Rock, sand, and capital: artificial islands in Panama City

Source: Ocean Reef Islands

Rock, sand, and capital: artificial islands in Panama City
Guillermo León Gómez
November 2017

Panama City has a relationship with the oceans unlike any other nation in Latin America. It is home to the only transoceanic canal system on the continent, with more than 800,000 vessels passing through yearly, monopolizing on the global logistics and maritime trade industry. Panama City has one of the most deregulated policies in the financial sector of the region, attracting global, but mostly Latin American, capital that reinvests in a speculative and lucrative real estate market that urbanizes its coastline. In 2008, developers ICA Panama announced the construction of The Ocean Reef Islands, Panama’s first artificial islands. The pair of islets, conjoined by an exclusive marina and yacht club, will be “a sanctuary...enjoyed by a select and limited number of privileged owners and guests” according to the project’s website. My objective is to treat the Ocean Reef Islands as literal artifacts as a methodology, conceptually unraveling multiple strata of ontological questions and epistemological knowledges: of materiality and assemblage, how it exists and came to be in a macro political economic context, the negative socio spatial effects on the region, and an attempt to understand its “virtual” qualities as these homogenous designs are replicated across the planet. 

The manufacturing of land by the combination of sand, rock, labor, and capital is a common practice internationally among coastal megacities. Since the 17th century, Tokyo has added nearly 25,000 hectares of land in its harbor. In Hong Kong, 6 per cent of its territory has been reclaimed as of 2011. In proximity to Edinburgh, the west side of the Port of Leith was also extended through land reclamation in 2008. To carry out the process of reclaiming land in Panama City, which is defined as the process of creating new land from ocean, riverbeds, or lake beds,” Grupo Los Pueblos has contracted Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V., a Netherlands based construction company that specializes in maritime infrastructure. Boskalis owns one of the largest dredging fleets in the world, having worked on projects globally that include the Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong, land reclamation projects in the Kingdom of Bahrain, multiple contracts in Singapore, and was awarded the contract for the Suez Canal expansion, to name a few. 

Both islets’ foundations have begun as robust dikes of mined rock collected from the Vacamonte region of Panama, private land owned by the developers themselves. Approximately 650,000 m3 of rock has been collected for the formation of the islands. The periphery of layered rock will protect from the twice daily tides of the Pacific Ocean. Following the creation of the bathtub, the outlining process of rock that forms the shape of the island, sand collected two miles offshore is pumped into the negative space. Through this process, territory, an assembled materiality, now becomes a tradeable and moveable commodity. The assemblage of matter, the social relations of capital and its literal accumulation, environmentally dispossesses the sand and rock beds from the previous location. “At sites of removal, the loss [of these resources] can radically expose communities to increased risks” and the ecological impacts of terraforming can be catastrophic. 

Though a spectacle in their production, the islands as objects participate in a larger global and local set of social relations. Panama City is an oasis for South American capital and has attracted a remarkable amount of global foreign investment. Panama City has seen remarkable growth in its offshore banking sector because of deregulation and secrecy laws, as well as attracting multinationals to its numerous special economic zones. Today, capital flight and investment crystallizes in Panama City’s skyline as a dense, vertical presence of multinational corporations, financial institutions, and luxury condominiums. In the past decade, the City has witnessed intense urbanization and real estate development, particularly in certain neighborhoods of the urban coastline, such as the neighborhood of Punta Pacifica, an “exclusive enclave of now more than 18 luxury condominium towers perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean”, anchored by the Trump Ocean Club, the tallest building in Central America. The neighborhood of Punta Pacifica was extended by process of land reclamation, producing valuably sought after land with rent value approximately $4,000 USD per square meter.

The ownership of The Ocean Reef Islands is a complex one and reveals the negative socio spatial effects of financial capital. The coastline property was once held in the public domain. By 1996, Mexican construction company ICA (Ingenieros Civiles Asociados) was granted full government concession rights to build artificial islands in exchange for the construction and management of the Corredor Sur urban highway, also constructed on reclaimed land. ICA Panama eventually sold off and passed the project for management to Grupo Los Pueblos, a well known development group in Panama City. According to their website, GLP is “a merger of several companies" engaged in design, architecture, construction, marketing and real estate” that include housing, office facilities, and shopping malls, like the Albrook Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in Latin America. Public-private partnerships like these - between ICA Panama and the Panamanian government - are quite typical in the urbanization processes of cities with neoliberal characteristics that support corporate, private interests rather than social ones. “[Land reclamation] provides an intriguing phenomenon from a political economy perspective, since it is a process that literally creates an additional quantity of land, a commodity which is usually held to be in relatively fixed supply,” and as an investment project, you see significant returns since you are literally creating profit.   

