Blog | Oceana USA

[editor's note, by Jason]: This journal entry was written by Sandy on Wednesday, March 2.

Cell barracks at Coiba

Former prison cells on Coiba.
(c) Angie Arias / Oceana 2005

At perfect noon we are sitting on damp wooden benches atop a hill on Coiba with thirty uniformed police. One by one they stride to the podium at the front of the open air hall, give an extravagant salute, and accept a diploma rolled in bamboo from the Vice Governor of the Province of Veraguas. In the audience, besides us Ranger crew, are park rangers, MarViva staff, two television reporters and a handful of model convicts serving the last of their time.

This is the graduation ceremony of Coiba's first class of Eco Police. Coiba was a prison; now it is a park, and as the conventional police leave the ecological police are coming to stay. Unlike the park rangers, they can carry guns, and they lend an authority to the implementation of the park's new laws for which everyone seems grateful.

Grave at Coiba

One of Coiba's cemeteries.
(c) Angie Arias / Oceana 2005

We spent all the morning on land. It was just barely enough time to figure out exactly who is living on this island and why. First, there are conventional police, who are leaving. Second, the graduating class of eco police, some of whom will stay. Third, prison inmates. After the prison on Coiba closed, and the inmates were sent to the mainland, the police who remained on shore realized the extent of the work necessary to maintain the base and requested that a handful of well-behaved prisoners be sent back to help them out.

One of them, Antonio, gave us a tour. The base looks like a semi-abandoned city. There are concrete barracks along the beach, a roofless church presided over by vultures, a cluster of administrative buildings in varying stages of disrepair. The prison buildings themselves are overgrown with vines but the rusted bars are as unyielding as ever and you can still swing a cell door shut with a clang. In each cell, Antonio says, lived 15 to 20 men. Yes, it is true that the guards locked themselves in while the prisoners roamed free at night and yes, there was violence of every kind. There are two cemeteries on Coiba where those who died here are buried in anonymous graves.

EcoPolice swearing-in ceremony

A new eco-policeman receives
his diploma.

(c) Angie Arias / Oceana 2005

That all seems very far away. Today, now, the graduating eco police stand stiffly in their army green suits, black caps, black boots tied to the knee and sing the anthem of the Panamanian police. Birds join. Down the hill, across the trees and concrete cell barracks, we can see the blue of the bay.

Who would believe that there is an island in the Pacific inhabited by scientists, park rangers, convicts and nature police who live and work together? But this is Coiba - a jail become a haven that prisoners help to guard, a marine sanctuary protected through a century's chaos by the very presence of danger. What a story. What a place. The park rangers and eco police seem happy to have us, and Oceana's Carlos Perez is invited to join in the ceremony. It is an honor to collaborate with this group - to have the chance to help, with our documentary efforts, promote the conservation of this island in whatever way we can.

[editor's note, by Jason]: We now resume Sandy's Journal, back in Coiba, on March 1...

It is late in the afternoon, the sun is about to set, and after a morning of diving, filming and interviews on land everyone is - briefly - back on the boat. The compressor is rattling away on the stern deck, filling tanks. It's deafening. Thankfully it won't be long until the tanks are ready and the film crew heads off again for a night dive. In the time we spend anchored the boat is like an airport. People come, people go, news bulletins flash over the radio or across one of the cabin's white boards, fleetingly, and in the interest of sanity it is best to accept that you will never know exactly what is going on.

Later in the night we will all be onboard. Sandra and whatever willing volunteers are around will make a meal; at the dinner table there will be time to talk about the day past and the day to come.

The last months of 2004 were hectic regarding beliefs on Global Warming, the Greenhouse Effect and other controversial subjects. Do you remember?

On November 8th a report was released by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme on the Arctic Climate Change. It revealed that the average temperature was rising two times faster in the arctic than in the rest of the world. (see Thu Nov 11th: Four years of studies in 140 pages)

Then, on Sunday November 28, 2004, The Observer published: Greenhouse effect 'may benefit man' Claims by pro-Bush think-tank outrage eco-groups. This article was about a report that The International Policy Network (a charity based in the UK, and a non-profit (501c3) organization in the US). This report, according to The Observer, was published just to feed a controversy about global warming. This report was denying the legitimacy of scientific studies or discussions on the issue and attempting to prove that global warming was nothing but a song for the birds.

