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Hero 408994339 Galina Savina 72

On the edge of the world stage and at the heart of global capitalism, the isthmus of Panama is a paradoxical place.

It has long been a conduit for powerful international forces, but it is also a peripheral Central American state, often overlooked, and home to some of the most remote wilderness on the planet. As a nation, it is both globally and locally orientated, gazing outward to the world and inward to its own soul. It is bound by patriotism, but sustained by foreign influence; united under the flag, but fragmented into a multitude of enclaves. Throughout history, the isthmus played a key role in facilitating shifts in geopolitical power. When Spanish conquistadors washed up in the Americas in the 16th century, Panama became a base for their expansive colonial enterprise; the birthplace of the world’s first truly global empire. Centuries later, the country’s fate as a transnational crossroads was sealed when the US carved out the Panama Canal and joined the oceans as one. 

Today, the isthmus is a fiercely multi-ethnic place, blending vibrant traditions from Europe, Asia, Africa and indigenous America. As a bridge between the continents, it is a bastion of ecological diversity too. A third of the national territory is an officially protected area with tropical rainforests, wetlands, rivers, mountains, cloudforests, offshore islands and coral reefs playing host to some of the most biologically varied and brilliantly coloured wildlife anywhere. But sadly, as Panama’s economy powers forth into the 21st century, its outstanding natural spaces are under threat from uncontrolled development. The coming years will be critically important. Will Panama embrace sustainability? Or will it sell out to big business and heavy polluters? There has never been so much to gain – or so much to lose. Panama, the great crossroads of the world, has arrived at its own urgent and ethical crossroads.

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