In locations like Bahrain, Panama City, and even New York City today, the financial and real estate sectors are intertwined. With a GDP growth rate of 5.8% in 2015 according to the World Bank, real estate is in high demand as investors, both locally, regionally (Colombia and Venezuela), and abroad have shifted capital to property investment in Panama. With an intensification of demands comes the need for supply, resulting in the geographic expansion outward from the coastline. As the coastline becomes sold off and privately owned, we witness, according to Andrew Chubb, the displacement of the maritime commons. Privatization of land and water, once in the public domain, is dispossessed and commodified. For David Harvey, this process of accumulation by dispossession allows overaccumulated capital to seize hold on such assets “invest in them, upgrade them, and speculate in them”. Privatization of the coastline, or of any commodity that has similar use-value for the public, can be likened to the violence of primitive accumulation under early capitalism. In Panama City, accessibility to the coast has become an economic privilege and informal communities, such as the Boca La Caja neighborhood, are slowly pushed out further and further away by displacement by the rise in land value, expropriation, and now by an expansion outward of the coastline. 

For phenomena of this kind, artificial islands appear to predominantly exist in nations with highly deregulated monetary and financial systems that invite foreign financial capital to accumulate and proliferate. These can easily labeled as free market utopias for the economic elite. Housing mega projects that exist offshore can become zones of exception from state power. Some similar examples include, the projected $10 billion Freedom Ship, to be the largest vessel in history that would house an entire city with a bank, hospital, and world-class amenities, is an obvious tax haven. Or the designs and visions of The Seasteading Institute, directed by former Google engineer Patri Friedman, the grandson of Milton Friedman. Now in contract with French Polynesia, the Seasteading Institute plans to build a floating city, marketed as a resilient alternative against sea-level rise. These floating cities are planned to exist as special economic zones in hopes of attracting tech companies. 

Zoning mechanisms, like SEZs, aside from exploiting labor and escaping economic regulation, act as forms of segregation, and class separation. The Ocean Reef Islands, similarly to the closed luxury condominiums of Panama City’s skyline, are what Teresa Caldeira calls fortified enclaves. These forms of urban development “[change a] city’s landscape, its pattern of spatial segregation, and the character of public space and public interclass interactions”. Urban fortified enclaves like private artificial islands - arguably not urban at all -  are insular, highly secured, socially homogenous, and become status symbols for a city’s reputation. 

When visiting the Ocean Reef Islands in January 2017, I passed two armed guards: one prior to crossing the bridge and another before entering through the main gates. It is important to note that these islands have yet to be completed and are not housing any residents. This level of security is characteristic to almost all elite enclaves in Latin America. The islands, 138 lots spread out between the two, include 24 hour security and an underground passageway complete with electric cars to allow workers to enter the marina without having to drive above ground through the community. For Caldeira, fortified enclaves take form as either high rise condominiums (dense urbanization) or gated communities of single family homes (suburbanization) in a city’s periphery. What we witness with the Ocean Reef Islands is quite different, though. It is neither dense nor sprawled, but creates a new type of geography: a maritime fortified enclave and a neoliberal utopia for a contemporary seasteader. As an island off the coast of the city it is both urban and suburban at once; you gain privacy and security for the fear of crime (a very palpable anxiety for the middle and upper class in Latin America) without losing all the attractive amenities of urban life. With an island, the “aesthetics of security” are subversive. You lose the elements of an aesthetic code, such as walls, fences, and bars. Rather, a new language of geographic isolation and insularity, land completely surrounded by water, is telling of a class divide. This is equally expressed in the neighborhood of Punta Pacifica or Casco Antiguo, where capital and value is cornered and extended in peninsula form, when capital gravitates towards spaces that offer optimum environments for its reproduction and proliferation. 

These new development projects become utopian imaginations for the upper class. Once only fictitious, production is now possible with modern engineering, technology and finance. In this process of understanding materiality of constructed natures, the reality and virtuality of space can also be addressed, those specifically controlled by the technohegemony of financial capital. Paralleled with my research of the islands, I noticed that liberal fictions have been expressive in many forms of media and literature, such as the geographies of the virtual or gaming world, where island utopias are quite common. “Islands have long served as a metaphorical tabula rasa for mainland imaginations…[they] are areas that can be designed and improved, a testing ground for new ideas and opportunities,” notes Elizabeth Nyman and Ryan Lee in their analysis of the Bioshock series, a videogame where the creator was highly influenced by utopian and dystopian literature, such as Ayn Rand. They go on further and state, “Utopia itself is a created island, after all, a peninsula that was manually separated from the mainland for the purpose of preserving its isolation,” when referring to the islands in this videogame series. 

