On Friday January 22, 2021, government officials, private consultants and residents of Bocas del Toro gathered to discuss the design phase of an enormous public works project that has plans to transform the main island of the archipelago in significant ways. A presentation was given by engineer Gloria Augudo, the coordinator of the two consulting companies, Proyeco and Ingenieros Geotécnicos, collectively known as the “Consorcio Proyeco-Ingeotec,” or the Proyeco-Ingeotec Committee.
The name of the project is – translated from Spanish- “Consultancy for the Urban Redesign of Isla Colón Streets, Coastal Loop Road of La Feria – Boca del Drago – Bluff Beach – Paunch Beach, Pump System and Simon Bolivar Park Renovation.” According to Augudo, the stated objective of this project is to reactivate the island as a touristic center.
In the presentation, Augudo unveiled the recommendations made by the two consulting companies for the urban redesign of Isla Colon. The first projects introduced were the repair to the streets and avenues in the town center, as well as work on the existing roads that lead out of town from Big Creek to Boca del Drago and Paunch Beach. The plans mention “systems of coastal protection in at-risk sites.”
Four critical areas on the road to Boca del Drago have been identified and the proposal seeks to secure the road through “systems of slope protection in at-risk sites.” There was no specific mention in the presentation of exactly what these systems are, nor how they will be implemented
The proposal also includes paving the road from Paunch to Bluff, while redirecting the current roadway slightly inland away from the beach in Bluff and the protected area of the municipal reserve. The last phase of the urban redesign proposal is the creation of a completely new road connecting the Paunch, Bluff and Boca del Drago beach attractions, in what can be described as a beltway road circumnavigating the island. This road would include a bridge over the Mimbitimbi River.
Another aspect of the urban street redesign project is the renovation of the town sidewalks and the addition of a bicycle lane that would circle through Bocas Town on 3rd Street, A Avenue, 6th street, F Avenue, 10th Street, G Avenue and then included on the road out of town, along the proposed coastal loop road; a total of 37.25 kilometers of ciclovía (bike lane). In addition to the lane for cyclists would be the installation of new and widened pedestrian sidewalks and street lights; not only in the town center, but also along the complete span of the new beltway road. With the addition of bike lanes and widening of current sidewalks in the downtown area, the Proyeco-Ingeotec committee is proposing reassignments to the manner vehicular traffic would move about the island, making some streets in Bocas Town one way. Also included would be upgrades to the town’s street drainage systems, with pumps on the north and south side of 6th street to remove water when there is flooding.
A renovation of the town’s central plaza, Parque Simón Bolívar, is in the project design, along with upgrades to another public park that is on the south side of 6th street. In the case of Parque Simón Bolívar, the streets on the north and south side of the park would become pedestrian areas and suggested is the construction of new cobblestone and concrete walkways. There would be renovation of the gazebo and to the Simon Bolivar statue, as well as the construction of a new child playground with rubber pavement. Designated street parking was included on the virtual mock-ups on Calle 3 and Calle 2, adjacent to the east and west side of the park, as well as a bus stop on Calle 3, in front of the park. See more slideshow images from the presentation at the conclusion of this article.
The initial plans for this project were conceived through suggestions from the community in a previous hearing during the Gabinete Turistico (Tourism Cabinet) in Bocas del Toro on August 30, 2019, and the original proposal was published in November 2019. The project design is currently scheduled to be finalized in the middle of February, says Rafael Sabonge, Minister of Public Works (MOP), and according to reporter Felipe Ernesto Lopez Rodriguez, Sabonge also mentioned that there is $29 million already assigned to the project by the Ministry of Economy and Finance. The budget will be finalized after the project design is approved, which right now is scheduled for mid-February and bidding on the projects should begin as of March 1st. The bidding and contracting process is expected to take up to 6 months with construction likely beginning before the end of this year.
However before the design is finalized, MOP and the Proyeco-Ingeotec committee are engaging in important consultations with community members, so that the people of Bocas del Toro can share comments, bring up any concerns, and contribute their ideas and suggestions. The participation of the community leaders will be paramount to the success of this enormous endeavor. With the right input and curation from the people of Bocas del Toro, the work that will be done has the potential to truly benefit the major stake-holding residents of the archipelago.
Citizen Participation: Comments from the Public Hearing and Beyond
The meeting on January 22 was open to the public, however given the situation with COVID-19 and current Ministry of Health protocols of only 10 people at a time allowed in public spaces for meetings, the hearing was conducted in classrooms in the local elementary school, making use of audio-visual equipment to facilitate a video conference among the presenters and the town residents. There was a main conference room with the government officials and representatives of the Proyeco-Ingeotec consultants. The public was seated in 10 other classrooms with a maximum of 10 people in each room; all equipped with a projector broadcasting the live transmission from BTV News, with a camera in each classroom to film the participants, with access to a microphone for those who wanted to share their thoughts post-presentation. Everyone in attendance had the opportunity to sign up to speak for one minute; to ask questions, give suggestions and express any concerns for the project. Anyone who could not attend the meeting, or had comments that would take longer than one minute, was encouraged to email the Ministry of Public Works directly at email@example.com.
Reactions from the People of Bocas del Toro
Road Repair is Much Needed
The community of Bocas del Toro seems to be totally in agreement on one thing: the existing roads are in much need of repair; especially the road to Boca del Drago and a very critical point on the IDAAN hill, a section particularly affected by erosion on the bend in the road between the Smithsonian and Finca Los Monos.
Isla Colón Representative Wilbur “Waya” Martinez mentioned in an interview that the last president to intervene with any major roadwork projects in Bocas del Toro was Martín Torrijos, who served 2004-2009. This means for the last decade and previous two national governments, little has been done in regards to the roads of Isla Colón. Martínez commented that on the first day of Laurentino Cortizo’s presidential term, the new Minister of Public Works Rafael Sabonge scheduled his visit to Bocas del Toro, for which Representative Martínez is very grateful that the current government from day one has shown interest in getting work done in our community.
Isla Colon resident Julio Cotes Surgeon participated in the public hearing with an inquiry of what kind asphalt would be implemented; whether it would be what they have used in the past or if they would be utilizing something more durable to withstand the climatic elements of the island, as well as to withstand the weight of the heavily loaded construction and fuel trucks that enter the island on a regular basis. “A street built with a good base layer, good material, the correct quality in the process and with an asphalt layer, would last for many years,” he commented. Surgeon also gave us his general feeling on the idea of the project, “As a Bocatoreño islander, descendant of the founders and a very hard-working family, I totally agree with the project, as many Bocatoreños do, because it will bring many benefits and more job opportunities during these pandemic times; injecting into the economy that is heavily hit and depends mostly on tourism.”
Public Work Projects Will Stimulate the Local Economy
Bocas del Toro Mayor Emiliano Torres stated that this project injects a little hope for Bocas del Toro in that there is great opportunity to create jobs for any of the public works projects approved in the final project design. Tourism is the number one economic activity of the area, however the second biggest job opportunity is construction. With the situation of the global pandemic and decline in tourism, there are a lot of experienced laborers who are currently out of a job that would be eager to get to work on something of this nature.
The guarantee of jobs for Bocatoreños was a popular topic during the hearing, mentioned by multiple attendees. Isla Colon resident Manuel Sanjur suggested a written agreement between the corresponding government authorities and the designers of the project ensuring the use of a local labor force. Bocas del Toro Governess Estela Stephenson was able to confirm verbally right then and there that she is committed to making sure that all positions will be given to any qualified local laborer first. Ibrain Valderrama, General Secretary of MOP, also mentioned that there is a collaboration with the Ministry of Labor called “Empleabilidad Comunitaria,” or Community Employ-ability.
Should The Road Be Connected to Loop Around the Island?
One of the more controversial parts of this proposal seems to be the creation of a road that connects Bluff Beach with Boca del Drago, one that would complete a beltway road around the Bocas del Toro’s main island of Colón. At the moment, the northeastern section of Isla Colon is practically untouched. It is only really accessible on land by foot. Traveling north on the Bluff Road you can explore a lot by bicycle and some parts by ATV, but right now it is one of the only areas of the island without a vehicular road. As ATP Subdirector Giullen mentioned, the project aims to enhance the tourism experience for visitors of the island, so the idea is that the new beltway road would open up the area for more exploration and easier access for visiting the current Paunch, Bluff, Drago and Starfish beach attractions. Though some visitors and residents will tell you the lack of easy access to these parts of the islands make the areas all the more special and perhaps even more attractive through the eyes of the tourist. There are other reasons why some are not in favor of this part of the proposal.
Those against the new beltway road are concerned about the environmental impact it will have; deforesting portions of the coastal rainforest to make space for the road and bringing much more human activity to the area, which modern man has demonstrated that roads typically come with pollution and wildlife displacement.
Cristina Ordoñez of the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) noted that the proposal of this project will bring more lighting and human traffic to Bluff and Boca del Drago, which are both important turtle nesting beaches. Modern lighting fixtures near beaches have been known to disorientate turtles during nesting and is considered to be detrimental to the species. ATP Subdirector Denise Guillen recognized the need to create awareness on the issues of protecting wildlife and controlling waste management, seeing it as an opportunity to promote conservation and sustainable practices to visitors of these beaches. Guillen and Sabonge both made statements confirming the need to work with Ordoñez and the STC in order to make sure that the project design will not harm the beloved sea turtles of Bocas del Toro.
Those in opposition to this portion of the project also call attention to other important needs that could perhaps better be addressed instead of the funding of this new road. For example, the mainland road between Bocas del Toro province with Chiriqui was recently washed out and has been in serious disrepair for years, which is the community’s connection to the rest of the country for supplies and is also an important route for tourists to arrive. Waste management, sewage system and electric plant upgrades, potable water, improvements to education, sporting facilities, and an airport runway expansion were all cited as projects that perhaps should be a priority before any new roads. The national government did just publish a video online talking about three major projects in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro; mentioning the waste management, a new sports facility, a subterranean cable from the mainland for a better electricity, water distribution and more consistent internet. Apparently a lot of big plans are being announced for the islands.
There are some that are not exactly against the idea of this new road, however they question the feasibility of the whole project. At the public hearing, Isla Colon resident Johnny Griffo cited a billboard in town that details plans for a $16 million dollar sewage system upgrade that seems like it hasn’t exactly come to fruition yet. “Well, good luck. And if going to do it, then do it, please,” he concluded his comment.
Griffo also raised an interesting question- will this road construction have any damage to the waves? The beaches of Paunch and Bluff are popular surf destinations. They represent an attraction that brings much economic benefit to the island. With the introduction of so much change in that area, can the community be certain that the important activity of surf will go unaffected?
On the other hand -and aside for its intended benefit of tourism- the road is also being seen by the engineers as a strategy to be able to eventually make significant repairs to the existing Boca del Drago road in the future. Though repairing this road is included in the first phase of the project design, eventually the road may have to be shut down completely for a period of time to be able to truly rehabilitate it for longevity. The road is said to have been built with improper support, and if it were to collapse or need to be closed for serious repair, then having access to Bocas Town via this new proposed road passing through the Bluff Beach side could prove to be important for the Boca del Drago community.
Like we mentioned, this portion of the project is being debated. Some are against it, some doubt that it will ever happen, while still others are in favor of the road. Those in favor still seem to be concerned about the environmental impact.
Respecting the Cultural Heritage of Historic Bocas Town
The historic downtown area of Isla Colón, also known as Bocas Town, has traditionally been an area popularized by pedestrians; even after the appearance of the island’s first “horseless carriages” during the first half of the 20th century. The original design included two rows of ornamental trees flanking the street, and through pretty much the entire 1900’s it remained a pedestrian and bicycle dominated area; a place where people could stroll, congregate and go about their everyday business on foot. Though the rise of tourism and foreign investment since the 1990’s has brought a lot more cars and trucks to the island indeed, many would say the charming Caribbean village is still marching around the city center to the beat of everyone’s two feet (or two wheels).
On the morning of the public hearing, a note was published on the Facebook page “Isla Colón – Raíces y Vivencias,” a popular social media account in the Bocas del Toro community that is administered by a group of local history enthusiasts. In the note, the group expressed a number of reasons why they believe that this urban redesign is an opportunity to rescue the historic downtown area by returning it to its pedestrian roots; a progressive change they argue will benefit the environment, the touristic appeal, the commercial success and the health of the inhabitants of Bocas del Toro.
“Mobility in the urban center of Isla Colón never depended on the automobile as the main means of transportation,” writes the group. “A structure that includes two vehicle lanes should be avoided at all costs.”
They point out that the flat nature of the town center has always allowed for the ease of walking and the use of bicycles. They also suggest that reducing the unnecessary amount of motor vehicles would also put Bocas del Toro at the forefront of the issue of environmental sustainability- which authorities have mentioned that “sustainability” is supposed to be a focus point of this particular project as part of the ATP’s “Sustainable Tourism 2020-2025 Master Plan.”
The note states that a pedestrian design would allow tourists to travel pleasantly, accessing the town center’s many commercial establishments (an urban design strategy that has proven to drive sales). The administrators of the Isla Colón – Raíces y Vivencias page identify environmental, touristic, and commercial reasons for a pedestrian downtown; along with recognizing the basic health benefits that are encouraged by non-vehicular transportation. Finally, they cite a 2006 Municipal Council resolution that declares Calle 3 part of an Area of Historic Conservation. “It is the duty of the authorities, then, to recover its original design, which was that of a tree-lined boulevard since its conception in 1907. It is proven that the maintenance of historic buildings benefits from the expulsion of the car.”
