Panama Table of Contents

Migration has played an increasingly significant role in the lives of Panamanians and has followed a distinct pattern throughout the twentieth century. Population movement has been into those districts and provinces enjoying a period of economic prosperity, typically associated with the canal. As the economic boom peters out, the migrant population moves back to the primarily agricultural districts, to be reabsorbed into subsistence farming or small-scale businesses and services in the country's predominantly rural interior. The pattern has been repeated several times with the ebb and flow of economic activity. In the late 1980s, it remained to be seen what adaptations migrants would make given the shrinking rural land base.

The 1911 census provides a baseline for population movements throughout the century. At that time, the provinces of Chiriquí and Panamá accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total population. Chiriquí's growth was the result of migrants from Colombia in the nineteenth century; Panamá's came as a result of the canal construction begun just after the turn of the century. The central provinces--Veraguas, Coclé, Los Santos, and Herrera (in order of population)--accounted for slightly more than 40 percent of the total. The entire region had been populated along the coasts since the colonial era and had grown in response to increased demand for foodstuffs in Panama City and Colón in the second half of the nineteenth century. The decade following the census saw dramatic population growth in response to the United States presence and the building of the Panama Canal. The need to feed the massive numbers of black Antillean laborers who came to work on the construction project generated a boom in agriculture.

Subsequent censuses revealed a specific pattern of rural-rural and rural-urban migration. Some rural districts of a province lost population, while others even relatively close grew rapidly. The pattern reversed itself during periods of economic stagnation. Then, migrants retreated into subsistence agriculture in regions that had enjoyed limited participation in the previous boom. Between 1910 and 1920, for example, the Chepigana District in Darién was in the midst of a boom and enjoyed a significant influx of population, while the neighboring Pinogana District lost population. Their roles were reversed in the following decade.

The 1920s represented such a period of stagnation. The regions of highest growth in the previous decade grew much more slowly--if they grew at all. Colón and Bocas del Toro were the most heavily affected. Panamá Province continued to grow at rates slightly in excess of the national average; nonetheless, a large number of foreign workers left, as did a significant portion of the small business owners who had provisioned them and who were ruined by the decline in clientele.

Rural regions absorbed these surplus laborers and served as centers of population growth throughout the 1920s. Some such as Veraguas and Darién grew in excess of 5 percent annually during the intercensal period. District capitals in predominantly rural provinces tended to enjoy significant growth as well, probably as a result of their administrative functions, and the rise of banana plantations in Chiriquí attracted workers from throughout Central America.

The pattern reversed again in the late 1930s and mid-1940s. The immediate pre-World War II period as well as the war itself were times of significant economic expansion for the country as a whole. The province of Panamá headed the country in population growth, and the entire western portion of the province was a region of economic expansion. Colón, by contrast, lost in importance. Its annual rate of increase, 1.44 percent, was barely half the national average. The decline in Colón's fortunes reflected the centralization of economic and administrative activity in Panama City. Furthermore, Colón's importance as a port on the Atlantic diminished with the construction of the Trans-isthmian Highway (also known as the Boyd- Roosevelt Highway).

The economic expansion accompanying World War II eliminated problems associated with the increase in large-scale agro- enterprises in the interior. Although substantial numbers of small farmers were displaced, they were readily absorbed by the demand for labor in cities and the countryside. Even in the period of economic contraction following the war, cities in predominantly rural provinces enjoyed significant growth. The war fueled the development of small-scale industrial and processing activities throughout the country. The dimensions of this growth were such that large numbers of rural youngsters--sons and daughters of small farmers--remained in the provinces in which they were born rather than migrating to Panama City or the Canal Zone.

World War II also saw Panama's last major influx of foreign workers. Most of these workers left with the economic slowdown at the war's end. As in previous periods of economic contraction, increasing numbers of displaced migrants took refuge in subsistence farming. The late 1940s was a time of growth for the rural regions of the country.

