About 40 percent of the Republic of Panama  was still covered by primary forest at the beginning of the 21st century. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that 50 years ago, the figure was 70 percent. In other words, in the last half of the 20th century Panama lost nearly half its remaining primary forests—about 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) of wild, species-rich nature wiped out.
Even more disturbing, the trend continues in an era of increased environmental awareness. Though estimates vary, deforestation is believed to claim up to 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) of forest a year. That’s a loss of more than 1 percent each year.
These forests have mostly been converted into farms and cattle ranches or paved over to make way for cities and towns. There is intense pressure on the remaining forests from subsistence farmers, ranchers, and large commercial interests. They have almost completely deforested the heartland provinces of Los Santos and Herrera on the Azuero Peninsula , as well as the Pacific slopes of western and central Panama.
Eventually this land becomes useless and barren—there is even an artificially-made “desert” on the Azuero Peninsula. This has driven people north to the Caribbean slopes and east and west to forests that were once nearly inaccessible.
Whenever a road enters a forest, the forest begins to disappear. So-called colonos (colonists)—slash-and-burn farmers in need of new land—follow the road. So do timber interests in search of magnificent old-growth giants. Once the forest cover is gone, the soil erodes easily under Panama’s incredible downpours. This is worsened by the fact that nearly 78 percent of Panama’s land is mountainous, with a high potential for erosion.
The soil is generally of poor quality in any case—nearly all the nutrients in a tropical forest are contained in the trees themselves, not the soil—and is quickly overexploited, leading to the need for more land and thus more deforestation. Within just a few years the soil is exhausted and ranchers bring in cattle to graze on what is now sparse pastureland. The farmers, loggers, and ranchers move farther into the forest, and the cycle continues.
Deforestation is proceeding at a particularly alarming rate in the Darién , Bocas del Toro , Colón province, and the new Ngöbe-Buglé comarca (reservation), all of which are rich in biodiversity and primary forests. Even the Kuna, who traditionally have been successful in keeping invaders off their land, have in recent years protested the incursion of colonos onto their mainland reservations in the Darién.
While much of the deforestation is driven by the needs of impoverished subsistence farmers, Panamanian and multinational commercial interests have also done substantial damage to the environment. Banana, coffee, and sugarcane plantations, for instance, have wiped out forests and contaminated rivers with pesticides and other kinds of chemical runoff. The government continues to grant gold- and copper-mining concessions to corporations in the heart of important ecosystems. And large hydroelectric dams that flood forests, disrupt rivers, and displace indigenous people are being built.
To cite just one example, a few years back Panama  granted concessions for four large hydroelectric dams—three on the Río Changuinola and one on the Río Bonyic, a tributary to the Río Teribe —in the buffer zone for Parque Internacional La Amistad (PILA) in western Panama. PILA is a World Heritage Site and one of the most important protected areas in the Americas. If these dams are built, the destructive impact on the park’s biodiversity and watershed, and the indigenous peoples who live near the park, will be profound. It is likely to threaten the very existence of the Naso  people.
Some efforts have been made in the last two decades to reforest parts of Panama where the soil has not become too degraded. Tax incentives have helped turn tree planting into a popular get-rich-quick scheme throughout the country.
Critics, including Panama’s own environmental protection agency, point out that the policy has several flaws. The one most frequently cited is that about two-thirds of the trees planted so far are teak, a nonnative species that Panama’s birds, animals, and other flora and fauna seem to have little use for. Teak is most often grown in plantations instead of being planted alongside native species, creating monocultures that do little for the local environment and, according to some, actually degrade it further. There have even been reports of species-rich native forest being illegally cleared to make way for teak plantations.
By the beginning of the 21st century, a total of 46,000 hectares (114,000 acres) of land had been reforested, less than is lost every year through deforestation.
The difference between the still-intact Caribbean and heavily deforested Pacific slopes is startling, especially when seen from the air. But deforestation is creeping toward the Caribbean as well. New roads and even open-pit mines are being built right in the heart of it. The loss or fragmentation of these last forests, which some see as all but inevitable unless immediate steps are taken, will have profound, far-reaching effects. Panama  is a vital part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that links the ecosystems of North and South America. Consider birds alone: 122 migratory bird species regularly pass through Panama. What happens to them if the biological corridor disappears?