The visuals entailed rotting buildings with weeds sprouting from the cracks, a steady stream of sewage in the alleyways, jury-rigged water services, abandoned yellow taxis resting on deflated tires, while malnutritioned locals hang out in the streets.
As Panama City grew and modernized in the post-World War II era, Colon’s vibrance wore off. The ultimate closing of American military bases with the canal’s transfer to Panama in 1999 accelerated Colon’s deterioration. Crime and poverty grew, and the middle-class relocated to the suburbs, Panama City or out of the country.
Colon is the city that Panama forgot, in spite of vigorous development meant to court Caribbean cruise ships. Prior to 1869, the railroad connecting Panama City and Colon was the main transit across the continental Western Hemisphere. A last whiff of prosperity was seen during the construction of the Panama Canal.
Meanwhile, just around the corner from Colon is a $5 billion canal upgrade, a so you would think hub for economic development, skills development, creation of jobs and opportunity to improve livelihoods, including the 27,000 people that continue to live in condemned housing.
Colon’s duty-free trade zone, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, has done little to improve the town’s fortunes. Recent developments, including a hotel, an airport upgrade, a cruise ship dock enabling visitors to shop without entering the city’s squalor, have benefited mostly the businesses in the zone, a source of friction. Home to the zone’s 30,000 employees, Colon got lost in the middle of the free zone, and has become a challenge for the government, residents, businesses to revive what was once a thriving town. Yet, it has been argued that projects like a new highway connecting Panama and Colon, the expansion of the canal, construction of a new hospital and other public works have reduced unemployment and poverty, yet these families continue to live in this squalor with no immediate way out.
Plans are now in place for the revitalization of Colon but with a lot of skeptism about how to realistically save and restore some of the crumbling buildings and historical assets, recently attracting preservation experts to write a plan with the help of organizations like the World Monuments Fund. This will entail moving families out and securing the provision of basic human needs. But how and to where?
In 2015 UN-Habitat reported signing two cooperation agreements with the cities of Colon and Panama to promote urban renewal and revitalization. These agreements, directly related to the issue of urban land use, planning and revitalization, seek to encourage public and private investment.
To be sure, such disparities are growing starker in rising economies like Peru, Brazil and Ecuador where communities are excluded in urban development and renovation plans, keeping the divide firmly intact between the rich and the poor. Fundamental to any progress will be addressing the racial discrimination that has stagnated Colon, getting people out of poverty, creating jobs and improving livelihoods.
This cannot be solved by government alone and will require other leaders from civil society, academia and international development partners to step in. This is an opportunity to develop new models and approaches for mitigating poverty in the midst of social, cultural and political circumstances – scale and replication for ‘Boom to Bust’ scenarios such as Colon.
In conclusion, I share Sister Barbara’s powerful perspective, hope for Colon and communities trapped in poverty around the world: “Change does, however, occur. We have witnessed repeatedly violated, humiliated and oppressed women find shreds of human dignity from which to build new lives and to grow. We have seen the malnourished children of these women learn to read or just to say “thank you”. Once launched, the empowering search for self-respect and human dignity is not easily lost. Hence, after years of slow, painful struggle, and almost constant evaluation, our prospects are stronger than ever, and our motto remains “Si podemos” – “Yes we can”.
By Sam Taylor, Founder of Reputation Dynamics.