Overall, population grew at an annual rate of 2.9 percent in the 1950s; Panama was in the midst of a demographic transition as birth rates remained high while death rates dropped. The press of the population on the land base reached critical proportions. Peasants, displaced by the spread of large-scale agro-enterprises in the country, found it more and more difficult to find unoccupied land to put into production. At the same time, rural-urban migrants found it increasingly difficult simply to return home and resume farming during periods of economic contraction.

The pressure on the land base was acute enough to precipitate significant conflict over holdings in the 1950s and 1960s. In the province of Panamá, peasants invaded and seized the land around Gatun Lake as well as some regions of the districts of La Chorrera, Capira, and Chaime. Although many of these squatters were successful in maintaining their claim on the holdings, most peasants in other parts of the country were not so fortunate. The expansion of large cattle ranches in much of Los Santos and Veraguas continued the migratory process begun earlier, and peasants were pushed farther and farther along the agricultural frontier.

Substantial numbers of these displaced peasants migrated to less settled regions in Chiriquí, Los Santos, and Veraguas. Likewise, banana plantations in Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro drew significant numbers of migrants. The principal destination for much of the rural populace, however, was Greater Panama City.

Nearly two-thirds of all migrants had as their destination the heavily urban province of Panamá--a proportion that has remained roughly constant since the 1950s. In terms of absolute numbers, Los Santos and Veraguas were the major contributors to the migration stream: together they accounted for one-third of all migrants. The relatively depressed districts around Colón contributed large numbers of migrants, as did a number of districts in Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. Based on rates of out-migration rather than absolute numbers, Los Santos, Darién, and Coclé were the main places of origin.

Within the province of Panamá, the greater metropolitan area of Panama City attracted most migrants. The districts surrounding the city averaged a growth rate of more than 10 percent per year in the 1960s and 1970s. Panama City played a significant role in the migration patterns of virtually every other province in the country. Over 90 percent of the migrants from Darién went there, as did roughly 80 percent of those from Coclé, Colón, Los Santos, and Veraguas. In the relatively prosperous mid-1960s to mid-1970s, most migrants managed to find employment. Many joined the ranks of peddlers and other small-scale self-employed individuals.

The manufacturing sector expanded significantly during the 1960s, resulting in a doubling of the industrial labor force. The service sector--traditionally the country's most dynamic--was fueled by the expansion of manufacturing as well as Panama's pivotal position as a transit zone. The service sector absorbed more than half the increase in the economically active population and grew at a rate of more than 6 percent annually. For the city- bound migrant, that meant jobs in public and domestic service and construction. Nevertheless, some observers expected the rate of migration to the metropolitan region to decline with economic reverses in the 1980s and the increase in opportunities in other regions, such as the Cerro Colorado copper project in Chiriquí.

Overall, the migration stream in the 1970s was composed of three components: rural-urban migrants (accounting for more than half of all migrants), urban-urban migrants (roughly one-quarter of all migrants), and urban-rural migrants (nearly 20 percent of those questioned about their place of residence five years earlier had been living in a city). The exact proportion and significance of urban-rural migration were difficult to judge. Approximately half the migrants were former residents of the smaller cities of the interior and presumably had left their farms for seasonal work in a nearby city or to attend school. Nearly one-third of these return migrants had lived in Panama City and its environs. Many were specialized workers; others were peasants unable to find permanent employment in the city; still others were children sent home to be cared for by kin.

Those people who migrated were, as a whole, young. In the 1970s nearly 75 percent of them were under 35 years of age; among rural- urban migrants, the percentage rose to more than 80 percent. School-age migrants represented a significant group in the migration stream. Although many simply accompanied their parents on moves, a significant minority were sent by their rural families for education in nearby cities. Men formed the majority among rural- urban migrants to Colón; women, however, accounted for a slight majority of all rural-urban migrants. This tendency was most marked in migration of women to cities in the interior, but was also found among migrants to Panama City. In general, observers attributed the high rate of female migration to the metropolitan region to the opportunities for employment available for young women there. Unemployment was lower among urban females than among their rural counterparts, whereas the reverse was true for males.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress