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.