Were you to guess that it was the Panamá Canal with which Panamá changed the world, you would be right. However, you would be a little late in time. Of even more importance is the fact that about 3 million years ago, the isthmus of Panamá rose out of the sea and connected two continents. From this occurrence rose one of the world’s great natural events, the evolution of plants and animals migrating between continents. At the same time, this land bridge also brought about two distinct marine ecosystems, separating the waters into two oceans.
The years 1910-1912 saw the beginnings of study on the tropical biology of the Panamá Canal area. Scientists set about establishing a base for the natural environment which was about to be torn up with the building of the Canal. Specimens were then sent to the U.S. National Museum to preserve a bit of ecological history. From this was born, in 1923, the Institute for Research in Tropical America made up of private industries and universities.
This evolved in 1946 into the Canal Zone Biological Area under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institute. This is still based in Panamá, now known as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), where researchers are studying biodiversity and human culture throughout the tropics. Now almost a century later, the Smithsonian in Panamá is breaking new ground on the study of tropical forests and marine ecosystems and their astounding biodiversity. Pertinent to my former neighborhood up in the mountains, the Smithsonian, in collaboration with the University of Illinois, is also studying one of Panamá’s treasures – Geisha coffee.
Journalist Michaele Weissman’s God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee (2008) is an elaborate study in itself. Much of Central and Northern South America make claim to having the best coffee in the world. The inside cover of Weissman’s dust jacket poses three questions:
- Can a cup of coffee reveal the face of God?
- Can it become the holy grail of modern-day knights-errant who brave hardship and peril in a relentless quest for perfection?
- Can it save the world?
She answers her own questions by saying, Yes to all three. God can be found in a cup of Panamanian Geisha coffee, as it sells for about $1300.00 a pound or $75.00 a cup! Climbing the Smithsonian’s hills, I saw row after row of Geisha coffee trees. There are also many rows of other coffee trees. Clearly, there is a comparative study going on.
Today, the STRI has a staff of 40 scientists, while playing host to some 1400 visitors made up of students from undergrad to postdoctoral and tenured professors. There are some 350 research projects taking place in facilities across Panamá, though most are located in the Canal Zone.
Score another important kudo for Panamá. It’s no longer a sleepy little country. It has coffee to keep it awake.
Fact: 10,000 plant species reside in Panamá.
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