Panama Table of Contents

For centuries, agriculture was the dominant economic activity for most of Panama's population. After construction of the canal, agriculture declined; its share of GDP fell from 29 percent in 1950 to just over 9 percent in 1985. Agriculture has always employed a disproportionate share of the population because of its laborintensive nature. Nevertheless, the percentage of the labor force in agriculture has also dropped, from 46 percent in 1965 to 26 percent in 1984.

In 1985 crops accounted for 63.3 percent of value added in agriculture, followed by livestock (29.5 percent), fishing (4.3 percent), and forestry (2.9 percent). Despite its relative decline, agriculture was the main supplier of commodities for export, accounting for over 54 percent of total export earnings in 1985. The agricultural sector satisfied most of the domestic demand. The principal food imports were wheat and wheat products, because climatic conditions precluded wheat cultivation. In 1985 the value of food imports was US$108.7 million (8.8 percent of total imports), only half that of food exports.

Between 1969 and 1977, the government undertook agrarian reform and attempted to redistribute land. The expanded role of the state in agriculture improved social conditions in rural areas, but longterm economic effects of the agrarian reform were modest. In the early and mid-1980s, the government sought to reverse the decline of agriculture by diversifying agricultural production, lowering protection barriers, and reducing the state's role in agriculture. In March 1986, the government instituted major changes in the agricultural incentives law and removed price controls, trade restrictions, farm subsidies, and other supports.

Land Use

Panama's land area totals approximately 7.7 million hectares, of which forests account for 4.1 million hectares, followed by pasture land (1.2 million hectares), and permanently cultivated fields (582,000 hectares). About 2 percent of the land was used for roads and urban areas. Nearly all of the cultivated and pasture land was originally forested. A large amount of virgin land has been opened up for cultivation by the Pan-American Highway.

Panama's climate and geology impose major constraints on the development of agriculture. Heavy rainfall throughout the year prevents cultivation of most crops on the Atlantic side of the continental divide. The Pacific side has a dry season (December to April) and accounts for most of the cultivated land. The mountainous terrain also restricts cropping. In addition, the country does not have highquality soils. Most of the areas classified as cultivable are so considered on the assumption that farmers will practice conservation measures, but many do not. The topsoil is thin in most areas, and erosion is a serious problem. Most of the nearly level areas conducive to cultivation are in the provinces of Los Santos, Coclé, Veraguas, and Chiriquí.

A further constraint on production is the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation, in which trees, brush, and weeds are cut and then burned on the patch of ground selected for cultivation. Indians utilized the slash-and-burn method for centuries, and the Spanish made few changes in techniques. In the 1980s, most farmers practiced a slash-and-burn type of shifting cultivation. The thin and poor-quality topsoil yielded an initially good harvest, followed by a smaller harvest the second year. Typically, the land was cultivated for only two years, and then the farmer repeated the process on another plot, allowing the first plot to rest ten years before refarming.

Much of the farming was of a subsistence nature and accomplished with a minimum of equipment. Plowing was generally not practiced on subsistence farms; the seeds were placed in holes made by a stick. Tree cutting, land clearing, weeding, and harvesting were accomplished with a few kinds of knives, principally the machete and the axe, which comprised the major farm implements.

Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform

Before the 1950s, land was readily available to anyone who was willing to clear and plant a plot. The cutting and clearing of forests greatly accelerated as the population increased. By the 1960s, subsistence farmers sometimes reduced the rest period of cleared plots from ten years of fallow to as few as five years because of the inavailablity of farm land. The reduced fallow period diminished soil fertility and harvests. Consequently, cropped acreage peaked during the 1960s. The hard life and low income farmers accelerated the exodus of workers from the countryside to the cities.

The long period when new land was easily obtainable contributed to a casual attitude toward land titles. In 1980, only 32.9 percent of the 151,283 farms had such titles. The decline in available agricultural land has made land titling more necessary. Moreover, insecure tenure has been a particularly severe constraint to improved techniques and to commercial crop production. The cost of titling a piece of land, however, has been too high for most subsistence farmers.

Between 1969 and 1977, the government attempted to redistribute land. In the late 1980s, however, the distribution of land and farm incomes remained very unequal. In 1980, 58.9 percent of farms had an annual income below US$200. The issue of unequal land distribution, however, has not been as explosive in Panama as in many other Latin American countries. This was because of the service-oriented nature of the economy and because about half of the population lived in or near Panama City. Also, about 95 percent of all farm land was owner-operated, and virtually all rural families owned or occupied a plot.

In an effort to redistribute land, the government acquired 500,000 hectares of land and expropriated an additional 20 percent of the land. About three-quarters of the land acquired was in the provinces of Veraguas and Panamá. By 1978 over 18,000 families (about 12 percent of rural families in the 1970 census) had access to either individual plots or collectively held land as a result of the redistribution. The land acquisition created uncertainty, however, and adversely affected private investment in agriculture, slowing production in the 1970s.

