Talking Trash: The Bocas Basura Situation

The waste management issue in Bocas del Toro is more complicated than most things here are.  It’s not like choosing where you’re going to snorkel or what pair of board shorts you’re going to surf in today.

Many Bocas residents and business owners in attendance of the November 20th meeting left feeling confused.  After 3 hours of presentations and discussions, there was really no clear cut resolution in sight.  I, myself, sat dumbfounded with a tape recorder, processing all the different arguments and data in both languages trying to put a framework on what is really going on and what exactly is the issue at hand.

Basically, the issue comes down to this:  Where do we put the trash?  How do we sort it?  And most importantly, who pays for it and how?

The meeting began with the municipality demonstrating that they cannot continue providing the garbage collection service because there is no longer funding to pay the employees or even to put gas in the trucks.  According to them, they were granted a subsidy for the waste treatment program based on the explosion of tourism and foreign investment, but due to the economic downturn, they haven’t received the tax revenue they had forecasted and as a result have yet to completely fund the initiative and make it operational.  They have been operating at a deficit for years and the program is now all but bankrupt.

Either way, tourism is here and so are the empty beer cans and plastic water bottles that the tourists kindly bring back from their tour of Zapatilla.  They have a great time, take a lot of nice pictures and fun memories with them, but inevitably consume non-biodegradable stuff and deposit it somewhere on the island, just as the 16,000 or so people that live here year-round are doing.  As a result, yet another meeting was called to have a dialogue about finding a way of disposing it all in a feasible manner that is sanitary, economically and environmentally sound and above all agreeable to the community.

The list of invites was predominately local business owners involved in tourism.  As such, one of the themes of the presentation was that waste is a byproduct and “necessary evil” of tourist activity and that it is in everybody’s best interest to come up with a clever solution as to exactly what to do with the unwanted stuff.  Staggering figures were presented in regards to the amounts of waste generated by tourists in Bocas, compared to that of residents and considered alongside how much income is generated by the tourism sector, as well as how many Panamanian jobs depend on the activity of tourism in the province of Bocas del Toro.  If you haven’t guessed yet, it’s practically every job with the figures coming in at just over 90% with those either directly or indirectly earning a living from the tourist dollar.  The importance of the whole matter was clearly understood by everyone in attendance.

Many relevant issues were addressed and valid points articulated, but absolutely nothing was really agreed to; aside from the fact that the trash on this island is in one way or another everybody’s fault, whether it’s the tourist, the resident or the government official, and it’s going to take a group effort to come up with the right solution.  It’s clear that now is the time for constructive ideas to come forth.  Robert Bezeau has been working on this for quite some time and he was there to present his plans for a solution.

Señor Robert claims to spend over $30,000 a month dealing with the waste management situation since he undertook the project 4 months ago after it was no longer possible to dispose of the garbage under the former treatment plan in Boca del Drago.  Instead, everything is now being processed on his property at Sunset Point (Isla Colon).  His goal has been to start up a privatized recycling center in the same location, but it will require additional funding that has yet to come forth.  He has decided that in 3 weeks, if nothing has changed, he will cease all treatment activity on his land.  He has already invested a lot in this initiative and it’s “running out of oxygen.”, as he puts it  In order to bring the project to life, Robert is proposing 3 plans to fund the creation of this waste management facility:

–       Plan A: Placing stickers on all non-recyclable beverages (such as juice boxes, water bottles, beer cans, etc.) and charging a 20 cent tax on each item.

–       Plan B: Charging an entry tax to the islands from Almirante, the Bocas airport and whichever entry to the islands.  The charge would be $5 to foreigners and $1 to Panamanians who reside outside the islands of Bocas del Toro.

–       Plan C:  A mixture of plan A and B, where the beverage stickers would be 10 cents instead of 20 if both policies were in effect at the same time.

His numbers and projections for each plan are now available for public consideration and the floor has been left open for debate by both Sr. Robert and the local government officials of Bocas del Toro.  In their experience, there has been a lot of negative commentary, but no other solutions offered.  To them, the meeting was not called to make a closed door deal of any kind, but to make it clear to the people that either way, something will have to be done soon and they would rather work with the community as it’s a matter in which any changes with affect everyone.

Dr. Joe is confident the situation will be resolved soon and in the proper manner.  He doesn’t want us to forget that it was his administration along with the help of the same local business owners that were able to come together and rectify the “Dumpers” situation in 2009.  The mayor had this to say: “We already did it in Dumpers and we can do it again as now when the community and tourism needs it most.”

Sr. Robert is equally is confident that the end of the Bocas basura problem is near, however he is still not sure exactly how it’s all going to play out.  After all, nothing has been set in stone, which in all actuality was the reason for the meeting:

“Tonight we were not looking for a solution.  We are here to inform the people what the situation is, because maybe one of them could have come up with a genius idea that we never thought of and resolve the problem in one shot, but that did not happen yet.  Now we’re going to pursue the way we think is the best way to resolve that problem.”

What do you think? What is the best way to resolve this problem?  The deadline is in 3 weeks.  Do something about it before there are more buzzards eating trash in the streets than people dining in the restaurants.  Put down this article now and talk to your friends, your neighbors and most importantly:  the elected government officials and business people that actually have the means to initiate a real change.

