Help Save A World Heritage Site

Apr 29, 2013

Final Report

Worst Case Averted
Worst Case Averted

This is our wrap up report on the fight to save Casco Viejo from the Cinta Costera 3 highway, but, more than anything, it is a thank you to everyone who donated to protect a heritage site that cannot protect itself.   In the end, your generosity helped avert the worst case scenario, a massive landfill that would have made this World Heritage Site all but unrecognizable. Your donations made it possible to pay for protest materials, websites, lawyers to defend us when we were threatened and advertisements to get the word out.

The final highway is less than a year from being complete, and, though it is an aesthetic, economic, urbanistic and ecological disaster, it is better than the landfill the government of Panama and their contractor, Odebrecht, had originally intended for two reasons. First is that is on pilings two hundred meters from shore, so it allows the Casco to retain its historic fortifications and some of its relationship with the sea.  But, most importantly, it is far easier to remove than the landfill would have been, which gives us hope that at some point in the future it can be removed.

The status of Casco Viejo as a World Heritage Site is still not clear. In June of this year UNESCO will have its annual meeting and be faced with a dilemma of its own creation: allow Casco Viejo to remain as a World Heritage Site, thereby endorsing senseless interventions like CC3 at other Sites, or delisting Casco Viejo, which raises the question of why UNESCO's leadership did not use its powerful voice to publicly denounce CC3 when it had the chance.

While this chapter of the fight to save Casco Viejo from this highway is now closed, in the years to come we still have hope that ultimately any politicians who promoted this project for their personal gain will be brought to justice and that more enlightened leadership in the future will agree that it should be removed and replaced with any of the much better alternatives.


Project Advance as of March 2013
Project Advance as of March 2013
Dec 27, 2012

UNESCO Finally Speaks (sort of)

Current Status
Current Status

The fight to save Casco Viejo from the Cinta Costera III continued into December, with a few things becoming much more clear, though there is still a lot to be decided and a lot left to fight for.

Where We Are Today

What is clear, and what everyone who has pitched in on this fight should be proud of, is that the worst case scenario, a landfill around Casco Viejo, looks to have been averted. This was the government's first option and without the groups and individuals who came together at critical moments we are quite sure it would have become a reality. The final version is moving ahead quickly and it will be an elevated viaduct just off the coast. It is still about as mediocre as infrastructure gets, but much, much better than the alternative.

UNESCO's technical and advisory bodies issued their annual State of Conservation report taking the government and Odebrecht to task for pushing ahead without considering alternatives and indicating that a delisting at the June 2013 meeting of the World Heritage Committee is a real possibility. While we appreciate UNESCO finally acknowleding that the project is moving forward (six months after it began), we cannot help feeling somewhat betrayed by UNESCO's inability to use its strongest weapon--the voice of its Executive Director--to denouce the project.  We wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, requesting that the Security Council itself take up the matter, as we believe that the right of peoples to protect their heritage when their governmetns fail to do so is a fundamental human right and therefore within the Security Council's purvue. 

Where We Are Headed

Stopping the completion of the project now looks next to impossible, however, there is still a lot to fight for.  Our two primary goals now are to keep the project from creeping back to a landfill (see the jaw dropping newly proposed "Presidential Island" below) and to begin to lay the legal foundation for the eventual removal of the viaduct at some point in the future. Removal is not something we expect to happen for many years, but history has shown that one generation's misconcieved highway is often removed by later generations so preparing the groundwork now is key. At a more philisophical level, we hope that by continuing to push we send a message to future governments that destroying cultural heritage has consequences. 

Your donations have been key to keeping us in this struggle and averting the worst case scenario. Being able to have lawyers on call, send messags to the public and be ready with materials for peaceful protests at critical moments made the difference and we are grateful. 

Final Form
Final Form
Worst Case Scenario Averted
Worst Case Scenario Averted
Proposed Presidential Island
Proposed Presidential Island

Oct 3, 2012

Saving Casco Viejo: Yesterday's Event

Yesterday the organizations defending Casco Viejo held a press conference to make several pronouncements regarding the project and announce the initiation of new legal claims.

Someone, we suspect the government and/or Odebrecht, organized dozens of people to surround the building and try to interrupt the conference. This is not the first time they have done this in an attempt to show that the "people" support the project. It has long been speculated that people are paid to attend these kinds of demonstrations, but yesterday was the first day that the local news was able to directly record on video proof (see videos below of conference and the events afterword). 

