Humans have altered terrestrial and marine coastal environments in Central America through land clearing and fishing for over 10,000 yrs. The intensity of human disturbance has been strongly influenced by local physiographic and climatic conditions that affect the productivity of the
land and sea. The importance of these factors is readily apparent along the Caribbean coast of Panama. Environmental conditions have played an important role in the differing histories of population and environmental disturbance in Bocas del Toro along the western coast and Costa Arriba de
Colón (Costa Arriba) along the central coast. Both regions suffered catastrophic mortality of indigenous peoples soon after european contact and did not return to pre-contact levels until at least the 19th century. During the Spanish colonial era, Bocas del Toro remained
relatively sparsely populated until the early 20th century due to its isolation from the Pacific by high mountains, excessive rainfall, and relatively smaller area of alluvial flood plains for human habitation and agriculture. In contrast, the low-lying topography of Costa Arriba
was conducive to early colonial occupation in the 16th century and rapid population growth and environmental disturbance since the mid-19th century. This earlier onset of intense human disturbance is likely responsible for the more degraded state of coral reefs in Costa
Arriba compared to Bocas del Toro. The timeline of human interaction with the coastal environment of Caribbean Panama thus provides a deeper-time perspective from which to more accurately assess the causes of the recently observed collapse of Caribbean coral reefs.
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