After fifteen years of living in and out of Panama, I can finally answer that question. Not that it ever really should have been a mystery; I guess I just hadn’t thought about it enough. Just about everywhere I look in the countryside of Panama, from Cocle Province to Chiriqui, I see more and more cows and fewer and fewer trees.
Now I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of cows in general, particularly since raising cattle requires cutting down forests, burning the dried vegetation, and never allowing anything besides grass to grow back. Even the most pristine habitats in Panama, from the mountains around Boquete to “el Darien” on the Panama’s border with Colombia, are all being clear-cut in order to make more pasture for cows. This, added with the inefficiency of cattle production (it takes ten pounds of food to make one pound of beef), and the fact that cow burps are a large source of methane (a climate-warming gas), mean that I think the world would be a better place without these bovines everywhere. Unfortunately, cattle production is market-driven in Panama, because people never seem to get tired of eating beef.
It’s pretty much the same situation in the United States, where millions of acres of prime bison habitat have been fenced in for cows. People even ignore the laws and graze their cattle on environmentally protected land, where it threatens the desert tortoise.
But after many years of pondering why all of the land in Panama was going over to cattle pasture, I can finally say that it makes sense. Not that I approve (far from it), just that I understand. The truth is that agricultural work in Panama is really hard, and cattle-raising is probably the best way to make a living off the land.
You see, I did work for two full years with subsistence farmers high up in the mountains of Panama, and it was grueling work to clear the land with a machete, plant corn or rice, and then harvest a few months later. Sometimes, the soil was so badly degraded from improper soil management practices that the crops hardly grew. That also prompted the use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides (plant poisons) and pesticides, becausr otherwise it’s extremely difficult to grow anything under the blazing sun. Of course, larger-scale farming operations (run by companies) can accomplish better harvest with the use of machines, but such equipment is completely unavailable among the people where I worked. The work is hot and sweaty and miserable, and any money made from growing corn or rice (or other crops, like “guandu,” or pigeonpea) is usually very small. There is less work and more profit growing fruit trees, but these usually take several years to mature. So what’s the solution to make more money in a shorter amount of time? Put cows on the land. The cows will be ready for slaughter in less than a year, the clear the land naturally (by grazing) , and each cow will bring far more money per unit of land than any harvest of corn or rice?
This is exactly the reason why forests are disappearing in Panama, and in other areas of Latin America (like Brazil). The only problem is that I don’t see how it can be stopped without a complete change of thinking. One of my solutions while I was working in the Peace Corps was to encourage people to raise iguanas for meat, since they can sell for about $60 per pound in international markets, but the demand for beef currently exceeds the demand for iguana. If more people started ordering iguana (which does kind of taste like chicken and makes great sausages), then maybe some forests would be restored, since iguanas don’t do well in a grassland environment; they prefer to climb trees. Of course, there aren’t many powerful people out there encouraging people to eat farm-raised iguana, not in the same way that there are commercials for beef.
Those who know me also know that I’m a huge supporter of eating farm-raised insects, partly because they have a great conversion ratio (10 pounds of food makes 9 pounds of insect protein), and also because they require far less space. Some can even be raised on fruits and vegetables that people would refuse, so they could be fed off of a portion of their garbage.
The biggest challenge in getting people to eat insects is the “ick” factor, because people in the United States (and Panama) have a real cultural taboo against eating bugs. That’s what I have seen nearly every time that I mention the subject; somebody in the group will look like they just swallowed a lemon! It’s nearly the same face I see when I say that I’m studying spiders or that I keep snakes as pets. Still, in order to keep all of the natural areas in Panama (and everywhere else, for that matter) from being converted to cattle pasture, people need to fund ways of making more money than they do off cows, without substantially increasing the day-to-day amount of work. If you have any ideas, I’d be happy to read your comments!