Day 694 - Volunteer Service - CNN Covers Deforestation in Panama

An article and video were recently published on the CNN website about deforestation in Panama. 

We have met most of the people in these stories.  The Latino farmers live in our valley.   I have mixed feeling about these stories.  There isn't enough room to explain the complexity of the deforestation in Panama.  There is a lot more going on than this thousand word article and five minute video can describe.  
It is the job of the writer to distill down a topic into a coherent theme.  In this case, he relied very heavily on the indigenous populations in their tribal paint and traditional clothing to be the good guys and the Latino farmers and ranchers with their horses and machetes to be the uneducated bad guys.  
Avelio and his horse.

I wish I could write down all that I have seen and heard in these two years in Panama, so that I could pass on my understanding of conservation in Panama. 
I don't know the best way to save the rainforest and stop desertification.  I have some ideas to prevent the loss of soil fertility and decrease the need to clear more land for agriculture.  I am working to pass on that information to other Peace Corps Volunteers through training sessions and writing reference materials.   It is a slow process.  The building up of things always is.  
I hope you all read the article.  Read it with a grain of salt.  Know it is true and inaccurate and over simplified all at the same time.  
"Struggle for Panama's Rainforests" CNN's Naamua Delaney talks to David Ariosto about the battle between cattle ranchers and tribes over rain forests in Panama.  
"Rainforest clash in Panama signals larger debate" by David Ariosto


Day 686 - Volunteer Service - Texas Brigade

Our fourth and final Texas Brigade took place the week of March 2, 2009. The students from University of Texas Austin, finished up the plant gallery in Panama City, visited the women's group in El Valle and bought the first ten pots. We had one full day in the community. In the morning we made totumas, sharpened machetes and several of the local guys helped make traditional sandals, called cutarras. Some of the women helped make a traditional lunch of arroz con pollo. After that we had a workshop on receipt keeping. The last event was buying the first round of pots. Then we headed back to Panama City. Thursday they had the pre show event. Four community members came to the event. This was the first time they got to see where their plants would be sold. It was a fun night and it was exciting to see the gallery in working order. Here's a link to a video made by Toniel about the night. The next trip for UT Austin will probably be next January. The students will pick a new project and community to support.


Birkeley Brigade

Serendipity set the first Brigade in Panama in our lap. The University of Texas Austin's Brigade Club worked with our women's group to sell ornamental plants. Four Brigades and more than a year later, Foy and I offered to help coordinate a brigade that did not involve our community. Sophia, Director of Environmental Brigades, invited us to assist with UC Berkeley.

The Berkeley students flew into Panama City and the next morning kicked off with a presentation about defining sustainable development. Then Chris Meyer introduced Planting Empowerment, the partner organization for this Brigade.

Planting Empowerment (PE) is run by former Peace Corps volunteers. They are a socially conscious agroforestry business that splits profits among investors (80%), land owners (10%) and PE (10%). Their business model is innovative. Instead of buying the land from the local Latinos and indigenous Embera-Wounan then bringing in outside workers, PE leases the land then pays them to work on their own property. PE's plantations are organic and the understory is permitted to grow. This is a huge improvement over a chemical dependent teak monoculture that displaces locals, which is the norm in Panama. You could say, PE pays locals to learn sustainable forestry on their own land.
A standard teak monoculture
One of Planting Empowerment's plantations.

After the presentations, we piled onto a small bus and headed towards Colombia. Our destination, the Darien, is the least developed region of Panama. We stayed just outside Santa Fe at El Centro Pastoral. This center run by two nuns is peaceful, and slightly less rustic than the house Foy and I live in. The latrines and outdoor showers were a first for many of the Berkeley students.

Over the next four days, the students visited the indigenous community of Arimae and developed their projects. Half the students worked on a carbon sequestration study. Planting Empowerment would like to enter the carbon credit market. The students took some preliminary measurements and talked with Jose Diago, a forester, whose most recent employer was the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
The other half of the students worked on value added initiative ideas to present to the village council of Arimae. The project ideas they chose to pitch were selling organic fertilizer, selling tree seedlings and chicken production. These ideas will be mulled over by the council, and the best will be used to apply for a United Nations Development Project (UNDP) grant.

During their time in the Darien, the students had a chance to hear the history of the Embera-Wounan and their struggles to maintain their communal lands. Other Latinos and even some of their own people are cutting down the forest to produce cattle or simply live as subsistence farmers. Squatters rights favor whomever is using the land, simply preserving it doesn't count as use in court. If the Embera-Wounan can show they are earning money off their untouched forest. They will be able to more successfully prosecute the land poachers. So the carbon sequestration study will benefit them as well.
As part of the cultural exchange, the women's group in Arimae shared some of their traditional dances. One about a bird that brings in the tide and another about the howler monkey. Then the students had the opportunity to be painted with jauga designs. Juaga is a traditional plant dye that is used to paint the body. All of the students had their arms painted and a few got patterns on their whole upper bodies. The dye takes about ten days to wear off.
Our last day we were fortunate enough to see the opening ceremonies for the Embera-Wounan Congress. This was a special meeting to discuss a new law in Panama that gives more rights to communally held land.

This Brigade, both the first for Berkeley and the first for the Environmental branch of Global Brigades, got a lot done. All the goals were met. The students had a tropical Spring Break they can put on their resume and they experienced a part of Panama the average tourist never sees.


Day 682 - Volunteer Service - Global Brigades in Panama

Through a series of unplanned encounters we were introduced to Global Brigades. Global Brigades (GB) is a young organization with a unique operation model and huge scope. Their method is to enlist interested university students to start a Global Brigade Club on their campus. That club is matched with a community project in Central America. The club selects a group of 15 - 20 students to go on implementation trips. Funds are raised or paid by the students to cover the in-country logistics. One-hundred dollars of each student's fee is put in their project's capitol investment fund. Every club is connected to a project and will return to the same community two or three times a year, bringing a different set of students and more capitol to invest. In addition to the cash the students aid the projects with knowledge from their fields of study or specific information researched between visits. Currently running projects include, a bee keepers group, a cobbler, and furniture co-op.
The GB model proves to be remarkably flexible. It started with medical brigades in Honduras and quickly evolved to encompass business, architecture, law and water brigades. That is the key to achieving GB's goal of becoming the largest student run organization in the world. Want to apply classroom knowledge and skills for community development? Start a club and get like-minded peers to join. In as little as a semester, a club can be on the ground to address a pressing problem. The community gets help and the students get real experience to add to their resumes.
Forming a partnership between Global Brigades and Peace Corps Panama is one of the most potent accomplishments Foy and I will make in Panama. From either side the arrangement has substantial benefits. A weakness in the GB formula is the lack of contact between the club and the project members in the long stretches of time between visits. With any service-vacation or developmental-tourism it is critical to avoid becoming just another handout. Peace Corps volunteers on the other hand, often have trouble finding the minimal funding necessary for projects. Together, GB and Peace Corps have funding and steady contact with their project. Also, there is the invaluable mix of trust gained during two years of service in a community, coupled with the excitement that young people fresh from foreign lands inspire like a cloud in their wake. The cultural exchange going both ways is enough alone to make it a positive experience for the Brigades Club, Peace Corps and the community



The nation wide celebration of the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, culminating at midnight when Ash Wednesday officially starts lent, that's Carnival. A celebration of excess right before the Catholic Church imposes a quiet time of reflection and self deprivation to symbolize the forty days Christ was entombed. It's the biggest party of the year for Central and South America.

This year we avoided the festival towns and hung out in our community. Our embassy host family, JJ, Marcela and their two kids came up for three of the days. It was an great time for them to see our village. We visited the neighbors, petted the pigs and held the chicks. We hiked down to the waterfall and splashed in the river. We also got to eat some delicious food thanks to the cooler of goodies they brought up.

The house next to us had an Evangelical retreat. They had prayer sessions constantly where a bunch of people babel together at the top of their lungs. Things like, "God help me. Jesus save me. In the name of the Lord," on repeat for an hour or so. That made for a long evening, I mean, cultural experience.

The highlight of Carnival was going down to the river with a small net, snorkel and water bottle to catch little fishes and shrimp for JJ's aquarium. Marcela reported a week later that one of the shrimps had escaped the aquarium. Isabela found it's dessicated little body. "Oh no! What happened. We need to go to Jeff and Foy's house and get another one!" So maybe we will get another visit.