Alga is the name given to any single-cell or multi-cell thallophyte that normally lives in either fresh water or sea water and that is generally equipped with chlorophylls, sometimes accompanied by other pigments of various colors that disguise it. Algae are one of the organisms that produce the most oxygen on the planet. They are very simple, they come in a great many different sizes and they can be of various different colors. They carry out biochemical processes, and it is thanks to this factor that we can group them by color:
Around 290 species of red, brown and green algae have been identified in the ecosystems of Colon province in Panama. Over 40 of these are used commercially.
The traditional use of different types of macroalgae by the Caribbean communities in Panama can be traced back to the Gold Fever of the late 1840s. That was when the inhabitants of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Barbados, Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean arrived in the Republic of Panama to work, mainly as unskilled labor in the construction of the inter-ocean railroad and later the French Canal. They brought with them their cultures and knowledge, including the use of marine algae.
Irish moss (Chondrus crispus) from Europe was exported to the Caribbean by soldiers on their way to the Panama Canal Zone during the First and Second World Wars as they needed the protein sources that the alga contained (Batista, 1992). It was also known as Isinglass, a word originating from the Dutch meaning fish gelatin. In the late 1960s the availability of wild sources of this alga brought about the expansion of the industry, with the beginning of cultivation of tropical red algae such as those of the Eucheuma genus, which is of both social and commercial importance (Batista, 1992; Batista, 2009).
The use of algae from the Rhodophyta division, the genuses Gracilaria and Eucheuma, is also well known in Panama. They are used in the manufacture of a vitamin tonic by the Afro-Caribbean communities, a drink known as isinglass or seamoss (Hay & Norris, 1984; Batista & Connor, 1982; Batista 1992; Batista et al., 2006).
At least two ethnic groups in Panama gather and consume marine algae: the Guna and the Afro-Caribbeans (Batista & Connor, 1990). The Guna are an example of the application of phycology, i.e. the way in which they use marine algae for human benefit. A total of 37 species of macroalgae have been recorded as being habitually used by indigenous groups of Guna for medicinal and cultural purposes (Batista, 1992; Batista et al., 2006; Batista, 2009).
When Fort Sherman and Punta Galeta in the province of Colon were turned over to Panama under the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, marine biologists, environmental engineers, civic groups and civil society concerned themselves with deciding how best these areas could be used. Colon City Council in collaboration with the Institute of the Panama Canal and International Studies of the University of Panama along with Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory, the Manzanillo International Terminal, the Colon Free Zone and Refinería Panamá S.A. worked together to draw up a sustainable development plan for the northern entrance of the Panama Canal.
The project was led by Dr Gloria Batista de Vega and among other things proposed the multiple use of the area’s natural resources. Within the framework of the study, the foundations were laid for protecting the area using buffer zones along the Colon coastline composed of mangrove swamps and coral reefs. To this end marine farming systems were built using the species of red alga of the genus Gracilaria traditionally used by the Afro-Caribbean communities.