FEATURE - Deforestation leaves Panama praying for rain
Author: Robin Emmott
Now, as a nationwide drought lays waste to this once lush land, the people of Villa de los Santos have only bone-dry fields peppered with skeletal animals to acclaim.
After seven months without rain in a tropical country that usually sees heavy rainfall for most of the year, farmers and city-dwellers alike are suffering the effects of almost two centuries of deforestation, as one of Panama's worst droughts in living memory takes hold.
Witnessed most acutely in Panama's southeastern Los Santos Province, water shortages are affecting cities and towns, while crops fail and desperate farmers abandon their scrawny cattle to graze on what is left of the dusty meadows.
The drought has been sparked by El Nino, which through the warming of coastal waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, affects rainfall patterns in Central America.
But the relentless felling of tropical dry forest, once prevalent across Central America and Mexico, to make way for farming and ranching, has robbed the land of the trees that kept moisture in the soil and maintained the fragile microclimate of the humid tropics, environmentalists say.
"It's like the earth lost a bit of life every year. Now it seems dead," says Tomas Acosta, a burly owner of 70 livestock and a 494-acre (200-hectare) plantation.
"It's the worst drought I've seen in 50 years of ranching," he adds, astride a horse under the powerful sun.
Drinking water has been rationed across Panama City and surrounding towns, as the volume of water entering treatment plants from rivers has dropped by more than half.
Export crops such as sugar and bananas remain so far unaffected, but hundreds of dairy, corn and rice farmers say their production has fallen by a third.
Some supermarkets have begun selling imported, rather than domestic beef, as farmers struggle to feed their livestock.
Areas of natural beauty are also suffering.
A two-week-old blaze in mid-April destroyed 40 percent of the 4,940 acre (2,000 hectare) Cerro Zuela national park in the central province of Cocle.
The fire, sparked by the drought, decimated the park's flora and fauna, killing rare species of white-tailed deer, iguanas, armadillos and parrots, park officials say.
Smaller fires have also destroyed areas of other national parks, some close to Panama City, officials say.
In response, the government has suspended all permits to slash and burn new land for agriculture, as well as promising millions of dollars in soft loans to drill holes to reach deep underground water tables in agricultural areas.
In urban areas, the water authority Idaan provides daily water trucks, but many residents complain there is not enough water to go around.
"Sometimes the water trucks don't arrive and we're without water for days. It's an awful situation," says Lucia Gonzalez who lives in the Panama City satellite town of Arraijan.
Short-term solutions to the drought appear to be few and far between. Everyone is praying for rain.
"It's the best we can hope for. We know only God can bring us rain," says Sixto Moreno, a dairy farmer in the town of Canas, on the Azuero Peninsular in Los Santos province.
According to environmentalists, Panama and its Central American neighbors Guatemala and Honduras, which suffered severe droughts in 2002, are paying the penalty for felling huge areas of tropical dry forest.
"We've seen an awesome destruction of nature in Central America in the past 100 years," said Stanley Heckadon of the environmental Smithsonian Institute in Panama City.
"We have so mistreated the land that it has lost its capacity to store water, even in the rainy season," he added.
FELLING THE 'DRY FOREST'
Tropical dry forest, which demands half the rainfall of its better known sister tropical rain forest, is Latin America's most threatened lowland tropical forest habitat.
The deciduous forest once covered more than 200,000 square miles (518,000 sq kms) of Pacific coas