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Panama Canal Expansion: A Promise in the Making

A container vessel transits the Miraflores Locks.

It’s hard to imagine a construction project as massive as the Panamá Canal expansion. After days of hearing about it from interport lecturer Luis Ferreira and seeing videos and photos, students in Ed Berger’s “Panamá Canal Case Study” course aboard the MV Explorer finally saw it in person on an FDP to the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific Ocean side.

They were not disappointed.

“Every day, every morning, we had Luis come in and explain to us the ins and outs of the canal, to us and show us slide shows so we know about the canal and its history,” said Gabriela Chassagne, a rising junior at Rollins College. “But to see the locks actually open, to see the expansion project, it’s been amazing.”

Ferreira, an engineer and spokesman for the ACP – Autoridad del Canal de Panamá – is one of the canal’s top experts. He sailed with the Maymester voyage for several days, made presentations in most of the classes and was the preport lecturer before the ship stopped in Colón.

He also arranged for the students to visit an observation platform, which gave them a bird’s eye view of what, at $5.3 billion, has to be one of the world’s largest construction projects.

Maymester students were able to visit an observation platform to view the expansion project.

The canal expansion constitutes a promise to the people of Panamá, who approved the project in a popular vote in 2006 – the promise that it will make their lives better, helping them attain benchmarks set out in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.

Ed Berger, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Virginia, explained that by law, 90 percent of the employees must be Panamanian  – and to date 8,000 jobs have been created, with thousands more expected.

The authority is also working with local communities affected by the construction.  “They’re fixing roads and fixing buildings and making sure the communities aren’t negatively impacted by this,” professor Berger said.

For every area that is being deforested, an area twice that size is being reforested. A larger canal will bring with it more income to the nation’s treasury, which will help support infrastructure, schools and hospitals.

Luis Ferreira of the Autoridad del Canal de Panama explains the expansion project to Maymester students.

‚ÄúThis is not a great poster child for sustainable development because there‚Äôs only going to be one expanded canal,‚Äù Berger explained. ‚ÄúThe sustainability part is when you go into Panam√° City and see all the high-rises and the pace of development.¬† That’s the longer-term challenge.‚Äù

Development in the capital is evident in a veritable forest of gleaming high-rise buildings in a city of only 1.3 million people. Berger said the government has recognized that development has outpaced policy and has formed a working group to look into whether quality of life is being negatively affected. “They’re trying to catch up a little bit, to keep it from getting out of control,” he said.

Semester at Sea students saw first hand the contrasts in Panamá’s wealth distribution. They watched container vessels, having paid as much as $300,000, transit the canal, as they do 24/7. (When the expansion is complete in 2014, the ships will pay more than twice that much.)  Some traveled to Panamá City with professor Dean Abernathy, exploring architecture and planning. Others ventured into the duty-free zone in Colón, a city wracked with unemployment, substandard housing, gangs, violence and drug-trafficking, but which also boasts the second largest free-trade zone in the world.

A guest speaker for professor Armin Rosencranz’s course on politics and economics of Central America said that he’s optimistic in the long-term future of Panamá, but fears for the near-term.

“We are swimming in prosperity as a country,” said Osvaldo Jordan of the NGO Alliance for Conservation and Development, “but the prosperity is not getting to most of the people.”

The promise of the canal expansion is one of prosperity. It will be a challenging promise to keep.

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