How a Panamanian Former Penal Colony became a Biodiversity Hotspot

Ezer Vierba was shocked at the size of Panama's Coiba Island when he first visited it in 2004.

How a Panamanian Former Penal Colony became a Biodiversity Hotspot

Ezer Vierba was shocked at the size of Panama's Coiba Island when he first visited it in 2004. Coiba, which covers 194 miles of Central America's largest island, is 194 sq. mi. The island is covered by a large area of tropical forest, covering 80 percent. It's also home to white sand beaches and hot springs. Clear, clear waters are surrounded with a coral reef ring, one of the largest in eastern Pacific Ocean. Vierba says that the island is a popular tourist attraction. "Quite frankly, it's beautiful."

However, Coiba has a dark side. Vierba has a PhD on Latin American history and has come to understand this.

Between 1919 and 2004, Coiba Island housed some of Panama's most notorious murderers and rapists. There were also thousands of political prisoners known as "los desaparecidos", or "the disappeared", who disappeared under the dictatorships Omar Torrijos (or Manuel Noriega). Coiba Island is remote and disconnected from the mainland 12,000 years ago. It was also isolated by rising sea levels. The island's last Indigenous inhabitants left in mid-1500s. This made it an ideal location for the establishment of a penal colony in the early 20th century, where prisoners live and work as forced laborers. It was hard to reach and even harder to escape.

Coiba was home to as many as 1,300 prison inmates, with the majority of them living in 30 or more agricultural camps scattered around the island. Vierba says that the camps were so far apart, it was impossible to walk from one camp to the next.

There were once penal colonies all over the Americas. It seemed that the more isolated the colony, the better. One was located on the Fernando de Noronha archipelago in Brazil, 271 miles from Brazil's northeast coast. Another was on Ecuador's Isabela Island, Galapagos archipelago. The most famous penal colony was "Devil's Island", in French Guiana. There, tens of thousands of its 80,000 prisoners were killed by disease and abuse. Although they were feared for their cruelty and brutality, the governments saw these penal colonies as a way to discipline prisoners and also to increase control, Vierba says.

Vierba spent a lot of time studying Coiba for his 2020 book, The Singer's Needle. An Undisciplined History of Panama. Vierba claims that the Panamanian government planned to colonize the island someday. Individual camps were set up for prisoners to perform agricultural labor, including the growing of bananas. The goal was to eventually transform the land into a place that non-prisoners could move. This plan never came to fruition. Vierba says that shipping all the produce from the island of Panama to Panama was expensive and difficult enough.

The island's status as a penal colony, and the lack of development from outside allowed for its forest and species to flourish. Three years after the end of Panama's military rule in 1989, Coiba Island was declared a national park by the government of the country. This includes 38 small islands and the surrounding marine areas of the Gulf of Chiriqui. The area runs along Panama's Pacific Coast, from the Costa Rican border to Azuero Peninsula. Vierba was able to see the prison's old offices and the files of ex-prisoners scattered throughout the floor when he visited it in 2004. The prison wasn't closed officially until 2004. Vierba says that the terror in the prison was still very relevant.

Unesco designated Coiba National Park (and its Special Zone of Marine Protection) a Natural World Heritage Site in 2005. Today, tourists flock to the area to snorkel, dive, and hike through dense jungle, which is home to endemic species such as Coiban agoutis and howler monkeys. Coiba is sometimes called "Panama’s own Galapagos" because of the many endemic species that have survived and thrived there over the years. Researchers proved that Coiba was connected to the Galapagos via a natural "pipeline", a 900-mile network in Earth's mantle. This makes the nickname even more fitting.

Juan Mate, Panama-born marine biologist and manager of scientific affairs at Panama's Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is proud to say that Panama has a wide range of biological researchable species. "It's a hotspot of marine biodiversity, and Coiba’s forested area contains unique terrestrial organisms which are evolving into distinct species from the mainland." STRI has established a research station at Coibita, the only island in the park, where 40 scientists and many visitors can gather each year.

A World Heritage datasheet for Coiba shows that 3,500 people visited the park in 2004 (the year it was made a Unesco site). The number of visitors had risen to 17,200 by 2015. Mate says that the community's support has helped to keep the area rural and free from development. It's a beautiful area.

Fluid Adventures Panama's director Michael McKenzie says that Coiba Island was a kind-of Jurassic Park when he first visited it. Since 2008, Fluid Adventures Panama has offered small-group kayaking and camping tours on Coiba Island. "The diversity and number of endemic species was amazing."

Coiba is home to hundreds of crocodiles. They live in its rivers and roam its sands. These notorious carnivores, which were once a prison colony on the island, were only one of many deterrents that prevented prisoners from fleeing. The island's shark-infested waters, its extremely venomous Fer-de-lance, coral snakes and remoteness all contributed to the prisoner's inability to escape. McKenzie says that the former penal colony is akin to Central America's Alcatraz. It's fascinating, but also a little creepy.

It is located 15 miles off Panama's Pacific Coast. A boat ride of approximately an hour and fifteen minutes takes you to Santa Catalina, its closest mainland point. Another five hours take you to Panama City. To reach Coiba, it takes some work. It was even further away during its time as a penal colony. As another way to prevent prisoners (most of whom had free roam within their camps), from trying to escape, the government had prohibited fishing in the islands' surrounding waters. In its final years, the penal colony was so overrun by gangs that most people avoided it. Vierba was on the island in 2004 when transportation to the national park was still scarce. He bribed local fishermen for a ride and offered fuel if he dropped him off there.

There are still signs of the penal colony. A few buffalo that once tended the land have gone feral, though most of the invasive species have been eradicated; the remains of a prison church; as well as a cemetery with unmarked graves. McKenzie says that although the island's natural history is what draws him, McKenzie admits that many of his clients are also interested in the history and stories of the penal colony. This is often reflected in his tours. He says that one of the ranger stations has a natural history museum, which provides lots of information about the colony's past. "Occasionally we'll also visit the old prison."

Fluid Adventures Panama hosts what is considered to be the only "mobile camping" and "kayaking" tours on the island. They also offer day trips. The park is managed by Panama's National Authority for the Environment, Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM). Guests can book overnight accommodations in several air-conditioned cabins near the ANAM ranger station. Diving Coiba offers PADI diving certification in Coiba’s open waters, as well as excursions for advanced divers. Discover Coiba also runs full-day snorkeling trips, multi-day hiking, camping, and snorkeling expeditions.

Although Coiba Island is now a must-see wilderness in Panama, it's not without its dark past. The place was a hellhole for prisoners. It's paradise for scientists and adventure tourists.

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