Compared to much of the region, Panama is a model of good governance, an effective bureaucracy and a high standard of living. It is surprising therefore, that rubbish collection has, in recent months, snowballed into a major domestic crisis. More surprising still, according to the UN Development Programme, Panama is among the region’s top performers in terms of garbage generation per capita, Panamanians are more environmentally conscious than most of their regional peers too.
A former mayor of Panama City explained, “The capital has for more than forty years effectively dealt with rubbish collection. Central government communicated with municipalities and garbage was burnt. Recently the model has become ineffective and poorly funded. In fact, the country’s smaller cities seem to be doing a much better job.”
“Recently the model [in Panama City] has become ineffective and poorly funded. In fact, the country’s smaller cities seem to be doing a much better job.”
A former mayor of Panama City
For well over a month, garbage has been accumulating on the streets of Panama City due to a strike by rubbish collectors. This itself has been exacerbated by a shortage of collector trucks. Disgruntled workers have been protesting for better pay and working conditions. They have pointed the finger squarely at Panama’s Urban & Home Cleaning Authority (“AAUD”) for not providing necessary equipment and whose director Pedro Castillo (more or less as competent as his hapless Peruvian presidential namesake) has remained ominously quiet.
Indeed, the AAUD was originally tasked with overseeing rubbish collection nationally, but so incompetent it has proved to be it now just oversees the metropolitan area of the capital, even that it does poorly. Thousands of tons of rubbish are being burnt in open-air pits that, according to experts, should not exist were the AAUD to ensure that collection was prompt and disposal effective.
A leading architect in Panama and expert in urban planning explains that the politicisation of the AAUD has been a major hindrance to the body’s competence, “Since its establishment, the AAUD has been led by ministers who themselves appointed political delegates to do their work for them, none of them have fully grasped how the body functions or how it should function.”
“Since its establishment, the AAUD has been led by ministers who themselves appointed political delegates to do their work for them, none of them have fully grasped how the body functions or how it should function.”
Leading architect and expert in urban planning, Panama
Naturally, the strike has health workers worried. The pileups are attracting bad odours and the presence of vermin and flies is increasing. So far, Panama’s ministry of health has strongly denied any correlation between the growing number of cases of diarrhoea – the cases are viral, not bacterial, so says the ministry.
Does the private sector have a role to play? “Of course, the mechanism for companies to establish collection and processing centres would have to work through the PPP system. The private sector today helps when it comes to large companies or industries that have their own garbage trucks such as business groups the supermarket chain El Rey or the pharmaceutical company Arrocha. This is a collaboration that should have some kind of incentive from the State so that it can grow further,” explains Panama City’s former mayor.
Taking advantage of existing legislative frameworks would be a good place to start. “It is important that the local-district authorities take charge of the garbage issue, as provided by the municipal decentralisation law, so that a better distribution of controlled landfills can be achieved where waste is deposited, in specific places, prepared for storage,” explains the architect.
The AAUD is majority government-financed – just 30 collector trucks that are operational is clearly insufficient and points to a gutted budget. Panama City’s garbage challenge points to a lack of financing. Without the political will to challenge city hall to redirect finances to the authority, the capital’s garbage will continue piling up.