Those interruptions will only serve to help disseminate the points made by the groups at the conference, which were:

1.  Recalling the recent tragic destruction of sites in Timbuktu, Syria and Afghanistan, the groups called on UNESCO to use its voice while there is still time to help protect Casco Viejo from being permanently disfigured. The groups called for an extraordinary meeting of the World Heritage Committee, citing their concern that the government's plan is to advance the project so far that it cannot be stopped by next year's regular UNESCO meeting.  

2. Announcing a lawsuit based on failure to take into consideration the environmental impacts of the project asking for the enjoyment of the project pending further study.

3. Demanding explanations from specific government officials and a detailed explanation for the project's cost (double per kilometer the cost of Panama's new subway) and disclosure of the studies that purportedly show that the other alternatives are not viable. 

4. Clarifying that the change from the original tunnel plan to the destructive seafront route was made at the suggestion of the contractor, and requesting that the CEO of Construtora Norberto Odebrecht take a personal involvement in the project to assure that it does not lead to the disfigurement of a world heritage site. 

We will continue to drive on these points in the coming weeks and keep you informed. 


Sep 28, 2012

The Battle to Save Casco Intensifies

Construction Starting Near Casco
Construction Starting Near Casco

Greatings from Casco Viejo!

The fight to save Casco Viejo from being wrapped in concrete is intensifying quickly. In July when UNESCO's resolution came out it asked for three basic things regarding the highway: (1) give them a traffic study showing what alternatives exist to a seafront highway, (2) study the aesthetic impact of the current plan on Casco's "Universal Values" (i.e. the things that make it a World Heritage Site), and (3) don't build anything until we've had a chance to look at 1 & 2.  

As you know from our last update, the Government of Panama and the contractor, Odebrecht, had actually been constructing parts of the highway (outside the historic district limits) during the UNESCO proceedings and lying to UNESCO about it.  Not surprisingly, they have not stopped since, so, as you can see from the photos, the preliminary landfill portion of the highway is quite advanced and already starting to penetrate the limits of the historic district.  The studies UNESCO asked for are apparently completed and delivered, but the Government refuses to release them.

The Government has come out publicly saying that the highway has been approved by UNESCO. This is the second time that they have lied to the Panamanian public about this. The eleven organizations joined with us under the Orgullo Panama banner wrote a letter notifying the Director General and Chairperson of UNESCO putting them all on notice that a crime against World Heritage is taking place and there is a need to act urgently.

We have a number of legal actions in process, and next week we have a press conference with the ten other civic organizations joined with us to announce other measures that we are launching and several new groups who have joined. We've now got a full time coordinator and are adding more volunteers every day. 

In addition, Orgullo Panama has launched an online petition drive to bring attention to the fact that the company profiting from this project, Odebrecht, is controlled by Marcelo Odebrecht, a man who has spent considerable energy trying to rebuild his company's image around its "sustainability" after a series of corruption scandals in Brazil in the 1990s that ultimately brought down a Brazilian government.  The petition is here:, and we encourage you all to sign and send to any friends you have who know Casco or who care about protecting World Heritage (it belongs to all citizens of the world, so anyone can sign).  

Finally, as if the desecration of a World Heritage Site's setting weren't enough, the government began yesterday an intense campaign of evictions in Casco Viejo.  To the government (and certain building owners associated with the government who have long petitioned to have their buldings emptied by force so they do not have to pay the legally mandated costs) these people are simply intruders who need to be removed. But to most of us in Casco Viejo, they are our neighbors. To us at Calicanto, they are the human heritage that we are dedicated to protecting along with the architectural heritage. This kind of action reconfirms for us the current administration's unfortunate lack of understanding of what makes the neighborhood special, and reaffirms our committment to protect both the human and the architectural heritage of Casco Viejo. 

We will continue the fight to save Casco, and we greatly appreciate your continuing support. 

Construction With Casco in Background
Construction With Casco in Background
Latest Government Plan
Latest Government Plan


Jun 29, 2012

A Very Busy Week in the Battle For Casco Viejo

Protest on Sunday June 24
Protest on Sunday June 24

It was a week of marches in the street, implementing new tools, late nights monitoring the UNESCO Committee meetings and races for airtime, culminating in a new phase in the battle to protect Casco Viejo. 

