Panama has no generally recognized group of geographic regions, and no single set of names is in common use. One system often used by Panamanian geographers, however, portrays the country as divided into five regions that reflect population concentration and economic development as well as geography.
Darién, the largest and most sparsely populated of the regions, extends from the hinterlands of Panama City and Colón to the Colombian border, comprising more than one-third of the national territory. In addition to the province of Darién, it includes the Comarca de San Blas and the eastern part of Panamá Province. Darién--a name that was once applied to the entire isthmus--is a land of rain forest and swamp.
The Central Isthmus does not have precisely definable boundaries. Geographically, it is the low saddle of land that bisects the isthmus at the canal. It extends on the Pacific side from the Darién as far west as the town of La Chorrera. On the Atlantic, it includes small villages and clustered farms around Gatun Lake. East of the canal it terminates gradually as the population grows sparse, and the jungles and swamps of the Darién region begin. More a concept than a region, the Central Isthmus, with a width of about 100 kilometers, is the densely populated historical transportation route between the Atlantic and the Pacific and includes most of Colón Province.
Central Panama lies to the southwest of the canal and is made up of all or most of the provinces of Veraguas, Coclé, Herrera, and Los Santos. Located between the continental divide and the Pacific, the area is sometimes referred to as the Central Provinces. The sparsely populated Santa Fe District of Veraguas Province is located across the continental divide on the Atlantic side, however, and a frontier part of Coclé is also on the Atlantic side of the divide.
The hills and lowlands of Central Panama, dotted with farms and ranches, include most of the country's rural population. Its heartland is a heavily populated rural arc that frames the Bahía de Parita and includes most of the country's largest market towns, including the provincial capitals of Penonomé, Santiago, Chitré, and Las Tablas. This agriculturally productive area has a relatively long dry season and is known as the dry zone of Panama.
The remaining part of the Pacific side of the divide is taken up by Chiriquí Province. Some geographers regard it and Central Panama as a single region. But, the lowlands of the two areas are separated by the hills of the Península de Las Palmas, and the big province of Chiriquí has sufficient individuality to warrant consideration as a separate region. The second largest and second most populous of the nine provinces, Chiriquí is to some extent a territory of pioneers as well as one of considerable economic importance. It is only in Chiriquí that the frontiers of settlement have pushed up well into the interior highlands, and the population has a particular sense of regional identity. A native of Chiriquí can be expected to identify himself, above all, as a Chiricano.
Atlantic Panama includes all of Bocas del Toro Province, the Caribbean coastal portions of Veraguas and Coclé, and the western districts of Colón. It is home to a scant 5 percent of the population, and its only important population concentrations are near the Costa Rican border where banana plantations are located.
Size and Growth
In mid-1987, Panama's population was estimated at 2.3 million, when 40 percent of the population was under 15 years of age. This high proportion suggested continued pressure on the educational system to provide instruction and on the economy to create jobs in the next two decades. Population had increased more than 600 percent since the country's first census in 1911. The annual rate of increase ranged from less than 0.5 percent in the economically depressed 1920s to more than 3 percent in the decade from 1910 to 1920 and in the 1960s. Demographers projected an annual growth rate of 2.2 percent in the 1980s, declining to 1.9 percent by 1990-95.
Provincial growth rates in the 1970s ranged from a low of 0.5 percent in Los Santos to a high of 3.5 percent in Panamá. The population in Bocas del Toro, both in remote and rural areas, grew at an average annual rate of approximately 3.1 percent. This high growth rate was due to a significant influx of migrants in response to the development of the Cerro Colorado copper project in the eastern part of that province. Population density was seventy-five persons per square kilometer. The highest densities and the region of the most concentrated urbanization were located in the corridor along the former Canal Zone from Colón to Panama City.
The crude death rate was 5 persons per 1,000 in the mid-1980s, a decline of nearly 50 percent from the mid-1960s. The crude birth rate was 27 per 1,000, a drop of one-third during the same period. Organized family planning began in 1966 with the establishment of the Panamanian Family Planning Organization, a private group. By 1969 the Ministry of Health was actively involved in family planning; clinics, information, and instruction were becoming more available to the population as a whole. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, more than 60 percent of women of childbearing age were using some form of contraception.
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