As we begin to see overlaps between virtual immaterial imaginations and the imaginations of the idealized space, how do we begin to deconstruct the ideas of utopian visions and urges implanted in the artificiality of these islands? What does it even mean for them to be artificial? Where does reality and virtuality, in a Deleuzian word, or simulation meet in its materiality? What does it mean for the capitalist to develop technology for the manufacture of land, to assemble space almost as quickly as a digital or three dimensional drawing? Compared to the millions of years of geologic formation of the neighboring islands along the Pacific rim, the first of the two islands of the Ocean Reef Islands was constructed in only two years. Today, the production of geology is accelerated with technological capabilities, detangling our typical notions of certain relationships between time and space.  As we look back at historic geologic formations across the planet, how may we speculate artificial land’s existence as byproducts of human-capitalist civilization? Archaeologist Matt Edgeworth suggests that artificial land falls under a particular domain, that is neither mere archaeology or geology, but rather they are founded on complex creations of natural and cultural forces of the “archaeosphere”.  We tend to forget of the amount of stratification of built environment over the past centuries; as the majority of the global population drastically moves toward the urban, the land beneath our feet reminds us of our existence in the Anthropocene, “the age in which humans shape land, soil, and the very geology of the earth”.

Panama City’s significance as a port city is paramount in assessing its developed geography, especially when trying to localize these projections of utopian imaginations. It is the site of a convergence of global finance and cultures, a node of integrated planetary urbanization. Aside from the exchange of physical, manufactured commodities that travel via containerization across the seas, we witness the import and implementation of certain urban forms and political processes. In East Asia, Singapore and Hong Kong’s success have developed a set of normative and technical urban plans that inspire city innovation projects in other regions, what Aihwa Ong likes to refer to as “blueprints for urban renovations,” heralded by transnational organizations like the IMF and the World Bank. The artificial island has become a recurring urban form and financial instrument in neoliberal cities, part of a semiotics of luxury that include Calatrava bridges, Zaha Hadid towers, and Frank Gehry museums. They have become “urban brandscapes for vertical, as well as terrestrial, consumption [and] are proliferating as the basis for upscale real estate”. The artificial island becomes the ideal image for an ideology, an effective tool, a historical artifact, and a symptom that documents the configuration of landscape by the social relations of capital at this moment in time.

 1. Ocean Reef Islands, accessed on May 2, 2017.

2. Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (London: Verso, 2016), 580.

3.  Ibid.

4. Boskalis, accessed May 1, 2017

5.  Ocean Reef Islands, Newsletter #3, 2010

6.  Katie Worth, Boskalis to Start Work on Second Artificial Island, International Dredging Review, April 2015, http://www.dredgemag.com/April-May-2015/Boskalis-to-Start-Work-on-Second-Artificial-Island/

7.  Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (London: Verso, 2016), 584.

8.  Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (London: Verso, 2016), 593.

9. Punta Pacifica Realty, accessed May 14, 2017,

10. Darien Montañez (Panamanian architect) in discussion with the author, April 2017. 

11.  Empresas ICA, S.A.B. de C.V, ICA Panama Launches “Las Islas de Punta Pacifica” Development, Mexico City, May 21, 2008. 

12. Grupo Los Pueblos, accessed May 4, 2017.

13.  Omar Hesham AlShehabi and Saleh Suroor, “Tracing the Dynamics of Bahrain’s Land Reclamation,” Antipode 48, no. 4 (2016): 838.

14. “The World Bank in Panama,” World Bank, accessed May, 4, 2017.

 15. Thomas Sigler, “Panama’s Special Economic Zones: Balancing Growth and Development,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 33, no. 1 (2014): 1–15.

16. Andrew Chubb, “China’s ‘Blue Territory’ and the Technosphere in Maritime East Asia,” Technosphere Magazine, 2016,

17.  David Harvey, New Imperialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 149. 

18.  China Mieville, “Floating Utopias: Freedom and Unfreedom of the Seas,” In Evil Paradises (New York: The New Press, 2007): 251-261.

19.  Sebastien Malo, “These floating islands could fight the rise of sea levels,” World Economic Forum, March 23, 2017, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/03/these-floating-islands-could-fight-the-rise-of-sea-levels.

20.  Teresa Caldeira, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 256-296.

21.  Ibid. 

22.  Ibid. 

23.  Elizabeth Nyman and Ryan Lee, “Lost and Found and Lost Again: Island Utopias and Dystopias in the BioShock Series,” Games and Culture,  November 2015, 1-15.

24.  Matt Edgeworth, “The Relationship between Archaeological Stratigraphy and Artificial Ground and Its Significance in the Anthropocene”, in A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene 395, (2014): 91–108.

25.  Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (London: Verso, 2016), 553.

26. Aihwa Ong, “Hyperbuilding: Spectacle, Speculation, and the Hyperspace of Sovereignty,” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, (New York: Wiley, 2011): PAGES

27. Aihwa Ong, “Hyperbuilding: Spectacle, Speculation, and the Hyperspace of Sovereignty,” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, (New York: Wiley, 2011): PAGES

28.  Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (London: Verso, 2016), 123.

All images sourced from Ocean Reef Islands.

Source: Ocean Reef Islands

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