On a rainy Sunday (June 24) Orgullo: Panama Pro Patrimonio Historico, the alliance of civic organizations opposing the Cinta Costera III of which Fundacion Calicanto is part, joined with enviornmentalists in a peaceful march to protest two developments that threaten Panama City's coast: the repeal of laws protecting mangroves and the Cinta Costera. The march closed part of Avenida Balboa for two hours and drew over 500 people and all of the mainstream media, despite the pouring rain. 

Orgullo joined the march to raise awareness about the threat to Casco leading up to the 36th Session of the World Heritage Committee meetings in St. Petersburg, Russia, where UNESCO would review the latest state of conservation reports and decide whether to put Casco on the world heritage in danger list. We had heard before the meetings that the Government of Panama had been lobbying other member states hard in advance of the meeting and the the discussion about Panama was expected to be particularly contentious.  

As the meeting turned to the case of Casco Viejo, two things became very clear: the Panamanian government has no compunctions about lying outright on the world stage (irrespective of the embarrassment to the country) and they had managed to lobby at least three and possibly four other member states to support. It was painful to watch a delegation of the four highest Panamanian dignitaries in charge of protecting heritage question the integrity of UNESCO's technical advisors lie when asked whether the Cinta Costera project had started (in the face of photographic evidence to the contrary) and then go on to claim that in their opinion Casco Viejo does not have a historical link to the sea.

It seemed clear from the language of many of the Committee members that they knew our delegation was lying, but UNESCO's procedural rules depend on information provided by the member states and that of UNESCO's observers, which Panama has cleverly refused to allow into the country since work on the Cinta Costera started.  The debate lasted late in St. Petersburg, requiring the meeting to be extended and then finally recessed to be picked up the next morning. Orgullo immediately issue an international press release (attached) correcting the Panamanian delegation's mis-statements and omissions, as well as pointing out that allowing them to get away with it set a dangerous precedent and erodes the integrity of the entire World Heritage protection process. 

Panama's strategy, combined with the lobbying efforts of Mexico, Russia and Colombia, introduced enough confusion into the process that the Committee could not agree on putting Casco on the list of endangered sites. Going in we thought this was the most likely outcome, but we had mixed emotions about it. On one hand it would have drawn international attention to the threat of the Cinta, but on the other it would have been a stigma that could have been hard to erase. What finally happened was that, over protests, the Committee did agree to require that Panama show that the Cinta will not have a negative impact on the Casco's "universal values" before proceeding, which we believe will be very hard to do.  In retrospect this is probably the best result we could have asked for. 

You can imagine our surprise then, when we woke the next morning to the President and the delegation claiming in the media that UNESCO had given the "green light" to the project!  The government immediately released commercials to promote the project.  This triggered a race to the airwaves, with spokespeople from various organizations on radio, television and social media denouncing the government's mis-infomation campaign. 

Going Forward

Our job is now cut out for us very clearly.  The government is going to try to move the project forward quickly, doing the most superficial study possible. Their strategy will be to get it so far advanced by the next UNESCO meeting in 2013 that UNESCO will be forced to either accept it as is or to just strike Casco from the list, either of which results is acceptable to the current administration.

Accordingly, this is now largely a fight for popular opinion. The administration's approval ratings are low and it has recently become clear that they have grossly overspent their budgets, so unnecessary projects are now in the public eye, especially those that are seen to be backed by special interests.  The Cinta Costera III is of course the most unnecessary of all projects, and one that we believe a well informed public will not support.

We currently have a quickly growing Facebook page with 30,000 fans--the largest for any cause that we know of. Orgullo's leadership is widely followed in social media and telegenic. And, importantly, when we have had to go to the streets, we have been able to pull good attendance. We launched a new website this week (, with a sophisticated supporter management system behind it.  So using those means and your support we will continue to grow the base.

Our other avenue of attack is the legal system, both locally and internationally.  We believe that the project is breaking numerous laws and that the dealings behind it have international implications. We are blessed with a deep bench of lawyers and advocates both locally and in other countries, who are helping to pull together the various cases.  

Financial support is always an issue, but we have been heartened by the generosity of people concerned by the cause. We are receiving donations through the GlobalGiving channel for international donors and directly for Panamanian donors.

Thank you again for your support of Casco Viejo. Please continue to help us defend her, because she cannot defend herself.

Panamanian Delegation at UNESCO
Panamanian Delegation at UNESCO
Facebook Stats: Growing Quickl
Facebook Stats: Growing Quickl



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Project Leader

Hildegard Vasquez

Panama City, Panama

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