A report by Ashtyn Douglas for Surfer.
Yesterday, on World Oceans Day, Red Frog Bungalow owner Scott Balogh joined a group of 120 protestors on the pristine, jungle-fringed shores of Playa Paunch in Bocas del Toro––home of one of the best reefbreaks in Panama. Many of the picketers, all of whom were local residents, surfers, and business owners, waved green flags and held signs saying “La playa es de todos” [the beaches are everything] and “Malas ideas destruyen el planeta” [bad ideas destroy the planet] above their heads. Balogh took a picture of the scene, posted it on Instagram and immediately began reaching out to guys like Kelly Slater to help spread international awareness of what everyone was protesting
The day before the demonstration, local Boca del Toros residents spotted a construction crew offloading rebar onto the beach, hauling it out into the ocean and installing it on the part of the reef where surfers paddle out to catch the punchy A-frames of Playa Paunch. Balogh, who frequently hosts A-grade surfers like Slater, Mick Fanning, Dane Reynolds, and Filipe Toledo, was shocked to see the initial stages of construction right in the middle of one of the area’s best waves––one that many of his guests come here specifically to score. Other residents and local government agencies were also surprised, as none of them had approved any plans for development along this stretch of coast. Even the mayor didn’t know what was going on.
“Originally, the owner of this property [the villa/hotel fronting Playa Paunch known as “La Coralina”] had received approval from government agencies in Panama City to build a small personal dock, which are typically 12 to 15 feet long” explains Balogh. “But the local government was never notified [they also never signed off on the project] and the building plans they showed up with contained the blueprints for a 130-foot, T-shaped, multilevel pier with concrete pilings drilled right into the live reef––completely different than what they applied to get permits for.”
Aside from the allegedly shady tactics on behalf of the property owners, Balogh is worried about what an industrial-sized pier could do to the surf of Playa Paunch. “On a good day, it’s one of the better waves of the world,” says Balogh. “It’s the worst possible place to build a pier. When the surf is really big, there’s this lateral current that goes down the reef. When you break your board or your leash, the current is so strong that it would suck you into that pier. It’d be a danger for surfers.”
Balogh foresees how this could also negatively impact the livelihoods of boatmen. “Where this dock would go is also right where all the boat drivers anchor their boats,” says Balogh. “So if this project were to go through, we would have to anchor our boats on the other side of the dock, and our guests would have to swim through the pier to get to the surf. It would affect the business of the boat drivers because no one would be able to park their boats there anymore. It’d be a massive eyesore. Right now it’s just this beautiful pristine jungle.”
The community of Boca del Toro’s quick response in organizing the local protest (which was organized by Angie Wittemore of Cuyuko Paunch and Juan Davis Isaac of Mono Loco Surf School) helped put a halt on the project. The rebar was promptly removed from the reef, but according to locals, the fight isn’t close to being over. This morning, the construction crew was back at the same spot, clearing trees and digging with heavy machinery. The mayor and the local police were able to stop them, warning that they didn’t take the necessary steps required to build a pier this size. When the property owners procured the permits to build a small dock, they didn’t need to go through the environmental impact statement (EIS) process––because short, personal docks don’t require one. Large piers, however, do.
Although the residents and local agencies of Bocas del Toro have been able to stave off development at Playa Paunch for now, Balogh is hoping to keep the pressure on government officials to prevent the project entirely. “What they fail to understand is that surfing is one of the major contributors to tourism in the Bocas del Toro area,” says Balogh. “Surfers coming to Bocas to surf this wave are buying tickets on Copa Airlines, they’re staying in hotels in Panama City, buying food, hiring taxi drivers, buying domestic airline tickets to get to Boca. The economic value that wave has on the overall economic impact of the country is substantial––easily tens of millions of dollars annually––and I don’t think many in national government have any idea what that wave generates annually for the country and the town.”
If you’d like to assist the surfers and residents of Boca del Toro and help keep Playa Paunch pristine and untouched, sign the online petition here.