The Darien Gap

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

I haven’t updated since July, but October was one of my best months yet. Despite being in the middle of finishing my masters degree (my albatross), I have found a window of opportunity to get a quick update in. Just to show this site has not left my mind, far from it, ideas are countless still. My next update should be during the winter break between fall and spring semester. So… in preparation for a more in depth article on Latin America I’m going to tell you about the Darien Gap.

What is the Darien Gap?

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The Darien Gap - thanks to Canary in the Coal Mine

This question is more difficult to answer than I had originally planned. ‘What is the Darien Gap’ is like asking ‘What is physics?’ Sure – there’s the simple answer that it’s the study of matter and energy and how they interact with each other… but anybody who has ever studied it knows that physics is the greatest mindfuck there is. And like physics, the complexity surrounding the Darien Gap might be equally boggling. And also like physics, there is a simple answer: the Darien Gap is a small swath of jungle that sits on the border of Central and South America on the edges of Colombia and Panama. It’s a mere 31 miles wide from the Caribbean Coast to the Pacific Coast and various thicknesses depending on your source and what they consider to be the Darien Gap since it’s not an entirely defined region. But as I said, this simple answer to the question “What is the Darien Gap’ does it no justice. If I were to create my own answer to this question I might simply call it the most insidious place on Earth.

And there was no light matter in choosing the word ‘insidious’ either. The Darien Gap is insidious in every aspect of the definition. Merriam-Webster describes insidious as “awaiting a chance entrap: treacherous, harmful and enticing: seductive” and the Darien Gap is most definitely both seductive and treacherous. The following are real-life situations and issues directly involving the seduction and treachery of the Darien Gap. And these stories are so extreme that they could only be fact because fiction wouldn’t believe them. But the Darien Gap is virtually unheard of despite its global reach. The 31 miles of unbroken jungle seems paltry to the behemoth Amazon to the South, yet it is crucial to understand the power it holds. But for all these stories to truly have weight, we need to understand the setting: The Darien Jungle itself.

 

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Thomas Griffioen's beautiful snapshot of the Darien Jungle

The Darien Jungle

The Darien Jungle consists of some of the most impassible and impossible terrain on the planet. In some areas rocky cliffs reign supreme while other areas are so swampy that you could hide a few passenger jets deep in the swamp with plenty of room to spare. Some rainforest areas have been described as if being in a giant Cathedral with nothing but dirt on the ground and nothing but canopied trees above, other areas are shrouded in a constant fog of clouds. The picture to the right is from one of the only places I could find quality pictures from the Darien Gap. Most pictures are small or grainy or poor quality in some way. Thomas Griffioen’s website has a lot of high quality beautiful pictures from the area, his set of pictures will really help you get a feel for the area. Through these pictures the seduction of the Darien Gap becomes obvious.  In fact, it seduced this entirely different man to be the first to cross the Darien Gap by motorcycle and he had this to say about describing one part of the jungle:

After two hours on the trail we arrived at the marker on the Panama Columbia border. The hills were getting steeper and longer, sometimes it took three of us to get a bike up a hill. At places the trail was on the side of a steep hill. One slip, bike and rider would plunge into a deep valley that would be almost impossible to get out of. To make problems worse, there were many fallen trees and the jungle seemed to be getting thicker. We could barley see the sky and the jungle seemed like perpetual twilight zone.

He also took some pictures. Ian Hibell, a bicyclist that made the goal to bike from the tip of South America to Alaska went through the Darien Gap and you can see him hiking through a torturous swamp. And that is actually the only video I have of the Darien Jungle deep in its own heart. To think so very few primary resources of any place teeming with life on the planet in the 21st century is shocking.

And hidden deep within the jungle along the coast not accessible by road lays nothing less than one of the most unique fishing locations on the planet. The Tropic Star Lodge’s website proudly acknowledges that they are rated the number one salt-water fishing resort in the world. Built in 1961 by a Texas oil rancher it has become an expensive fishing resort that lures the rich and famous across the planet including John Wayne and Saudi Shieks.