You can contact them directly here:  Write them a message in Spanish, English, or Farsi for all I care, but please let your voice be heard.  Better yet, go to the next meeting (which will be announced soon), listen to people’s ideas, share your thoughts and be a part of the solution.

Note:  This is not a comprehensive report on the issue.  There is not enough space to properly articulate all of the issues in detail. Stay tuned to for more commentary on the issue.  Feel free to write the Breeze with your opinions on the matter. 


Nicholas Corea is the editor of the Bocas Breeze. He wasn't born in Bocas, though he got there as fast as he could. He is just one of the many foreigners who became enamored with the islands. His mission is to provide the community with news that unites and inspires, while sharing with the world the magic that is Bocas del Toro. Mr. Corea likes to extend his gratitude to everyone who makes The Bocas Breeze possible- starting with YOU (the reader).


  1. Anne Watson-Russell Reply

    When President Martinelli last year dedicated Bocas del Toro as the number one tourist destination in Panama, was it assumed that tourists would eat and drink? What should they eat and drink? Take-out food/drink products sold in Bocas come in waste packaging. The stores reap profits from it and are responsible for importing massive amounts of waste materials, and are not held responsible for this (I understand few or none of the store owners were in attendance at the trash meeting). Those who send to the island thousands of tourists, and those who generate tourists’ garbage must be held responsible for disposing of it. The government simply owes the municipality the money to run its trash department, and any tourist-driven upsurge in clean-up of our streets and beaches should be covered by those who sell the stuff that ends up there. For example, the island is SOLD OUT out for the upcoming New Years Eve. The government has “controlled cash registers” in every grocery store. It could easily determine the size of the upsurged profits and tax the store owners directly for their proportion of the increased trash pick up (and fine stores which do not issue cash register receipts). Meanwhile, the Panama government must pay its share to Dr. Joe’s administration, for what its public relations department has wrought. In no way should the municipality be underfunded by the central government which wants Bocas del Toro to be THE NATION’S NUMBER ONE TOURIST DESTINATION! Those who live here amid all the trash, must get behind Dr. Joe and write letters, through his office, supporting the need for trash management (including an efficient recycle operation, which would also generate needed jobs) to be FULLY covered by the government, who in turn should garner some of that funding from those who insist on selling stuff to tourists in non-biodegradable containers and plastic bags. Let’s ask Dr.Joe what he needs for us to do to help him get the proper centralized funding to keep the Bocas del Toro region clean. His administration should not be punished with this problem simply because he and Bocas residents roll out the welcome mat. Not fair!

  2. Esther Reply

    Nice article!! Verry happy to see that you guys are putting this issue out in public, because for sure it involves us all!!

    I think all businesses should give the example of offering their garbage seperated. Hopefully soon the rest of the people will follow that example… with a little help from the municipal? ? ?

    I also vote for the tourist tax….

  3. Shawna Reply

    I’ve been coming to Bocas for about 8 years now (almost annually) and would have absolutely no problem paying $10 (or more) at the airport as a standard “tourism fee.” Costa Rica’s been doing it for decades – and it’s a TINY price to pay to keep Bocas clean and green. Education is key to sustainability, however. The less garbage that’s produced the better. How can Bocas produce less? Here in the US they’re charging for plastic bags now. Maybe that’s an idea too? It goes a log way towards teaching people to be responsible for their OWN recycling.

  4. Lauren Reply

    The chinos need to stop it with all those blue and red plastic bags. You buy one thing and they want to put it in a bag. Plastic bags should be done away with or there should be a charge on them. They throw them around like nothing….buy reusable bags! Super Gourmet sells them. I’m all for the tourist tax. If it works for Costa Rica……

  5. Mike Lince Reply

    I agree with Shawna that asking a tourism fee is reasonable to establish supporting revenue for garbage disposal.
    What I didn’t read in the report is whether Bocas provides adequate disposal sites. Are there enough trash cans in appropriate locations for tourists and locals alike to use?
    Some responsibility resides with locals. They need to set the example for all visitors to follow. If tourists arrive in Bocas and see garbage in the streets, it is easy to infer that is the rule for all. Again, there is the need for visibility of garbage cans.
    Throughout Latin America I have seen workers with safety vests taking horse-drawn carts and sweeping equipment to manually sweep up garbage. Is some variant of this approach feasible?

  6. Roberto Reply

    pueblo de bocas favor de limpiar esto es lo que hace que el turista vuelva si tenemos un pais sucio entonces alejas al turista

  7. Jeff y Pilar Reply

    Desperate times call for desperate measures!!

    How about an all out ban on Plastics in the Bocas Archipelago… stop the problem at the source, No disposable plastic beverage containers under 2 liters and a 50 cent tax on all disposable plastic products coming in to fund a recycling program. Ban those red and blue bags and provide earth friendly reuseable bags at cost. Require that all “go boxes” are compostable. We have an oppurtunity here to set an example for the world to follow! Cheers, Jeff y Pilar, Vista Paraiso, Bocatorito…

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