by Adriana Romo
Amid all the conversation that has been taking place about the world’s climate and the effect that it has on the environment, less attention has been paid to the effect climate change and the environment can have on cultural heritage. UNESCO has world heritage sites that are in danger and the majority are being affected by environmental factors, which cannot be controlled by humankind. The history behind these world heritage sites is the main reason why UNESCO and the world want to preserve these landmarks. But why care about a place that is naturally deteriorating and is no longer relevant today?
The answer to this question lies in the historical significance of many sites and their unique stories. For example, the Fortifications in San Lorenzo, Panama represent a fascinating moment in history, but they are crumbling to ruin as a result of environmental changes and erosion which have attacked the structure directly. The Fortifications of San Lorenzo in Panama were the most visited forts in the 17th and 18th centuries, by merchants, traders, and colonizing powers that arrived there from Spain. The fort was built by Spanish colonizers to protect the colonies from pirate invasions that targeted this wealthy area. The main reason the town around this port was so wealthy was that there was an immense amount of land and sea trade that occurred from all of Latin America and directly linked to Europe. The materials that were traded were silver, mercury, among other precious metals and rich commodities. The port in Portobelo, Panama was the principal Caribbean port that controlled imperial trade to the Americas. In addition to this, the architectural characteristics of the fortifications in Portobelo are magnificent examples of the 17th and 18th century militia architecture that came directly from Spain, and they are among the few surviving pieces of evidence of this neo-classical style of fort architecture.
The San Lorenzo Fort in Portobelo, Panama is under threat for geographical and environmental reasons. The Chagres River runs along the side of the fort and the structure of the fortifications is being damaged due to erosion and an increase of humidity in the region due to spikes in heat waves near the Panama coast. The issue began years ago and now the site is in imminent danger. The integrity of the property has also been compromised by uncontrolled urban sprawl and development, as well as a lack of maintenance on the site, according to UNESCO. While the structures have mostly kept their overall original form, some architectural finishes have decayed, along with decorative elements and parts of the fortification walls.
A number of measures have been taken up by the Panama government to preserve this area including conservation protection, enforcement of regulations and site management. There have also been laws enacted that protect the site and enforce a development plan that helps avoid urban growth in that specific area. The government of Panama, however, is promoting the area as a major space of ecotourism, causing an influx of visitors to the country. Increase in tourism has lead to more deterioration in terms of the structural components of the site. There are also no known non-profit organizations or government agencies that are helping with the preservation of the site, so the environmental and human factors affecting the area are not being addressed on a higher level.
In order for the San Lorenzo fortifications to survive, there has to be a team of dedicated conservationists who will try to preserve the area and block off sections to the public so the human factors do not physically harm the site. As for the environmental aspects and erosion in the area, the world can continue with sustainability efforts to try to reverse climate change and environmental degeneration, but that won’t necessarily protect San Lorenzo now. Since urbanization could also be a problem in the immediate future, there should be a law that restricts urban development in the nearby areas in order to allow the space to be a bit more secluded. In addition, only small groups or excavations should have access to the fortifications. If these actions are taken on a large scale, the hope is that the site of fortifications in San Lorenzo, Panama become protected and are taken out of UNESCO’s list of Endangered World Heritage Sites.
Montero, Carla G. “The ‘Three Roots’ of Panama’s Cultural Heritage: The Construction of Racial and National Identities in Simulated Tourism.” Cultural Tourism in Latin America. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2009. 45-68. Print.
Weaver, Peter L., and Gerald P. Bauer. “The San Lorenzo Protected Area: A Summary of Natural and Cultural Resources.” San Lorenzo Protected Area. International Institute of Tropical Forestry, Apr. 2004. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.