The Journey begins
«The world was so new that many things lacked names and in order to indicate them, it was necessary to point».
On the small strip of land, running from West to East, connecting North and South America and serving as a buffer between two powerful oceans, these words – borrowed from the fanciful pen of Gabriel Garcìa Marquez, the hero of Latin American literature – fully express the euphoric astonishment felt by the men called upon to do it all over again. Nearly 100 years after the first mounds of earth were dug up with shovels and pickaxes by pioneers, who first brought the Panama Canal to life in 1914.
Before the eyes of these new arrivals, during a rainy August in 2009, nature revealed its true self: wild and untouched. Crocodiles, snakes, capybara, sloths and monos aulladores, the screaming monkeys that act as noisy messengers for all the animals of the forest.
Experts, hired to catalog and protect the denizens of this ecosystem during a long period of observation and study, counted between 400-500 species. Because the main goal of the construction site that was to be set up over the next few months, was to protect the environment starting with the flora and fauna that populated it. Doing so required setting up video recorders and cameras with sophisticated sensors, able to register the life of the forest during the silent nights. It is the best way to observe the wildlife, to understand how many species inhabit the area where the work will be done, and to evaluate how to remove them from harm’s way without compromising the ecosystem. And, when everything is ready to go, to request the help of specialized teams to complete the task and transfer the forest’s inhabitants to safety in the country’s national parks.
In a place like Panama, where there are 1,020 species of parrots alone, biodiversity is a true institution — like los diablos rojos, the loud, colorful buses that for decades have been speeding precariously along the roads of the city, persevering through dictatorships and famine, conquering armies and economic booms.
Respecting biodiversity is one of the primary objectives of the men and women called upon to “repeat the enterprise” turn to work, along the same by-ways traversed by thousands of workers almost one hundred years ago, to fulfill the vision of the New Panama Canal, one of the most ambitious engineering projects in the world in its scope for its scale, its innovation and its impact on the country’s economy of both the nation of Panama and global trade.
Engineer Antonio Betti, Salini Impregilo’s project manager for the Pacific, is one of them. He arrived in Panama City in early 2009 with three others companions and witnessed the signing of the contract granting Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC) the task of enlargening the isthmus in order to enable it to welcome the passage of Post-Panamax ships, giants of the seas that are 366 metres long and able to carry 14,000 containers. GUPC is a consortium of companies including Italy’s Salini Impregilo, Sacyr Vallehermoso of Spain, Jan de Nul of Belgium and Panama’s CUSA.
«On August 11 we visited the Atlantic shore for the first time», recalls Betti. «The silence was incredible. It was a unique sensation. We were immersed in untouched nature and, for the first few months, all we did was explore the land».
«We were immersed in untouched nature and, for the first few months, all we did was explore the land».
Uncontaminated nature means 370 hectares of inaccessible land, criss-crossed by rivers and deep mangrove swamps. A forest so dense that it hid all traces of the past.
«While exploring the forest we found equipment for crushing rock that had been left by the Americans in 1939», the project manager says. «It was hidden under the foliage and, at first sight, it seemed like we had come upon a Mayan temple».
«It was hidden under the foliage and, at first sight, it seemed like we had come upon a Mayan temple».
In reality, the U.S. had abandoned the industrial relic before every potential resource was mobilized for the war effort in World War II.
Over time, the forest, Lake Gatùn and the Canal graciously preserved part of what had been taken from the initiative of man.
Starting with those walls that harken back to Spanish domination in the 18th century that were discovered during the exploration of the Pacific coast. Then there were the secrets hidden at the bottom of Gatun, the largest artificial lake in the world back when the pioneers that built the first canal created it. Tools and convoys used to transport workers from one ocean to the other were found, protected by the lake’s green waters.
These are the remnants of an epic effort, completed by U.S. Army engineers on August 3, 1914. The idea and early attempts to open a passage between the Americas originated in 1881 by visionary entrepreneur – the French Moses – Ferdinand de Lesseps, who became convinced that it was possible to slash open the land to create a sea highway, as he had done with the Suez Canal.
Since the first boat that sailed these waters, the history of the Panama isthmus has run parallel to that of the Autoridad del Canal de Panama (ACP), the authority that for more than a 100 years has managed the Canal, first under U.S. control, then, since 1999, under the national government.
Ilya Marotta, ACP Executive Vice President of Engineering and Program Management, is one of those witnesses who has left the print of her work boots across the entire construction site.
«Look at this completed work», says the engineer, who worked her way to the top of the Autoridad, «It feels like a dream. I started working on the enlargement project in 2002 and day by day I watched this great vision become more and more real».
From history to the vision; from the vision to the project; from the project to the construction site.
«It’s such a complex undertaking», says Antonio Betti, «that we spent two years studying it before entering the international bidding. The start of work was a key moment to familiarize ourselves with the country, the land and the people».
He continues: «In the phase of setting up the worksite, we ran a test of our ability to produce cement. We needed to produce 5 million cubic meters of it on site. Nothing even remotely like this was ever required in the history of a state of the limited size of Panama. That’s when we realized that many requirements, like having to find a highly specialized labor force, and one that was almost completely Panamanian, would have to be fulfilled starting from zero, doing everything from the beginning. But that’s our job. And not one of us, even in the most difficult moments, ever thought we wouldn’t be able to do it».
«Nothing even remotely like this was ever required in the history of a state of the limited size of Panama»
Awaiting them were those 81 kilometers that split the two oceans and indicate more than any other border the North-South divide. On one side, Central American and Mexico, a cushion from the United States; on the other, South America, from Colombia—which borders Panama — to the far south of Cape Horn and that natural passageway between Chile and Argentina, the Strait of Magellan, discovered in 1520 by explorer Ferdinando Magellano and first known as Estrecho de Todos los Santos.
The Panama Canal is the alternative, born from man’s ingenuity and technical skill, to 26,000 kilometres of sailing around the American content. It’s a sea highway, carved out between the city of skyscrapers and Colón, the region where the waters of the Canal open to the Caribbean Sea, with its storms and its hurricanes, its vivid colors and intense scents.
Widening the Canal, nearly 100 years after its inauguration, today means not only throwing open the doors of oceans to giant ships that are the engines of world trade, but also a means responding to the deeply human instinct to explore ones’own limits and to surpass them, feeding a desire for knowledge that, more than 500 years ago, gave strength and courage to those who were ready to set off to discover the New World.
It’s a voyage into the history of human kind, one that never ended and that today starts again in the waters of the Canal, between the violent currents that cross the bottom of the Corte Culebra (the narrowest part of the isthmus) and the insidious waves carried downstream by the Rìo Chagres, between the driving rains of the Caribbean winter and the humidity of its violent summers.
A voyage in time and space, in search not of a goal, but of a way to reach it.
«It’s a voyage into the history of humankind, one that never ended and that today starts again in the waters of the Canal...»