What do you do in Bocas del Toro when you come across HUNDREDS of trash bags piled into mountains in and on top of mangroves? What do you do when you repeatedly tell the agencies that you would expect to react and absolutely nothing happens?
Seriously. Asking for some friends…
On May 13, 2023, guests from Over the Water Rentals went out for an afternoon kayak stroll on Saigon Bay. They were shocked to see what appeared to be a “river of orange garbage bags,” floating in a long line across the bay. The kayakers followed where the bags were coming from and came upon literally hundreds of completely full trash bags and miscellaneous rubbish; piled into mountains atop the mangroves.
They went back to tell their hosts, Claudia and Marlin, who immediately joined their guests on kayaks to see for themselves and explore the area further. They were shocked and appalled to find a total of five of these clandestine mangrove dumping sites; MOUNTAINS of discarded material waste piled onto a precious and important ecosystem.
These illegal dumpings were found in the mangroves nearest to the dive site referred to as Barco Hundido / Old Ferry / Old Wreck; off the southwestern coast of Isla Colon, near Saigon Bay, not far from the airport. You can see the mountains of bags from near the dive site, where there are multiple mangrove dumps along “Punta Manglar.”
“Diapers; tons of diapers. I don’t know how many months of [poo]. It was sickening. Mattresses, stoves, cushions, washing machines, bicycles,” remembers Claudia.
It was obvious that the trash had been accumulating for a while but it appeared that the top of the mounds were freshly deposited bags from a recent garbage dumper.
Marlin and Claudia filled their boat with a sample of 12 of the most recently deposited bags. Before getting the bags hauled off to the proper landfill, they put on their rubber gloves and detective hats, and opened some of the orange bags to see what they could learn about the source of this ecological monstrosity.
What did they find? Bank statements, menus, receipts, flyers and various documents -mostly in English- that point to at least three well-known hospitality businesses on Carenero Island.
Which businesses? We will not disclose them in this article. “Name them and shame them!” is what some people will certainly say, but no; that is not the course of action we are going to take here.
After some reflection, Claudia and Marlin are certain that these businesses would not dump their garbage into mangroves knowingly. The much more plausible explanation is that they instilled their trust and handed over their money to a “pirate garbage collector,” someone who chose to contribute to this disaster pile rather than taking on the task of transporting the garbage to the approved landfill on Isla Colon.
In our interview, Claudia and Marlin preferred not to share the names of the businesses with The Bocas Breeze, nor have they approached these businesses personally. Not wanting to get in the middle of anything, they have left this task up to the authorities to perform any official investigations.
We are all hoping this article will reach the Carenero business community and someone will realize that they may have unwittingly turned their trash over to an unscrupulous dumper.
“Where are the authorities?” is the next question for the comment section. Well, the first thing Claudia and Marlin did after their informal investigation was report all their findings to MiAmbiente (Ministry of Environment). They indicated where the mangrove garbage mountains are located, provided photos and showed them the evidence that pointed to the Carenero businesses so that the authorities could conduct their own formal investigation.
After multiple visits, Claudia and Marlin were met with excuses when it came to visiting the dump sites, removing the trash or following up on any of the evidence they had presented. It was always, “the boss isn’t here,” “come back later,” “we don’t have a boat.”
Well Marlin and Claudia do have a boat and they offered to take officials out to see for themselves, but still, no action.
They also reported their findings to the Bocas del Toro municipality and to the 311 citizen’s attention hotline in Panama City, but at the time of this publication, there has not been much engagement anywhere regarding their reports on the mangrove garbage dumping.
“We waited and waited; because all other matters we have reported -black water, leaky pipes- they all got attended to at some point, but the mangrove garbage never did,” say the Saigon Bay residents. “This had no follow up, so we decided to take matters into our own hands.”
On July 28, Claudia and Marlin rallied up eight other volunteers and a few neighbors with boats. They offered to fuel everyone up, gathered all the necessary supplies and went off to the mountains of mangrove trash. The team removed as much as they could in one day’s work; clearing away most of three of the five dump sites. They estimate that four tons of garbage were removed that day; over 300 bags.
“Our backs were broken,” half-joked Claudia. “You can only do so much in one day.” They described how heavy the bags were from being all water logged and sitting there so long.
In the end, Claudia and Marlin estimate that about one-third of the garbage was removed. No matter how much garbage still remains, these first acts are nothing short of heroic.
The Bocas Breeze commends Claudia and Marlin for all their efforts to investigate, notify authorities, take the initiative to organize a cleanup and kudos to all who joined in donating their time and resources to this worthy cause. Respect to the Saigon neighbors who helped out. For those who want to join in next time, Thursday, November 2, is your chance (more info at the end of the article).
