to my family for almost 80 years, there is a very beautiful waterfall. With the passing of time, it became popular with people with little ecological awareness, and it deteriorated. They came to have picnics, they left their food scattered around the place, and made a lot of noise. They brought their radios and it reached a point where they even wrote graffiti on the walls of the waterfalls. I knew we had to stop this situation, but the solution was not to close the area with a fence, for this would be very selfish of us, although we had the legal right to do so. Instead, we controlled access to the site in an orderly and sustainable manner. I contracted a person and we charged $1 admission fee so that people could see this beautiful waterfall. And thus, this ecotourism business was born. The purpose was not to make money, but to protect the site while keeping it open to the public in a sustainable manner. I hired a person, then two, then three. I liked the proximity with nature and I began to read about ecotourism. I spent 2 weeks in Costa Rica, which I had read was a mecca of ecotourism. I traveled around the country and I found many activities, but I found one in particular that I liked very much. It is a trip through the canopy of the forest, with steel cables tied to the trees in a system that does not affect the life of the trees.
We now have employed 8 persons from the area who were previously engaged in slash and burn agriculture. They do not have an education beyond the third or fourth grade, but they have good employment and good self esteem. They were trained by people from Costa Rica and Holland. I think that this is one of the ideas of ecotourism-to protect the forest by providing employment.
After the Canopy Adventure had been in operation for about 2 years, I decided to find something closer to the city. The Canal and the surrounding forest had always drawn my attention because they were so rich in fauna and so close to the city; 30 minutes away. But I couldn’t do anything there until the implementation of the Canal Treaty, because the operation of the Canal was under the government of the United States. So I began to search. I tried to find an area to establish some sort of a business on a larger scale. And after many tests and trips and weekends trying to find places in the reverted areas, and after making 2 requests that were denied-one because the area is under the control of the U.S. Army Tropic Test Center and the other because it was close to the operation of the Canal-I found a site which is an incredible place. It’s about 30 minutes away from the city, a former radar station of the U.S. Air Force. It is about 490 feet above sea level and the tower rises almost 100 feet more. The tower was built in 1960, during the Cold War. The Americans installed these structures in different parts of the world. They were part of the Intercontinental Defense System. It was a very powerful radar; it had a range of 300 miles. Later, it was used to control air traffic in the Panama area and then it was part of a drug control system to track planes suspected of carrying drugs to the north.
One day I had a meeting with the Panama Canal Commission and I was told that the second site I had requested had not been approved. Then they asked me if I knew about Semaphore Hill. I had never in my life heard about this place, but they told me that it would revert soon. I didn’t even know that this place existed until I went to the site. The Panama Canal Commission told me about the area and I began negotiations for it. Negotiations with any government institution are complicated. Can you imagine what it means to negotiate with 2 governments at one time? First I had to negotiate with one, then I had to negotiate with the other. Then they said no and I had to begin again. But, although it took me 2 years, now all of the documents have been approved, the environmental impact study has been completed and approved last week, and now we have all our documents in order to proceed.
This slide shows the road leading to Semaphore Hill. It’s an asphalt road, a one-way road which reaches the top. It is 1.25 miles long. It is approximately 1.25 miles after the entrance to the Summit Gardens Botanical Park. This is a view of the road very early in the morning in the rainy season. You can see how the sunlight is trying to filter through the canopy, and you can see the condensation of water in the air. It creates this haze. This is a view from the road. It is a secondary forest that is very old. All this area around the Canal was affected during construction of the railroad during Canal construction. We’re about 4 miles away from the Canal banks, and some of these areas are primary forests. These are fruits of wild trees that we found along the way. I am making an effort with a local scientist to identify all the species. Well, not all-that would be quite a task-but at least the more colorful species of flora on the way to the top. We want visitors who want to learn, not only to have an attractive visual experience, but to learn about the site. So it is very important that we have good guides and good scientific information. This is the tower. It has electricity that comes from an enormous transformer that generates 600 kilowatts. Let me give you some perspective about the size of this transformer and the electric consumption of the radar station. l have just completed a building of 18 floors, with 28, 3-bedroom apartments, and the transformer to feed this building generates 300 kilowatts. Yet this radar station generator creates 600 kilowatts. The electricity consumed by this radar was incredible.
The tower itself is 75 feet high. This dome is made of fiberglass, and was designed by Buckminster Fuller, a very famous architect. This is one of the few structures designed by Fuller here in Panama. The geodesic dome is well-maintained and the radar was inside the dome. It was aligned to emit its electronic signal and to receive the echo without interference. The dome protected the radar from the sun, rain, etc.
When I saw the tower for the first time in August 1996, it drew my attention. The road was beautiful and we heard howler monkeys. And it’s an interesting structure. It was love at first sight, so to speak. l began to investigate. At that time, the structure had not even reverted to Panama yet. So to obtain permission to see it, l had to write to the Interoceanic Regional Authority (ARI), which would then write to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry wrote to the American Embassy, the Embassy wrote to the U.S. Southern Command military headquarters, and the Southern Command wrote to the U.S. Air Force. And then the process was reversed and we finally got a permit to enter the area and the structure.