As part of its agrarian reform, the government placed heavy emphasis on organizing farmers into collectives for agricultural development. Several organizational forms were available, the two most important being asentamientos (settlements) and juntas agrarias de producción (agrarian production associations). The distinctions between the two were minor and became even more blurred with time. Both encouraged pooling of land and cooperative activity. In some instances, land was worked collectively. Other organizational forms included marketing cooperatives, state farms, and specialized producers' cooperatives for milk, chickens, or pigs. Growth of these agricultural organizations slowed by the mid-1970s, and some disbanded, as emphasis shifted to consolidation.

The cost of agrarian reform was high. The government channeled large amounts of economic aid to organized farmers. Rural credit was greatly increased; farm machinery was made available; improved seeds and other inputs were supplied; and technical assistance was provided. Cooperative farm yields increased, but these higher yields were not impressive, considering the level of investment. Despite the high costs of the government programs, incomes of cooperative farmers remained low. After the mid-1970s, the government changed its policy toward cooperatives and stressed efficiency and productivity instead of equity.

Although the economic results of agrarian reform were disappointing, the social conditions of most farmers improved. The number of rural residents with access to safe water increased by 50 percent between 1970 and 1978. Improved sewerage facilities, community health programs, and rural clinics reduced mortality rates considerably. Major expansion of educational facilities, including education programs for rural residents, helped rural Panamanians become better educated and more mobile.


The crops category is the largest within agriculture, but its share has fallen slightly, from 66.1 percent in 1980 to 63.3 percent in 1985. During that period, crop production was erratic, and annual growth averaged a mere 1.7 percent. The major crops and foreign exchange earners were bananas and sugar. In the 1980s, however, crop production became increasingly diversified. The production of corn, coffee, beans, and tobacco has increased, as has that of such nontraditional products as melons and flowers. Fruits (especially citrus), cacao (the bean from which cocoa is derived), plantains, vegetables, and potatoes were produced on a minor scale; nevertheless, they were important cash crops for small farms.

Bananas were the leading export item, and in 1985 accounted for 23 percent (US$78 million) of total exports. In that year, the Chiriquí Land Company, a subsidiary of United Brands (formerly United Fruit Company), produced 70 percent of all bananas, followed by private Panamanian producers (25 percent) and the state-owned Corporación Bananera del Atlántico (5 percent). The volume of bananas produced in Panama peaked in 1978 and slowly declined in the 1980s. Observers doubted that United Brands would expand its production in Panama because bananas could be produced more cheaply in Costa Rica and Ecuador.

The history of banana production in Panama virtually coincides with that of United Brands, which has been in Panama since 1899. The company built railroads, port facilities, and storage areas for the processing and export of bananas. In the 1930s, a disease seriously curtailed banana production. In the 1950s diseaseresistant plants were developed, and production increased rapidly. In the early 1970s, a "banana war" erupted when banana-producing countries disagreed among themselves and with United Brands about an export tax on bananas. Panama threatened to take over United Brands' plantations. An agreement was reached in 1976 to tax banana exports. In that year, the tax provided the government with US$10 million, nearly 4 percent of all revenues. In addition, United Brands sold all 43,000 hectares of land that it owned in Panama to the government; payment was in tax credits. The government leased back to United Brands over 15,000 hectares for banana production and export operations. Part of the excess land went to the government's newly established banana companies.

Sugar has traditionally been Panama's second largest crop in terms of production and export value. Panama consumed about half its sugar output and exported most of the rest to the United States. The production of sugar in Panama increased during the 1970s, peaked in 1982 at 260,000 tons, and fell to 165,000 tons in 1986. The dramatic decline after 1982 was because of low world prices and the rapid reduction in the United States quota from 81,200 tons in 1983 to 26,390 tons in 1987. Annual sugar exports earned an average US$40 million from 1975 through 1981 but fell steadily from US$41.3 million in 1983 to US$33 million in 1984, US$27.3 million in 1985, and US$22 million in 1986.

The state has been heavily involved in Panama's sugar production. Under the 1983-84 structural adjustment program, however, the state has privatized, closed, and tried to sell numerous sugar mills. Nonetheless, of the six major sugar mills in Panama, four were still under state control in 1987. The largest was the Corporación Azucarera La Victoria, which in 1985 accounted for 64 percent of total sugar production. Several small mills operated throughout the country, but their output was for domestic consumption only.

The production of coffee has steadily expanded, from 7,000 tons in 1981 to 11,000 tons in 1985. Coffee was Panama's third-largest crop export earner. In 1985 it earned US$15.6 million, which was 4.6 percent of total export earnings.

Rice and corn production also increased in the early 1980s. Panama imported rice in the 1970s but by the mid-1980s experienced a surplus, as a result of the expansion of production in the early 1980s, from 178,000 tons in 1982 to 200,000 tons in 1985. Panama produced 75,000 tons of corn in 1985, but in the same year it imported about 40 percent of the corn it consumed, some of which was used for poultry feed. The government granted incentives to increase corn production.


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Source: U.S. Library of Congress