“Most communities in this context get rid of the traffic entirely and set up pedestrian avenues. The now endless stream of vehicles -and especially trucks- has rendered Bocas an unattractive place,” writes long-time resident Miguel Hill, after seeing the initial proposed urban redesign plan for the first time on a Facebook post.
“Third street should be pedestrianized. Make it as it used to be and make it with blocks and not asphalt,” Josue Contreras suggests. Josue is a Bocas del Toro native and the owner of the Calipso Bocas Town B & B, which is one of the oldest, historically-preserved buildings on 3rd street.
Another pristinely-preserved historic building turned hotel on the other end of 3rd street is the Gran Hotel Bahia, owned by the Thomas family. Pepo Thomas, a Bocas history enthusiast and local architect, agrees that 3rd street should be more pedestrian friendly than the current proposal. Thomas tells us that he likes the idea of rescuing the old boulevard style; separating the cars from the people and making it more pedestrian-friendly with better spaces for people to walk. He doesn’t agree with completely shutting the cars out, at least not during the daytime, as vehicles are a necessity on the island for stocking supplies. However, he said he could be in favor of making 3rd street exclusively for pedestrians in the evening time.
There were pedestrian zones mentioned in the presentation, but only in regards to the streets on the north and south side of the Simón Bolivar Park. Certain one-way streets have been suggested, however not for the historic 3rd street boulevard. As far as the current proposal goes, 3rd street would remain two-way traffic, with the addition of a bicycle lane.
Environmental Impact and Long-Term Maintenance
A project of this scale cannot be approached without considering the many environmental implications. The last big public works project that was executed in Bocas del Toro is still being developed, which is the government housing project on the road to Drago. For the construction of these dwellings, it has been observed that very few trees, if any, were spared for this development. The community does not want this project to follow that example.
Already mentioned in this article is the impact the proposal will have on the north side of the island with the creation of the road between Paunch, Bluff and Boca del Drago and the consideration of how the new roads will affect the multiple species of Sea Turtles that nest on Bluff and Drago.
Carla Ortega of Proyeco stated in the meeting the creation a new paved roadway from Paunch to Bluff would include a detour that will be made inland from the existing beach road, as to avoid the protected area, which is actually a municipal nature reserve (La Reserva Municipal Playa Bluff). While this detour would direct traffic away from the important sea turtle nesting beach, it will have to involve some deforestation. The design firm also prefers the detour as the road will be easier to maintain without such close contact to the beach and the sea.
In terms of other wildlife, also mentioned in the public hearing was having consideration for the monkeys, sloths and all the tree dwelling animals that are affected by the power lines that run through the still forested areas outside of Bocas Town. Suggested were wildlife crossings, as not only do they protect animals from modern man’s machinery, but are also another attraction for tourists to enjoy. Proyeco engineer Carla Delgado reponsonded that with all new lighting that will be installed, underground cables will be implemented and the same renovation will eventually be done for the urban town center. Native Bocas del Toro resident Ariel Stephenson mentioned that solar power and rain catchment should be considered for all new development. Stephenson also said “ Bocas is such a precious part of the country and the ecosystem is so fragile. Whatever we do from this point forward, has to be sustainable.”
If new areas are indeed going to be opened up by the beltway road connecting Bluff and Drago, president of civic group Fuerzas Vivas Ruben Navarro suggested that the project should take into account the construction of basic facilities such as bathrooms and drinking water. Navarro brought up Starfish Beach and its informal and disorderly development, recommending to involve basic facilities into the plan before opening up access to new attractions. These far away facilities could be an opportunity to incorporate solar, rain catchment and other off-the-grid lower impact technologies. The president of Fuerzas Vivas also made an important suggestion of creating a long-term maintenance plan right in the beginning of this undertaking, before any shovels hit the dirt, and to incorporate it alongside with the development of this project and not as an afterthought.
Other Comments, Ideas and Concerns Raised by the Community During the Meeting
Landowners from the Bluff and Drago areas were in attendance and wanting to figure out if the new roads would be affecting their properties. It’s logical that the Bluff road detouring inland and connecting with Boca del Drago cannot be achieved without affecting somebody’s private property. The exact detour from Bluff and road to Drago has not yet been finalized, but as soon as it is, the Ministry of Public Works will be contacting all affected property owners to which they will receive compensation as specified by the laws and procedures that have been established for circumstances like these, according to Maria Bontin, legal adviser to the Ministry of Public Works. The design firms are aware of the private properties in the area and the representatives stated during the public hearing that part of the current study is to create a proposal that will have the least effect of not only the environment, but private property as well.
