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In Balboa's Bootsteps
Franz Lidz
September 22, 1997
The author slogged through Panama's jungle to the Pacific
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September 22, 1997

In Balboa's Bootsteps

The author slogged through Panama's jungle to the Pacific

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With Araúz in the bow, we cover the final 20 miles of our journey in a motorized piragua. At the end of his journey, according to legend, Balboa waded into the Pacific and raised his sword heavenward. We, on the other hand, will putter into the ocean in our dugout and raise bottles of Balboa beer.

It's a long, slow ride through an empty landscape. The banks, once richly forested, are now a low cow pasture. "We have left the past and entered the future," announces Navarro. "It breaks my heart. ANCON has come so far and done so little."

At a bend in the Membrillo, we spy a tractor reinforcing an illegal log bridge over the river. Huge, fat felled trees—each hundreds of years old—wait in rows on the bare ground to be rolled into the river and rafted downstream. Juddering off the swirl of eddies, we clear the bridge by a few inches, touching our heads to the piragua's floor. "This bridge is the most poignant metaphor for the deflowering of the Darién," Navarro says. "It's a monument to corruption, to greed, to the moment. For the privilege of chopping down a lot of trees, a lumber company usually bribes the local chief. And the state authorities conveniently look the other way."

Progress marches into the wild like this: Loggers chop down the big trees, then farmers burn down the rest and plant rice or corn. "Birds will eat half the crop," says Navarro. "The farmer stores what little he can harvest beneath his house, thereby feeding the entire rodent population for 20 miles around. To take the corn to market, he'll spend more on gasoline and an outboard motor than the corn is worth. The whole thing is an exercise in absurdity and futility." After the thin soil is nearly exhausted, in a year or two, the land is turned over to cattle, which exhaust it even more. "I'm not suggesting the Indians must practice extreme austerity," Navarro says. "Conservation is not about suffering, it's about taking only what you truly need. The real tragedy is that the cost of cutting down this forest is enormous, and the benefit just ridiculous."

As the Darién darkens into pitch-black night, Navarro brightens. "Americans have this romantic, patronizing notion of indigenous peoples," he says. "They see Indians as noble savages who live in perfect communion with nature, saintly but exploited spiritualists who say sweet nothings to the hummingbirds on their fingers. The reality is that the indigenes are just like us, have the same material ambitions as we do and fall prey to the same temptations. They want to eat Big Macs and drink Glenlivet. They want to kill nature and sell it. When Balboa walked across the cornfields of Darién, he saw these same destructive impulses. The challenge for us is to teach others to harness our destructive power before it's too late."

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