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Wesleyan University

Publication Date

Fall 2006

Program Name

Panama: Development and Conservation


The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is quickly becoming one of Panama’s most popular destinations, both for tourists pursuing temporary fun-in-the-sun type activities and for wealthy Panamanians, Americans, and Europeans seeking a more permanent location for their vacation homes, luxury resorts, and retirement communities. These dual phenomena have become a subject of escalating concern for the political leadership in Bocas del Toro and for a plethora of local, regional, and international NGOs, as unprecedented levels of development are leading to the degradation of one of Panama’s most beautiful and biologically diverse landscapes, stresses on urban infrastructure, and rapid economic growth that is benefiting foreign investors more than local residents. To attempt to gain control over this development boom, the District of Bocas del Toro, under the leadership of mayor Eligio Binns, has initiated a process of zoning, an urban planning tool popularizad in the United Status but also utilized in other countries worldwide. While the project is under the direction of the municipality, a central goal of project leaders is to successfully incorporate all stakeholders, including the local public, in the creation and execution of this plan. The success of incorporating the local communities of the Archipelago is essential for the success of the plan, yet there remain many obstacles to their successful inclusion. These include historical conflicts over land possession and use of coastal resources, as well as feelings of separation, and in many cases resentment and anger, that many community members harbor towards the institutions and representatives that would serve as their connection to this project. The initiative draws its legal basis from Law 6 (2006), which states its goal as follows: “to establish the regulating framework of territorial ordering for urban development, with the purpose of securing the harmonic growth of the populated centers, and to offer to its inhabitants universal accessibility and better quality of life within its geographic atmosphere and in all the national territory.” Despite its pledged goal to develop territorial ordering plans on the national, regional, and local level, the government has yet to make such plans. Rather, Law 6 gives local municipalities the authority to create, approve, and execute local plans without waiting for similar plans on the regional and national level. In addition, Law 6 states that the Ministry of Housing (MIVI), the government ministry responsible for urban planning in Panamá, will provide municipalities with both the personnel and financial support they need to carry out this task. Yet despite the legal basis laid by Law 6, planning activity on this scale has historically been carried out by the national government alone, making this initiative a pioneer project for testing the power and capabilities of municipal government. This has led to tensions between the representatives of the local government and those of the central government, despite their recent agreement to work together towards developing a territorial ordering plan. This tension is exacerbated further by the fact that the mayor is a political independent, while the members of his Municipal Advisory Board, as well as the representatives of the central government institutions involved in this process, hold allegiances to various national political parties. This investigation utilizes formal interviews with carefully selected key actors, informal interviews with the general population of Bocas del Toro, and participant observation in the workshops in which representatives of the central government, municipal government, and civil society make the key decisions that influence the direction of this project. The investigation seeks to explore the issues of participation previously mentioned, evaluate the viability of the municipal territorial ordering plan given these complexities, and make recommendations for the improvement of this process to more successfully incorporate all stakeholders. It concludes that this project has a very promising future, but some changes need to be made in order to make the process more participatory and to guarantee the long term success of the territorial ordering plan.


Economics | Growth and Development | Natural Resources and Conservation | Public Administration


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