By far the most trying part of adjusting to working on a conservation project in a “remote indigenous village” is getting used to the “remote” bit.
The most obvious of the implications is the technological shift. Because it has to be shipped in, the cost of gasoline here fluctuates between 7.50 and 8.00 per gallon. This makes not only internal (boat) and external (air) transportation very costly, but makes electricity (available mostly through gas-powered generators) a very limited commodity. The single telephone in the town rings off the hook, making getting a call out am hour-long ordeal. Internet is a one-hour hike over a mountain away, and moves at the rate of 1 bpph (blog post per hour).
The town’s long-standing isolation also makes explaining some things very hard. Try explaining to an 80-year old Guna flute-master, through a Spanish-Guna interpreter, the very concept, let alone the critical finer implications of a “record-deal.” The entire reason for my 10-month stay in the town, to monitor and research the sea turtle population in Armila, leaves many people scratching their heads with blank stares. Due to the recent explosion of eco-tourism around the town’s sea turtle population, foreigners’ fascination with turtles is accepted, but not totally understood.
I am quickly learning that navigating the organizational structures of committees, congresses, and NGO’s will be my greatest obstacle here. The lack of bank/ATM access seriously complicates reconciling the finances between the local turtle conservation committee and their new Panama City-based NGO, which manages international donations and government grants.
The “remote” can be tough, but the “indigenous” part can also pose its own challenges. I recently spoke with the pastor of the local church, who has brought several projects to the community, many over $20,000. A pig-farming project was turned down because pigs are considered by the Guna to be disease-ridden animals that will start epidemics. Still other projects have been shot down mid-implementation because of long-held local beliefs. Try explaining to an international grant-maker that the project they’re funding has been put on hold because it has angered a mermaid that lives in the river.
All this while working within a centuries-old, male-dominated, socialist governance system poses a serious challenge to anyone coming from an international NGO background.
But the very fact that it’s remote and isolated is the reason traditional conservation methods here have been successful to this date. In the region, traditional practices of living in a balance with nature have only been interrupted by outside contact. The slaughter of hawksbill turtles for meat began only when foreign traders started offering the Guna cash for the turtles’ prized carapaces, used to make jewelry and other ornaments. In this town, the only instances of leatherback turtle slaughter or egg-removal have been from the local border patrol or tourists, the only strangers that ever pass through the town. The local government takes a hard line on this and levies heavy fines on offenders. The policeman who slaughtered the turtle was forbidden from returning to his post in the village.
As the town develops we are starting to see that these complications will not be entirely permanent, and neither will the culture behind the traditional conservation practices. A French philanthropist is bringing an Internet connection to the school. The local representative running for office wants to build a road that connects Armila to a town with an airstrip and a serious drug problem. As the town shifts at an accelerating rate from its traditional way of life to one that more resembles the 21st century lifestyle, the only thing that won’t change are the thousands of turtles that come to nest here from January to July.