GREEN BENEFITS

Panama 2018 | GREEN ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Emilio Sempris, Panama's Minister of Environment, on the Million Hectares initiative, importance of public participation for sustainable development, and economic benefits of community-based ecotourism.

Emilio Sempris
BIOGRAPHY
Emilio Sempris is the current Minister of Environment. He has 20 years of experience in climate change, water resources management, environmental modelling, satellite monitoring, and international cooperation for sustainable development. He served as Director General of the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin American and the Caribbean and worked as consultant for UNDP, IDB, UN-WHO, UN-Environment, and USAID. He has been acknowledged by NASA for his work in the establishment of the Regional Visualization and Monitoring System for Mesoamerica.

How do you evaluate the work done by the new Ministry of Environment?

The Varela administration has laid the legal and organizational foundation for the state to move toward a green economy. The design and establishment of longer-term policy frameworks and green financing mechanisms in water security, forest restoration, biodiversity management, and ecotourism in protected areas are set to generate an unprecedented number of green jobs over the next 10 years. Panama's 2015-2050 Water Security Plan features an investment portfolio of 556 water projects worth around USD11 billion. The government created the National Water Council (CONAGUA) to oversee the plan and spearhead the modernization of the water sector. With regard to the forest sector, a PPP for the Million Hectares initiative now has its own legal basis (Law 69 of 2017). Also, the Reforesta Panamá Fund, allowing for USD15 million to be invested yearly in forestry projects for the next 20 years. Panama will also house four world-class biodiversity related centers: the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), International Center for the Implementation of Emission Reduction from Degradation and Deforestation (ICIREDD), Biodiversity and Drug Discovery Center, and Innova Park. Additionally, the current administration has paved the way for mainstreaming green tourism into the sustainable livelihood formula of Panama's rural communities. It is no secret that Panama has done an outstanding job by declaring about 40% of its territory under some sort of conservation protection, which is three times larger than the global average. It is envisioned to secure the country's water, forest, and biodiversity heritage. On the back of these initiatives, Panama is poised to become a key global player in the fields of water entrepreneurship, biodiversity and biotechnology R&D, forest management and carbon trading, and ecotourism.

What are the main highlights of the National Environment Agenda 2014-2019, and which issues are still pending?

The state-wide environmental modernization is the main highlight of the current administration. To support the modernization process, the ministry's annual budget has doubled from USD34 million in 2014 to USD68.5 million in 2018. In four years, we have approved investment projects worth USD49 billion through an improved system for environmental feasibility evaluation. With regard to civil society participation, the ministry has signed over 80 MoUs with non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations, as well as domestic and international R&D organizations to implement projects for wildlife protection, forest and watershed management, participatory environmental planning, and policy development. Public dialogs to upgrade environmental policies have been essential to gradually transform the relationship of rural communities with the surrounding national heritage. We are institutionalizing town hall-style monthly meetings to touch base with all citizens and stakeholders. Informed public participation is vital for any country to move up the sustainable development ladder.

What are your main initiatives to control illegal logging and to encourage reforestation?

We implemented the first ever electronic system to track wood harvesting and transport, helping us ensure that 100% of the wood produced is certified. It has also assisted us in tracking illegal activity, leading to an increase in arrests of illegal loggers, particularly in Darién. The government is aware that forests are key to the future of water resources and the economic benefit resulting from community-based ecotourism. For the past four years, the President and the whole cabinet has joined the civil society in planting trees throughout the country. Notably, the president announced the launch of a program to halve jail time of those inmates who work on reforestation projects.

What are your targets and priorities for the year ahead?

We want to eradicate poor plastic garbage management practices because they pollute the environment and directly affects Panama's wildlife. Panama was the first country in the region to unanimously pass a zero-waste target and plastic bag ban and is on the right track to sort out such society-wide behavioral imperfection.