Here is, for example, a sentence from the introduction of the report that you can find here (pdf file)

Contributors to this report have become increasingly concerned that the public is being fed a series of exaggerated claims regarding likely future climate change, based on inaccurate models.

And a part of the conclusion of the first section of the report: The scenarios underlying climate change `predictions'

The short answer is that we simply do not know how much warmer climate will be in 2100. In fact, the degree of (compound) uncertainty is so large that merely by providing temperature intervals, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is extremely misleading.

The Observer also stated that the melted Arctic will be beneficial for mankind by increasing fish stocks.

Well, reading Daniel Howden's and Ben Holst's article in The Independent published on the 5th of January, competition over the Arctic has already begun: it is a new international `cold war'.

The Arctic finds itself on the front line of the race to claim the North Pole, a modern scramble for the Arctic that has pitted tiny Denmark against its NATO ally Canada, with Russia and the United States lurking in the wings.

But this open competition is not only about fish stocks...

What is for some an environmental catastrophe might be a great commercial opportunity. Diamond finds in Canada's Nunavut have already fired a mining rush and propelled the country into the ranks of a top-three producer. Ottawa is counting on tapping what the government suspects are major natural gas reserves in the Beaufort Sea, the Frigid Zone bordering the Yukon and Alaska, where diplomatic swords were crossed with the US when it tried unsuccessfully to auction off the area to oil companies last year.

But what really made me sick is this sentence:

The centuries old bane of Arctic explorers could become a reality thanks to global warming, cutting thousands of miles off the shipping routes between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and delivering a windfall to any country able to tax its users.

There always seem to be people who are trying to deny the existence of a theory or of a scientific study, or at least confuse the issue, while others are trying to get rich from future impacts.  Wouldn't it be great if we were spending as much time and money trying to stop or mitigate the problem?

Related post on the blog:
Fri Dec 10th:

Yesterday evening, the Avalon in Washington DC was hosting the Sierra Club and the Alaska Wilderness League for the screening of the award winning documentary "Oil on Ice" which presents the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Oil Drilling controversy.

One of the filmmakers was present and Native Alaskans talked to the audience about their life, how they would be affected if the U.S. decides to drill and how they can feel the first effects of global warming.

Unless like Sen. Frank Murkowski (now governor of Alaska) said in March 2002, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge doesn't look at all like a big white board with nothing in it.  He said holding the immaculate board: "This is what the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge looks like 9 months out of 12, don't be misinformed" in his attempt to convince Congress to open the federal government to open the protected area to oil drilling.

The documentary shows how this portion of land in the Arctic became a refuge in 1960 thanks to conservationists' efforts and the Eisenhower administration.  In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) enlarged the area with the purpose of:

  • conserving fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity including, but not limited to, the Porcupine caribou herd, polar bears, grizzly bears, muskox, Dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, snow geese, peregrine falcons and other migratory birds and Arctic char and grayling;
  • fulfilling the international fish and wildlife treaty obligations of the United States;
  • providing the opportunity for continued subsistence uses by local residents; and
  • ensuring water quality and necessary water quantity within the refuge.

But Section 1002 of ANILCA required that studies were undertaken, including a comprehensive inventory and assessment of fish and wildlife resources, an analysis of potential impacts of oil and gas exploration and development on those resources, and a delineation of the extent and amount of potential petroleum resources.  This is the area they want now to open to oil drilling.

The problem is that this particular section of land is where the porcupine caribou herds gather, calve, and migrate as they did in the Pleistocene.  And the Gwich'in people depend directly on these herds for their survival as well as many forms of wildlife like wolves, grizzlies etc.

This is about the battle of big oil corporations over one of America's last, great wild places.  And this battle is occurring NOW!.  Each of us can do something against it.  Take action!  Log on to the Sierra Club website and go on their activism section on this issue.  Help the Gwich'in people to protect their culture, and their pristine environment.