Can One Woman Keep Our Cities From Sinking?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because from New Orleans to the Marshall Islands, this is a monster we’ll all soon face.
By Matthew Stein
Construction on a new landfill along the Juan Díaz River was nearing completion when an unyielding figure in rubber boots, jeans and a floppy beige hat arrived to shut it down. Trailed by an entourage of colleagues and journalists, she walked purposefully onto the site, fielding a phone call from the mayor and reviewing documents along the way. Once she was in sight of several large yellow tractors, she paused, removed her hat and readied herself for the cameras.
An earlier incarnation of Raisa Banfield, Panama City’s environmentally crusading vice mayor, might have seized the opportunity to call for demonstrations against the landfill’s illegality and the flooding hazard it represented. Today, instead of tying herself to a tree, 46-year-old Banfield is using her position to ensure the environment is a top city priority. There’s small stuff — community parks, citywide bike programs, pilot recycling projects — and bigger, creative policymaking: In September and October, after heavy downpours triggered substantial landslides and inundations in parts of the city, Banfield chased down developments she thought were choking off vital waterways, and she reached out to the Dutch — replete with water-management experience — to help with a solution.
Her work represents a serious commitment to combating the effects of climate change in one of Latin America’s most vulnerable cities. The longtime flooding problems plaguing Panama are only getting worse as global warming worsens, says Arturo Dominici Arosemena, executive director of the Ramsar Regional Centre for Training Research on Wetlands in the Western Hemisphere. It came to the fore last fall, explains Michiel Reynders, deputy head of mission for the Dutch Embassy. He notes that the waterways that could once “flow freely” are coming face-to-face with urbanization. “It’s happening all over: Peru, Vietnam, Jakarta.”
Her bluntness ‘made some people very angry.’
As glaciers melt and oceans flow higher, “sea-level rise is an issue on almost every coast,” says Rosetta Elkin, landscape architect and professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. It’s particularly tough in Panama City, because the entire town was built too far to the east, “where sea levels are precipitously low” — thanks in part to American bases — says Arosemena. As Banfield goes through the rigmarole of finding a solution and calling together a global group of problem-solvers like the Dutch, she may stand a chance at creating some scaffolding for the many other cities that will have to look this same issue in the eyes soon.
Banfield’s dedication to environmental issues was born by chance in 2000, when she moved with her husband and three children to Clayton, a serene suburb flanked by a treasured rainforest that the government was, at the time, trying to sell. Together with Carlos Varela, her legal-minded neighbor, Banfield created a community association to defend the rainforest. She remained on the front lines for years, sacrificed her architectural career and eventually began public campaigns for a variety of environmental causes. Now? “She can’t tie herself to a tree anymore,” explains Varela, today a prominent lawyer. “She is the authority; she needs to influence others personally.”
The business of influencing others personally, of course, is easier said than done. Banfield has her limitations: For one, she’s not a scientist, and she speaks her truth as an activist and politically minded person rather than with subject-matter authority. And then there’s the age-old tale of an outsider turned insider and the critics who would like to paint her as a changed woman. One such disgruntled rabble-rouser is Mario Enrique, a university student who works with a community organization called El Kolectivo. “Raisa has changed since becoming vice mayor,” he says. “She’s now part of a system where the private sector imposes its politics.” He sees her as one cog in a larger machine of the World Bank and other neoliberal elements.
Still, Banfield knows what it’s like to walk the fine balance of policy and protest; she’s done it for some time now: In 2007 she cofounded and directed CIAM, an environmental advocacy organization, and in 2010 she launched the Sustainable Panama Foundation. She even landed herself on TV, producing environmental programs on everything from mines to mangroves. But, says Alida Spadafora, a biologist and former CIAM colleague, her bluntness “made some people very angry.” Angry enough that Banfield and Spadafora both became targets of phone tapping during the administration of former president Ricardo Martinelli (currently subject to American extradition charges). One evening she was even attacked as she got out of her car.
It was all that melodrama that brought Banfield, ironically enough, to politics. When Congressman José Isabel Blandón Figueroa approached her to run as his vice mayor, she was reluctant at first. “But he told me that if we don’t do something dramatic, this government will continue,” she recalls. “And that terrified me.” Which sounds a bit like another tipping point Banfield is up against: the quickly warming Earth.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated shortly after publication to correct Banfield’s age and her number of children, as well as Mario Enrique’s last name, due to an editing error.
- Matthew Stein, OZY Author Contact Matthew Stein