The structure has 4 floors. This is the first level. Each floor has about 650 square feet of area. l took a structural engineer with me, and he says that if we wanted to, we could add 5 more floors. It is made of galvanized steel, according to the documents that were turned over to me. The structure could tolerate winds of 150 mph. Here in Panama, the wind reaches 30 or 40 mph, so the Americans built it to last forever. This is an opportunity that cannot be repeated, because to build something like this in a national park could not be done today. Here, we already have it and we’re going to do something with it. This is a photo of 2 persons on the top of the dome watching birds. As you can see, the dome is very large-20 feet in diameter. From the top you can see marvelous things.
The area surrounding the tower is beautiful forest. It has a lot of flora and fauna. From the top you can see the Canal, and here we see the expansion of the Gaillard Cut. You can see this enormous earth-moving project. When they finish moving the earth, it will be 4 times the amount of earth moved for building the tunnel between England and France. It is a project that will be completed in the year 2005. The Canal will then have the capacity to have 2 ships passing through the cut at the same time the entire transit. At present, only one ship can pass through the cut at a time. When this is expanded, 2 ships will be able to transit in opposite directions, passing side by side through the cut.
For those bird lovers, here is a king vulture. It is a most impressive bird. But I am not going to show any more pictures of birds, because I want you to go the site and see them yourself.
Now I want to make some comments concerning ecotourism in the few minutes I have left. It has been said that ecotourism should have an element of conservation. A way to incorporate the element of conservation is through creation of jobs. In rural areas you have a lack of jobs. But also, I believe that ecotourism companies have another role to play. We have to be an example of conservation. If we are going to sell the attractions of the forest, then we must be moderate in the use of the forest’s natural resources. I believe that we should give an example of moderation in our facilities. I believe this example is the best to teach people. It is very easy to say that one is a conservationist, but then you have to show it. For example, the recycled paper in these pamphlets. The designer told me to use unrecycled paper because the photographs will look much better. But I thought how many trees are going to be destroyed unless I use recycled paper. I said that we must be consistent with what we talk about, so we will use recycled paper.
I would like to read an article from the news that came out on Monday the twelfth, which is a summary of the changes in the world. A report presented by the World Watch Institute of Washington says that in the last half century, the use of timber has doubled, the use of paper has increased 6 times, and the utilization of water and consumption of grains have tripled. If the population of China had the standard of living of the West, they would consume all the natural resources in the world. In other words, we have to put on some type of limits. I believe that as ecologists, we must give the example. One way would be to stop eating some beef, because the production of beef is one of worst enemies of the forest. We have to take these small actions in the community that we think are going to have a positive effect. And this then allows us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
There is an ecological resort in the Virgin Islands that I had the opportunity to visit. All their energy is solar energy, all the materials used in the facility are recycled materials. The floor is made of some plastic, the wood is ecocomposite. It is one of the most popular resorts in the world. It is called Maho Bay. There have been a tremendous number of articles that have been written about this place.
Finally, and it seems to me to be appropriate to be the last talk this afternoon, I would like to read a fragment of a letter that was written almost 150 years ago by an Indian man who had no formal education. He had never heard of the concepts of interdependence or biodiversity. This letter was written by Chief Seattle. Perhaps many of you have heard it. I read it frequently. Chief Seattle was a chief of an Indian tribe in the northwest of what is today the state of Washington. It was 1855 and the president of the United States at that time was Franklin Pierce. The president sent him a letter saying the government wanted to buy Indian lands. Chief Seattle replied in a letter which is very famous, and I want to read some fragments:
The great chief in Washington tells me that he wants to buy our lands. How can one buy or sell the sky or the warmth of the earth? This idea seems strange to us. We are not the owners of the freshness of the air or the mirror of the water. How can we sell them? Each particle of this earth is sacred. Each leaf is shining, each beach sandy, each insect is sacred in the memory of my people. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. That is why when the great chief in Washington states that he wants to buy our land, he is asking too much. We know that the white man does not understand our way of being. He treats his mother the earth and his brother the sky as if they were things that could be bought, sacked, and sold. His insatiable appetite will devour the earth and will leave behind only a desert. Our way of being is different. The air is something that is precious for the red-skinned man, because all things share the same breath. The tree and man. The earth is our mother. Everything that effects the earth effects the children of the earth. This is what we believe. The earth does not belong to man. But man belongs to the earth.
Raul Arias de Para is owner and operator of The Canopy Adventure and The Canopy Tower. He studied at St Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, and has a master’s degree in economics from the University of Virginia. He has been a banker, a politician, and lately has become involved in real estate and ecotourism.