Panama canal handover: the US toxic legacy

Martin Mowforth looks at the poisonous legacy of a century of US rule.

In 1998 and 1999 US and UK planes showered Iraq with thousands of missiles because of Iraq’s refusal to comply with UN resolutions regarding inspections of chemical weapons facilities. In the Panama Canal Zone the US now appears to be violating many international laws, principles and agreements relating to the storage, disposal and inspection of chemical weapons.

On 31st December 1999, under the 1977 treaty signed by then-presidents Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos, the canal and the US properties in the Canal Zone passed to Panamanian sovereignty. After its completion in 1914 the US stationed many of its troops in its numerous bases in the Canal Zone and used its Southern Command post (Southcom) as a springboard for both its declared and its covert operations, its invasions and acts of state terrorism against nations in Central and South America which it perceived as unfriendly, inconvenient or inappropriate. 40,000 Latin American students passed through the facility which once housed the US School of the Americas (aka the ‘School of Assassins’), including some of the hemisphere’s most notorious human rights abusers.

From 1930 to 1968 the US had an active chemical weapons programme in Panama, most but not all of it concentrated in the Canal Zone. Dozens of tons of mustard gas and phosgene were stockpiled at a number of sites; unused and dud chemical munitions were abandoned there; it is reported that over 3,000 hectares of land have a high concentration of unexploded devices and contaminating agents; and the Fellowship for Reconciliation (a US NGO) also suspects that some areas are contaminated with bacteriological and radioactive weapons.

The live ammunition has already caused more than a dozen fatalities, but it is feared that the many substances left behind will pose a threat for a longer period of time. These substances include sarin, mustard gas, phosgene, depleted uranium and hydrogen cyanide, all of which can cause cancer. It is also known that the deadly XV nerve gas was tested on the firing ranges.

After 1968 US army policy on armaments testing continued with simulants only, although they have declared some ‘limited, controlled laboratory testing of some tear gas agents’ to have been carried out in Panama since 1979.

Not having had access to the US bases in the Canal Zone, few Panamanians are aware of what took place there. It is vital therefore that they now gain an understanding of the legacy they are receiving. And it is crucial to this understanding that the US cooperate and transfer documents on the histories of the area being turned over to Panama.

Moreover, the Torrijos-Carter Treaty stipulated that the areas around the bases and firing ranges must be free of contamination at the time of the US departure. Unfortunately, the particular wording in the Treaty is vague and the US has so far avoided undertaking a costly clean-up exercise.

After almost a century of wreaking ecological havoc in the Canal Zone, in December 1998 US State and Defense Departments reporting to Panamanian officials claimed ironically that removing waste would cause too much environmental damage to the area’s jungles. They also argued that freeing the region of contamination would not be technologically feasible and that it would be too risky in human terms.

Dr. Donaldo Sousa Guevara, President of the Panamanian Ecologists Association, has argued that the clean-up ‘is the obligation of the Department of Defense and the incompletion of said obligation could be a matter for debate before the Federal Tribunal of the US.’ Some US officials have suggested that the clean-up could be undertaken if troops were permitted to remain stationed in the area. Once again, double standards and a cynical disregard for the sovereignty and environments of other less powerful countries determines US foreign policy.

The link between the daily acts of terrorism committed by the US and UK forces against Iraq and the environmental vandalism committed in Panama by US forces may not be brought to our attention by the mainstream media. But it clearly exists and illustrates the dangers for the planet when one nation becomes so powerful that it regularly chooses to ignore international regulations, treaties and any principles of ethical behaviour.

Dr Martin Mowforth is a lecturer in the Department of Geographical Sciences at the University of Plymouth, England and secretary of the Environmental Network for Central America.. This article first appeared in ENCA’s newsletter.