The Chagres River was dammed during the construction of the Canal (1910 to 1914) and as its waters rose to form Gatun Lake , a small mountain of 476 ft. was isolated from the mainland and formed Barro Colorado Island. Located in the Panama Canal, 30 km from Panama City, Barro Colorado Island (9°09’N, 79°51’O) is the largest island (3,707 acres) in Lake Gatun.
James Zetek was one of the first scientists to visualize the importance of setting the island aside as a biological reserve dedicated to scientific research. In 1923, in response to a request by a group of scientists, the former Governor of the Canal Zone, J.J. Morrow, designated Barro Colorado as a biological reserve. Soon, the island had acquired an international reputation as the leading field station for studies of tropical biology. With the support of several U.S. institutions and and the efforts dedicated individual scientists, a scientific committee of the National Academy of Sciences administered the reserve and its laboratory. Then in 1946, the responsibility of maintaining the facility was given to the Smithsonian Institution as a part of their mission, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
Under the 1940 Convention for Nature Protection in the Western Hemisphere, “Nature Monuments” were defined to provide strict protection to “regions, objects, or living species of flora or fauna of aesthetic, historic or scientific interest.” The Convention was signed by the countries of the Pan-American Union: the United States, Bolivia, Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Haiti and Argentina. Panama ratified it in 1972.
Under the Torrijos-Carter Treaty and in compliance with the terms of the Convention, Barro Colorado was declared a Nature Monument in 1979. In addition to the island, the neighboring mainland peninsulas of Buena Vista , Frijoles, Peña Blanca, Gigante and Bohio were incorporated to the Nature Monument, comprising an area of 12,000 acres all together.
Barro Colorado Island, 1920
Before the expiration of the Panama Canal Treaties, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute signed an agreement with the Interoceanic Region Authority (ARI), formalizing STRI’s custodianship of the BCNM. In 1997, STRI signed another agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Relations, securing the Institute’s continuance of research activities and scientific collaboration in Panama into the next century.
The Barro Colorado Nature Monument has hosted more than 80 years of biological research and is one of the sites with the longest history of continuous research in the New World tropics, providing a base of scientific information unequaled in the planet. Each year between 250 and 300 scientists from around the world visit Barro Colorado Nature Monument.