The Tropic Star Lodge poolside, the mystical Darien in the background

As in any unexplored jungle, it is needless to say that species of both plant and animal life still lay undiscovered inside. So naturally there are also numerous species that have been discovered that are endemic within the Darien Gap area. The Darien Gap is also a safe-haven for quite a few endangered species. Of these endangered species you might stumble across a Howler monkey, so surly in disposition it is the only untamed monkey by Native Americans. The Giant Anteater is another endangered species crawling through this tropical dimension. I’m going to take a minute to grind my axe here – I hate it when species like this are endangered, I’ve express this same feeling in my ocean entry about the endangered Leatherback turtles that eat jellyfish.  Speaking from one human to another, we do not want species like this to go extinct. I know the anteater looks like a joke with legs but truly this animal is really smart and useful. Like bats and Leatherbacks they get rid of the pesky primordial species that are always trying to overwhelm the planet to turn the Earth back in to the golden age of when simple-celled organisms and insects ruled the planet. Ants are ridiculously plentiful, nobody is complaining about the scarcity of ants, and nobody is all too keen on hanging around with ants – so why aren’t we worshiping these creatures that have adapted a nose to actually inhale them? AND it’s the BIGGEST of them ALL! These animals are worth not only saving but actually growing their population. But instead we blindly go around eradicating these useful complex species from our planet in favor of the mechanical insects and primordial jellyfish. Why are we so stupid as to pick stinging, burning, biting, insects over silly-looking ant-eaters, flying mammals, and cool turtles, I will never understand this…

But I digress… Another endangered species found in the Darien Gap is the Bush Dog – super cute little guy right there. The white lipped peccary is a hog-like species that are notoriously aggressive and travel in packs. So you might be going for a random stroll through the Darien Jungle when all of a sudden you hear a large herd of white lipped peccaries coming your way – you better climb up the nearest tree because these little guys are nasty and they aren’t afraid of people. The lesser capybara is another rare and endangered species, it also weighs in as the worlds largest rodent. But before you cringe in disgust it’s clear the picture that it looks less like a rat and more like a guinea pig. And giant guinea pigs should be cool in everybody’s book. In fact, looking at this animal makes me understand that even rabbits had to have come from rodent ancestry.  Another endangered species is the Oncilla, a super cute 5 – 10 lb wildcat, I suspect living in a jungle they could get pretty nasty though. Baird’s Tapir is the last endangered animal I’m going to showcase even though it is not the last endangered animal in the jungle; this strange mammal travels largely alone through the inexplicably unforgiving jungle trying to survive despite lower and lower numbers. These Tapirs take over a year to give birth after being impregnated and have to survive in a jungle in addition to being hunted by humans. I’m surprised any animal lives a year in that jungle with all the predators and deadly insects. Finally, some of the native residents of the Darien Jungle are the Embera tribe, traditional warriors of the region. Hunting with blowpipes and into some serious body painting, these native inhabitants have survived the Darien for centuries.

The Darien Scheme

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The Isthmus of Darien

So how unforgiving can the Darien Gap be? Well, listen to the story of how the Darien Gap defeats the country of Scotland. Yes – Scotland! How does a 30-mile swath of jungle in Central America defeat a country half a world away? Well, Scotland had existed as an autonomous entity for roughly 1000 years without compromising their independence. Yet it is well documented that at the very minimum the Darien Gap accelerated dissolution of Scotland and the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

William Paterson was a Scottish fellow who got rich by creating the Bank of England. And for his second trick he decided to return to his native Scotland and create a trading empire out of the tiny kingdom to the North. The cartography of the world had been complete enough at the turn of the 18th century and Paterson recognized a trading monopolists dream. It was clear beyond a doubt that the narrow isthmus of Darien, a mere 30 miles across (have I stressed that point enough yet?), would be ideal to establish a trading monopoly. Paterson was certain that if the Scottish government and the people of Scotland backed this plan they could colonize this isthmus and establish a crucial trading route from the expansive Atlantic and mighty Pacific.