Wilfredo Serracin of the Boca del Drago community was present and he stated that they would prefer not to pave the road all the way to the northwest part of Boca del Drago, but rather paving only to where the asphalt currently ends at the T interaction. Serracin says they like the beach road just how it is and that the only thing it could perhaps use are some gabions to protect it from the sea. He and his wife Juany developed the first major tourism landmark in Boca del Drago, their restaurant Yarisnori; and they have done so with the most minimal impact to the environment. They are very happy about the road repairs on the road to Drago, which Juany described would be “another dream come true.” They also seem to be in favor of the new road between Bluff and Drago, but would prefer no asphalt on the current beach road that leads to their establishment.
Many brought up the 6th street canal and the Bocas Town flooding after heavy rains and during high tides. Proyeco’s engineers responded that the town’s draining system would be completely renovated as part of the redesign of the streets and sidewalks and that the 6th street canal would play an important role. The new design for 6th street will be a “cajon pluvial,” which will be larger, rectangle shaped and more enclosed rainwater gullies, equipped with pumps on the north and south side of 6th street, pumping the excess water to sea. Julio Cotes Surgeon suggested flood gates or sea container walls in critical flood areas.
Juan Pablo De Caro, president of the Chamber of Tourism, wanted to know if the consultation team had considered including loading zones and parking areas for cars and bicycles in important tourism spots along the proposed new road, particularly as it relates to areas popular for surfing. This was another one of the ideas in which MOP Minister Sabonge and ATP Subadministrator Guillen took particular interest. De Caro also raised an important question about the current ferry loading zone where vehicles tend to concentrate on the south side of 3rd street. There was nothing in the presentation about this and the question went unanswered. On Facebook we received a comment from Mariano Jose Aragone suggesting the relocation of the Ferry dock to the south side of 6th street.
A few attendees asked if updates on the project design would published anywhere on the internet; and Isla Colon resident Stephany Bryan expressed that the community would appreciate being able to access a complete virtual mock-up of the project design, with a map of the island detailing where any changes would be happening and a rendering of what the new park designs and streets will look like. Everyone in the school classrooms participating in the meeting was very receptive to Ms. Bryan’s suggestion of being able to access the current project design on-line.
The community has been disappointed by the outcome of public works projects in the past. Some apparently have never come to fruition. The general feeling is that Bocas del Toro is interested, hopeful, and cautiously optimistic, while remaining somewhat skeptical.
However, the town is more than welcoming to any offers of road repair and excited for the opportunity to work. There are environmental issues to continue to review for everything considered. ATP Subadimistrator Denis Guillen mentioned in her opening statement that Bocas del Toro is a destination that is a priority in the framework for the updated master plan for “sustainable tourism,” to which she emphasized: sustainable. It will be important for the Bocas del Toro community, so close to the jungle and the sea, to analyze the elements of this design from an environmental standpoint, and of course, the magic word mentioned in the government’s 2020-2025 master plan for tourism: sustainability.
The other interesting issue with the project design, which also takes into account sustainability, is the idea of rescuing the historic downtown with an emphasis on pedestrian traffic. There are many important figures in the Bocas del Toro community that would like to see something like this happen, so any alternative proposals involving this idea should not be ignored by the authorities and the team of consultants on this project.
The government authorities, along with the Proyeco-Ingeotec committee, are participating in this important, democratic exercise of a public hearing with the community with good reason. MOP Director Sabonge concluded that this meeting was so important because it has the potential to really enhance the project.
He also mentioned that the design will be finalized in the middle of February 2021, so right now is the opportunity for Bocatoreños to take ownership of this project that is designed to benefit them. Like Bocas-native reporter Felipe Ernersto Lopez Rodriguez wrote in his coverage of the January 22 meeting: “anyone who has a comment, suggestion or opinion…speak now or forever hold your peace!”
An email was announced at the end of the hearing where additional comments, concerns and suggestions for the project could be sent: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have sent questions and comments to this email and received an error message back, and no responses as of yet. We cannot be sure that this email is working properly. However if you have something to share, please try that email and copy email@example.com. We will make sure that your comments reach the directors of the Ministry of Public Works, as well as the consultants Consorcio Proyeco-Ingeotec. You can also reach us with your thoughts on social media, on Facebook and Instagram: @thebocasbreeze.