127. Action Memorandum From the Deputy for Panama Canal Treaty Affairs (Popper) to the Deputy Secretary of State (Christopher)1


  • Statement to Environmental Groups on the Panama Canal Treaties

Issue for Decision

Various environmental groups are concerned about protection of the environment in the Canal Zone under the new Panama Canal Treaties and about the Department’s compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). If we can reassure them, on your authority, on these points, a number of these groups might be prepared to support the Treaties.

Essential Factors

We have met with representatives of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups and found them concerned about the adequacy of environmental protection measures under the Canal Treaties and about the Department’s compliance with the NEPA. While we believe we have been able to allay their concerns, they would like a statement of assurances from you which they could use with their directors and members to win their support for the Treaties. On this basis, several of the groups might be prepared to campaign for approval of the Treaties.

We have prepared the attached statement, which we have ascertained meets the concerns of these groups, for your approval. In addition to giving it to the groups with which we have met, we would propose to issue it together with the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Panama Canal Treaties, which is now ready for distribution.2

The representatives of these environmental groups have also suggested that it would be helpful if you would include some of the assurances in this Statement in your next speech on the Canal Treaties. [Page 352] We understand that you will be speaking on Panama next month and have attached points which you might use in your speech.3


1. That you approve and sign the attached Statement on the Panama Canal Treaties and Environmental Protection.4

2. That you include assurances from this Statement in an early speech on the Panama Canal Treaties drawing on the attached Talking Points.5


Statement on the Panama Canal Treaties and Environmental Protection 6

Since Panama’s unique geographic location makes it important to the environment of many nations, both the United States and Panama are conscious of the need to protect the environment and respond to the public health needs of the Canal Zone and the surrounding area.

During the negotiation of the Panama Canal treaties, the Department of State and other agencies of the United States Government recognized the serious environmental implications of the treaties’ key provisions. The United States noted that the transfer of large tracts of essentially undeveloped territory, comprising much of the Canal Zone, to a country energetically engaged in economic development could seriously impact on the ecology of the area. Accordingly, the negotiators included Article VI as an integral part of the Panama Canal Treaty. In that article, the United States and Panama commit themselves to implement the treaty “in a manner consistent with the protection of the natural environment.” The article also provides for the establishment of a Joint Commission on the Environment, which is to recommend environmental protection measures to the two governments.

[Page 353]

Such is the framework for environmental action established by the written instrument. However, it will only be through the joint effort of the two governments, following ratification of the treaties, that the commitments made in the treaties will come into effect. For the United States, this will entail provision of relevant information about the Canal Zone and its resources, technical assistance, as well as resources needed to carry out effective programs of environmental protection. To that end, the U.S. Agency for International Development is developing a project, in cooperation with the Panamanian Government, to provide it with the capability to carry out sound land and water management and reforestation programs.

On the Panamanian side, our diplomatic mission in Panama has noted that the Panamanian Government is taking environmental concerns seriously and has attached a high priority to the problem of protecting the Canal watershed. As evidence of this, the mission reports that both the Panamanian Minister of Planning and the Vice Minister of Agriculture have recently pressed for early implementation of the AID Watershed Management Project. Moreover, in addition to the provisions contained in the Panama Canal Treaty, there is also a basis in international law for U.S. and Panamanian cooperation on environmental matters since both countries are parties to the 1954 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil and the 1940 Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere, which established Barro Colorado Island as a Nature Monument.

It is our intention that the Joint Environmental Commission shall have the staff and financial support it needs to be effective. We will propose that the American members of this Commission include leading science and environmental figures as well as others from the private and public sector. In addition, reports on the state of the environment in the Canal Zone and the surrounding watershed will be assembled and indexed. Federal agencies with expertise relevant to Canal Zone issues will assist in developing information for the Joint Commission on matters which require priority attention. And, recognizing the importance of base-line data showing the current state of Canal Zone ecosystems, including air and water quality, marine life in the adjacent oceans, and flora and fauna, the U.S. will cooperate with the Panamanian Government in assembling that data espeditiously.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has provided useful guidance in drafting the Panama Canal treaties so as to avoid or mitigate the adverse environmental effects which might result from the implementation of the treaties. We recognized the importance of the NEPA procedures in formulating environmentally sound policies as well as the value of public participation in the NEPA review process. [Page 354] The final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Panama Canal treaties, prepared in accordance with the NEPA and issued on December 27,8 discussed those issues which will be addressed by the Joint Environmental Commission. And, the public comments submitted regarding the draft EIS have been carefully considered and are reflected in the final Statement. More specifically, the final Environmental Impact Statement discusses current and transitional steps needed to protect the Pipeline Road and other important forest areas. It also analyzes the need for a forestry management program and the dangers to flora, fauna and soils should the natural resources of the Canal Zone not be adequately protected.

Finally, in addition to Article VI, Article XII of the Panama Canal Treaty addresses the question of expansion of the existing Panama Canal to accommodate a larger volume of traffic. In that article, Panama grants to the United States “the right to add a third lane of locks to the existing Panama Canal.” With respect to a possible sea-level canal, the article provides for a study of the feasibility of such a canal without making a decision or commitment that a sea-level canal will be built. Any study of the construction of a sea-level canal will seek to be both thorough and objective as it examines both the economic as well as the engineering feasibility of such a project. In addition, the study would fully explore the environmental consequences of a sea-level canal and would address the problems identified in the reports of the National Academy of Sciences. Moreover, an Environmental Impact Statement would be prepared in accordance with the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. Finally, I should note here that we do not intend to use nuclear excavation techniques in connection with any effort to enlarge the capacity of the Panama Canal or build a new canal, both for environmental reasons and because of the terms of the nuclear test ban treaty.

In sum, we believe that the new Panama Canal treaties offer a significant opportunity for cooperation between Panama and the United States, not only in the operation of an important international waterway, but also in safeguarding the unique environment which forms part of the Canal Zone.

Warren Christopher
Acting Secretary
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Official and Personal Files of Ambassador at Large Ellsworth Bunker, Lot 78D300, Box 4, Issues Environment. No classification marking. Drafted by Spear. Mansfield, Moss, Haahr, Hoinkes, and Berger concurred.
  2. See Final Environmental Impact Statement for the New Panama Canal Treaties (Washington: GPO, 1977).
  3. The talking points are attached but not printed. Carter discussed Panama during his State of the Union address. See footnote 7, Document 126.
  4. Brizill initialed Christopher’s approval on January 6, 1978. An unknown hand drew an arrow toward this sentence and wrote “/S/ 1/6/77” in the disapproval option.
  5. Brizill initialed Christopher’s approval on January 6, 1978. Record of speech made by Christopher on the treaties not found.
  6. No classification marking. Christopher signed the statement.
  7. See footnote 2 above.
  8. Editor, please supply footnote.