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The Agua Salud Project seeks to understand and quantify the ecological, social, and economic services provided by tropical forests in the Panama Canal Watershed. The Panama Canal’s central role in world commerce focuses global attention on ecosystem services provided by tropical forests. Carbon storage, clean and plentiful water, and biodiversity conservation for enhanced ecosystem function and ecotourism are just a few of the services. Agua Salud is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Panama Canal Authority, Panama’s Environment Authority and other partners.

The project addresses three overarching sets of questions:

  1. To what extent do seasonal tropical forests regulate water flows? How do flow characteristics and water quality – which varies due to sediments and nutrient content, chemistry, and pollution – change with land use?
  2. What is the most efficient way to return degraded lands to productivity? How can hydrological, carbon storage, and biodiversity related services be maximized while simultaneously providing economic opportunity for rural and other landholders? What are the linkages and tradeoffs?
  3. How will global change impact the ecosystem services of tropical forests? How can our understanding of changes in ecosystem function on shifting landscapes inform risk mitigation and climate change adaptation strategies?

The Agua Salud research platform is founded on carefully designed observational networks and experimental manipulations at our focal research site. We go beyond the assessment of a given ecosystem service by developing models that will permit the extrapolation of results throughout the tropics and through time. The results will provide tools to the policymakers, managers and scientists who strive to understand and better manage landscapes subjected to multiple, competing land uses.

Agua Salud includes nine experimental watersheds where water is monitored as it enters, passes through and exits the system. Additional studies include carbon and biodiversity inventories and a secondary forest dynamics network consisting of 54 plots that emphasize the first 30 years following pasture abandonment. Further, the project includes a native species plantation designed to test hypotheses related to tree interactions and the restoration of ecosystem function. Agua Salud’s nine watersheds are:

  • mature forest
  • cattle pasture
  • mosaic catchment
  • native species plantation
  • secondary forest
  • teak plantation
  • invasive grassland
  • silvopastoral farm
  • shade coffee plantation