I can only imagine Paterson’s vision. Any completed map of the world back then would clearly show the unique geographic feature of an incredibly thin strip of land sitting conveniently between two massive continents. I can even feel his excitement – the Panama Canal would not be created for another 200 years – plenty of time to make Scotland the ultimate trading monopoly on the planet. For all these years the Kingdom of Scotland sat in the shadow of the likes of England, France, and Spain colonizing half the planet while Scotland held no successful colonies. And here was Scotland’s prodigal son – William Paterson – a successful businessman with capital to invest getting ready to give Scotland its just due in the light of exploitation. No longer will England, Spain, and France be the only countries patting each other on the back for the capitalization of whole regions of the planet – in fact they’ll now be at Scotland’s mercy because they will have control of the Darien isthmus – and thus have control of the simplest trading route between the two monster continents. It would be an unavoidable monopoly and it would be Scotland who would benefit.

So Paterson started pitching this “scheme” to the Scots, and the Scots bought it – hook, line, and sinker. The Scots invested £500,000 which totaled about 50% of the nations capital. There was hardly a Scot who didn’t throw whatever money he could at this global conquest. Originally, the Scots weren’t going to bare the entire load and Paterson had worked the English and Dutch into the deal who subsequently backed out. To this day scandalous rumors float around questioning if this was done intentionally with the foresight of what would happen in Darien. Volunteers for the first trip to Darien were easy to find and were packed on a boat, 1,200 in number, and sailed 4 months across an expansive ocean to settle in their distant tropical paradise, build a colony, and make money! Of course when you cram 1,200 people on a boat for 4 months across an ocean at the turn of the 18th century enthusiasm tends to diffuse rather quickly. The Scots arrived in Darien sick and filled with dead – including Paterson’s wife.

They unloaded their ship and began setting up their colony in the exact jungle in which I’ve already took the liberty to describe for you. And if things were bad on the boat they only got worse in the unforgiving heart of tropical Darien. Jungle diseases quickly began decimating the population and rations were becoming thin. Back at home Scotland sent a resupply ship which got shipwrecked. It then took even longer to send two ships which began their 4 month journey to Darien too late. The colony, decimated, took to the jungle in search of nearby plantations run by other nations. The resupply ships, only equipped for the basic necessities for a fully operating colony landed at Darien in shock and dismay to find nobody.  1,200 resupply colonists reached Darien but it is said that as few as 30 survived.  With a complete and utter disaster realized it’s believed that Scotland became so crippled it forced the 1707 Act of Union with England.

The Pan-American Highway

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Nothing can stop the pan-American highway... except for the Darien Gap -click to enlarge-

So we just read some history of the Darien region, now let’s fast-forward to modern day. But again, let’s step away from Darien for a moment and head to the top of the world where the small town of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska sits on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Like Darien, this is a place on the planet where most people avoid. In fact, Prudhoe Bay has only about 50 residents all toiling in a remote, lifeless region of the planet to pump oil back to civilization for us to consume. According to their website that looks like it was made in 1995, there are 0 families that live at this northernmost town in North America. A few years ago Prudhoe Bay got some notoriety when BP spilled over a million liters of oil.

Now let’s go the the very opposite now – the bottom of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina – often regarded as the southernmost city in the world. Not as extreme as Prudhoe Bay, Ushuaia enjoys milder weather despite its location. What do these two places have in common? They are both the starting and ending points of the Pan-American Highway – a highway created to span across the expanses of two continents. Unbroken lay the chain of highway from Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia standing as a testament to the power of mankind over nature… well unbroken everywhere except for the Darien Gap.

Yes, you could take the Pan-American Highway and cross its distances from the icy Arctic, where no trees live through the towering rockies and conifer forests, down through the North American deserts, into unstable Central American countries shrouded in jungle, but in the small backwater of Yaviza, Panama the Pan-American Highway stops. A seemingly impenetrable wall of jungle faces you here – you are staring at the Darien Gap. Nothing but raw jungle stands between you and Turbo Colombia. From Colombia, you could follow along the Pacific through Ecuador, Peru, and Chile into the ribbed backside of the Andes Mountains.  The final leg of the intensely long journey would be through country of Argentina, showcasing its capital – Buenos Aires, before turning sharply South along the Atlantic to Ushuaia.