Another hero emerging from this tragic tale is Gabina Cerrud and family, representing the company Transporte Múltiple Cholo Cabaña, a respected legitmate garbage collector in the archipelago. Not only did they properly dispose of the massive amount of garbage removed from the mangroves free of charge, but they also made their dock completely available to receive the bags and open them up there to sort out the recyclables. They even joined the group of volunteers personally in separating all the glass, plastic, aluminum, cardboard and tetra pak cartons that could be brought to the nearby Bocas Recycle Center.
On the morning of their cleanup expedition, before she left, Claudia wrote to us on Facebook. She mentioned that the piles were getting bigger and bigger, as so many people continued to use the mangroves as natural dumpsters. She and Marlin were fed up and just wanted it to stop. They were tired of waiting for an official response to their many attempts at going through the official channels.
Uplifting is the initiative taken by Claudia, Marlin and their volunteers, a mix of local neighbors and visiting tourists, which is always gratifying to see. Discouraging is what could be perceived as a lack of interest from authorities, or perhaps the issue is understaffing and underfunding of their programs. It is disappointing to think that these mangrove dumps are known about, but they are growing and they continue to contaminate local ecosystems.
“Most of the garbage bags have now been ripped apart now with the waves and everything and the ones that were floating during high tide all got broken up and dispersed among the bay and mangroves,” Marlin said, delivering the sad, but true reality of this situation.
While laws are useless without enforcement, you may be asking yourself “What are the official penalties in place for illegal dumping?” We found the following law and executive decree in a mangrove cleanup social media report we made last year:
Ley 51 de 29 de septiembre 2010 and Decreto Ejecutivo 1445 del 13 de diciembre 2011
These laws can be downloaded and viewed in their entirety on the website of AAUD (Autoridad de Aseo Urbano y Domiciliario, or the “Urban and Household Cleaning Authority.”
Within the lengthy document that details various violations of improperly disposing of garbage, a table schedule of fines can be found. Note the third row down, “depositing waste in unauthorized sites,” carrying a $1,000 fine for the first infraction and $5,000 for the second.
Scrolling back through our social media news reports, our editorial team found that this same area has been the subject to other community clean-ups in August of 2021 and January of 2022.
In fact, according to our report which we compiled from social media posts from the Bocas del Toro mayor’s office and Wasteless World, the 2022 cleanup concluded with the installation of signs in known mangrove dump sites that read in Spanish “Prohibited to Throw Away Trash, under penalty of fine, guarded area” and the same Law 51, Executive Decree 1445 that we cite above.
What happened to the signs? Has anyone been caught and fined? What strategy could we implement that will actually deter people from dumping trash in the mangroves?
So now that we know about this, what can we learn about this story? And more urgently- what can we do to act now?
If you are a business on Carenero and you think it may have been your trash that was improperly disposed of in the mangroves, contact Claudia and Marlin +1 707 382-2602. No one is looking for drama. All that is necessary is identifying anyone posing as a legitimate trash collector and illegally dumping.
If you have any information on this case or similar dumping occurrences, make your voice heard through the official channels. Maybe the authorities are slow to act this time, but perhaps with enough public pressure, things will change. To report illegal dumping or other acts that contaminate, contact:
Municipio de Bocas del Toro: +507 6859-7279
MiAmbiente Isla Colon: 757-9244
AAUD (Autoridad de Aseo Urbano y Domiciliario de Panamá): +507 6750-5119
Citizen Assistance Center: 311
Know your trash collector! Don’t give your garbage to just anybody. There are bad actors out there that may appear friendly and charge friendly prices, but they could very well be just dumping your trash in the mangroves.
There appears to be no licensing when it comes to the individual garbage collectors. If the person picking up your trash is not from Transporte Cholo Cabaña. -which is the case if you live outside of Isla Colon- please verify this person with Mrs. Gaby or someone from Transporte Cholo Cabaña. Go and see Mrs. Gaby and make sure your garbage collector has an agreement with Cholo Cabaña. They are very responsive with their WhatsApp and cell phone and invite you to follow up on any collection that was sent their way from outer islands or other collectors. For the time being, this seems to be the best way you can ensure that the garbage you handed over to someone on a boat actually makes it to the Isla Colon landfill.
Let’s join Claudia, Marlin and friends for a second clean-up! Thursday, November 2, 2023. They have the boat and fuel. They need your help! The more hands on deck, the more trash can be removed. Meet Thursday, November 2, 9am at the Bocas Recycle Center. Volunteers are needed in two locations: some in the mangroves loading the boats, and others at the dock in front of the Bocas Recycle Center, sorting through the bags to see what can be separated and recycled. The first boat will depart shortly after 9 am, and the boats will be coming and going throughout the morning, so you can join at any time. Let us know you’re coming: +507 6537-0405.
Oh, but to answer the question in the title of the article: Mangrove Garbage Dumping: Who Cares? It’s Claudia and Marlin who care. And Mrs. Gabi from Cholo Cabaña. And everyone who is joining these mangrove clean-ups. They care. And I hope it’s you too, reading this article, that cares. And anyone else who will support the movement of being responsible about who you give your trash and make sure no one is dumping in the mangroves.