Panama Canal Area

Completed Project
World Monuments Watch
Panama City, Chagres River, Panama

2004 and 2006 World Monuments Watch

A stunning visual ensemble of built and natural landscapes, the Panama Canal Area embodies pre-Colombian and colonial architecture, as well as exemplary nineteenth and twentieth century technology, aesthetic ideals, and urban experiences. Within the canal and watershed harbor lays one of the most important reserves of bio-diversity in the neo-tropical region. The Canal itself, a 50-mile (80 kilometer) lock canal across the Isthmus of Panama, cuts through a diverse landscape of colonial ruins, industrial sites, and dense tropical jungle. For indigenous peoples, the isthmus it transects was an important site of continental cultural exchange. After the colonization of Panama, beginning in the fifteenth century, the region became a crucial trading point for Spain. Construction of the canal began in 1880 and after significant stops and starts ended in 1914. In 1903, the United States signed a treaty providing the land for the “constructions, operation, sanitation, and protection” of the isthmian canal as well the recognition of Panamanian independence from Colombia. The U.S. administered the canal area until 1999 when it was returned to Panamanian ownership.

Integrated preservation approach promotes conservation

We began preservation efforts in the Panama Canal Area in 1998 by including two important monuments on the Watch—San Lorenzo Castle and San Jerónimo Fort, Spanish colonial-era fortifications directly affected by the turnover of the Panama Canal. Both sites were included on the Watch again, in 2000 and in 2002. In 2001, we developed an integrated conservation program for the cultural and natural resource management and conducted several restoration projects at the forts over the following three years. We also formulated a community-based conservation and development plan for the canal township of Gamboa in 2003.

Developmental pressures, inadequate planning, lack of public awareness, negligence, and insufficient funding for conservation initiatives threatened the region. The entire Panama Canal Area was listed on the Watch in 2004 and in 2006. We assisted with a Cornell University course on planning issues within the Panama Canal Area, and a symposium to address a comprehensive conservation strategy. Corozal Cemetery, Mount Hope Cemetery, and the historic center of Colón—all within the canal region—were listed on the 2010 Watch, and Way On Cemetery was placed on the 2012 Watch. The Panama Canal Area has a unique and delicate interrelationship of built form and nature. This integrated preservation approach promotes its conservation.

Last updated: February 2019.

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