And it’s this fact that draws people to want to know more about the Darien Gap. We have a road that has conquered all aside from this stretch of jungle. Why hasn’t the jungle been breached? Why haven’t we connected this highway that would be an unrivaled global achievement? What power does this Darien Gap have that we cannot tame in this 21st Century? It turns out that these questions are presumptuous, because despite its inaccessibility, it was purposefully left unfinished.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – With all the endangered species I listed above it’s clear that a highway cutting through this very narrow and diverse jungle is something that humanity as a species would never dare ruin because the preciousness of diversity in life far outweighs the worlds longest road.  But the truth is a terrible livestock disease that exists in South America does not exist in North America. The disease is called Foot and Mouth Disease, from Outside Magazine:

FMD is the doomsday plague of the livestock industry, an illness whose outbreak can shake global stock markets. Most recently, an epidemic of FMD ravaged England in 2001, causing more than $7 billion in economic losses. No cases of the disease have been reported in Panama, and the last U.S. outbreak occurred in 1929. But in Colombia, FMD was endemic during the 1970s and remains present today.

“If FMD were to invade Central America, it could have very rapid access to the United States,” says Harold Hofmann, 61, associate regional director of the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency within the Department of Agriculture that’s charged with protecting the U.S. food supply from pests and diseases. “Therefore, the government’s plan is to keep it as far away as we can.”

Not only did the Pan-American highway never get finished but the creation of the Darien National Park was a result of the fear of this disease. A national park ensured no livestock would be raised within its boundaries. The United States has been puppeteering this region because it is precisely the country standing to lose the most if this disease crosses over. The United States Health Inspection Service has a $4.5 million regional budget working towards eliminating both FMD and a critter known as a screwworm whose larvae eat the flesh of cows.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia

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FARC rebels

So Darien is purposefully closed off, and with essentially good reasons. But when we look closer, we see there is still yet more to the story. It’s essential to remember the Darien Gap is insidious. And while we look at the Darien Gap and see 3 feet tall kitties and cute rodents and endangered species that need to be saved, the people who live with the Darien see the jungle as a giant death trap. Not simply for the natural causes of death – which are many – but because the Darien Gap has been home to Americas oldest terrorist organization. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are a by-product of over a century of civil war in Colombia. In the 1960s, rallying behind Marxist ideas, FARC was organized and began financing through the drug-trade. Today FARC is a multi-billion dollar drug-dealing enterprise supplying the United States with at least 60% of its cocaine.  This is unfortunate because this is financing a group who recruits child-soldiers and kidnaps anyone of seemingly value  and holds them in remote jungle prisons for sometimes years. The FARC have found their way to the Colombia-Panama border and are living (among other places)  in the Darien Jungle kidnapping those they could use in any way and killing those who don’t help in any way. There will be no arrest for your murder when you are murdered in the jungle, because you will never be found. Due to FARCs power people such as Hugo Chavez, leader of Venezuela, use them to cause confusion among accountable established nations by committing a certain amount of support for them. The United States has paid particular attention to them due to their influence.

Other rebel/terrorist groups that exist in this region are the National Liberation Army and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. All groups kidnap for some money. National Geographic Adventure magazine reporter, Robert Young Pelton, and two others were kidnapped for 10 days by the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia attempting to trek the Darien.  When asked advice for travelers considering going to the region he responded:

The Darién Gap is an extremely dangerous place—it’s probably the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, definitely in Colombia. It’s used as a conduit for drugs. There are no police there, there’s no military, the trails aren’t marked. Kuna Indians are freaked out now because of the violence being perpetrated against them. Unless you have a lot of experience in Colombia, I wouldn’t suggest it. [For the most part] the jungle there is not viewed as a place that is pristine and beautiful—it’s looked at as a place where you get killed. Because no one bothers gathering information, like I did. I mean, I know how you can hike the Darién now. But you have to have a group of armed men with you.

 

Abandoned mining train succumbing to the Darien Jungle

Destruction of the Darien Gap

Despite the Darien Gap existing (albeit dangerously) into the 21st century, it is guaranteed that it will not exist into the 22nd century. In fact it seems the Gap has less than a decade until the natural plug is breached and the Americas are irrevocably connected. Deforestation of the Gap is rampant. The rebel groups infest the interior making it incredibly dangerous for any sort of ecological protection. And the clock ticks until the final, slim, remaining barrier between North and South America is breached and the transference of Foot-and-Mouth disease to the North will be uncertain. The Native Embera tribe and jungle animals are losing their home tree by tree for basic subsistence and the result will be the elimination of an ecosystem of transcontinental importance.

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