Coastal Wastelands: Mangrove Forests and Toxic Agencies


I took this image during a visit to the Pacora mangrove forest off the Pacific coast of Panamá during a natural producst research collection trip. I was following biotech scientists who looking for fungi in leaves on this edge of the isthmus since it harbors a unique environment - wooded wetlands thriving under pulsating tides. As we walked towards an old-growth mangrove forest I was taken aback by the levels of plastic an other refuse in what was supposed to be a protected conservation area. Mesmerized by the littoral and the in-betwen of land and sea and how contaminated this particular space was, I began to reflect on all the traces of human activity present and how they showed externalities of systems of overproduction and overconsumption. In this ecotone, or space where terrestrial and aquatic bioglogies meet, multiple sites combine and, as the images in this photoessay reveal, various toxic agencies appear enmeshed with one another.

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Walking Along the Coast

Wooded Coastal Wetlands

After running into Dr. Mar at the biannual local science conference in 2016, he invited me to ride along with one of his graduate students on a mangrove collection trip to Pacora about 45 minutes away from Panama City by main road and another hour through a bumpy dirt road. This was close to the end of the rainy season. The three of us made our way to Pacora using the Biotech Institute’s truck. I rode in the back while listening to the many stories about the institutes, the comments of the relentless construction in Panama City, and the advancements made to the metro line suspended above the very road we were taking. When we finally arrived in the town, we began to look for the dirt road that would take us to the mangrove forest that thrives where the Pacora river and the Pacific coastline meet.  Proceeding cautiously, we found the bumpy road that had been hidden away by the thick, verdant vegetation. We make our way to the coastline and see three more trucks being filled with sand by hand. In the horizon, heading south, we spot the verdant edge of the coast where the old growth Mangrove Forest we were looking for sits. It is a good 30 minutes away by foot.

Mangrove Plastics

Plastic Mangrove Forest

Slowly, we proceed by foot and enter the forest to identify the different mangrove species. The forest reveals a multiplicity of life and survival of organisms thriving and decaying through cycles of salinity and freshwater inundations. I also begin to notice more and more plastic refuse mixed in with organic, decomposing matter from both the soil and the sea - plastic bottles, plastic bottle lids, trash bags, garbage can, boots, toys….plastic accreting everywhere! Toxic traces now compose this littoral plastic ecotone. The spectacle of poison plastic is beyond quantifiable. Industrial and commercial externalities wound the mangroves’ roots and leaflitter.

Mangrove Camp Site

Thinning Wetlands

We go further into the labyrinth of mangrove trees, some as tall as 30-50 feet. We collect a few leaves from the trees and move onward through more debris of overconsumption. We try to get a sense of how far we can reach and determine where the river’s edge is. We encounter a camp site (of human dwelling), a neon pink crock shoe, a head of a doll, entangled fish nets, and tons of plastic bottles along with mangrove shoots, shells, and other coastal refuse. This majestic bit of old-growth mangrove forest is thinning. Late capitalist refuse is altering and drowning these wooded coastal wetlands.


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Coastal Wetland


Created date

February 26, 2020

Cite as

Alberto Morales. 26 February 2020, "Coastal Wastelands: Mangrove Forests and Toxic Agencies", Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 26 February 2020, accessed 18 July 2024.