Morrison Mast: Blog https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog en-us (C) Morrison Mast morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Mon, 22 Sep 2014 16:46:00 GMT Mon, 22 Sep 2014 16:46:00 GMT https://www.morrisonmast.com/img/s/v-5/u950474029-o896640496-50.jpg Morrison Mast: Blog https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog 120 80 Ibagwen Malo Armila (Goodbye Armila) https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/9/goodbye-armila A leatherback crawls back to freedom after being rescued from a tangle of weeds in the river.

 

The following is a direct transcript, followed by its English translation, of a goodbye speech that I delivered on Friday, July 11th, 2014 during a session of traditional congress after having spent nearly a year working on sea turtle conservation in the town of Armila, Guna Yala.  The speech was delivered in the Guna language, Dulegaya.  Scroll down to see the English translation.

Goodbye Speech - Dulegaya transcript

Nuegambi gwenadgan. 

Emi mutigídbali gwage nunmaked abalágine.  Emi mutikídgine gwage ulub nunmaket abalágine napi na besed gor mala. Achulédba na be idugar bángun maloe.  Panama negweburrgi an mei dab gweloe, itoed irbo sar.  Ágine enekamba naed gachundo. Na neyse nabársundo. Emi napi na beitosmala onmakednekyne, emi armir dorie bemar anga gwage uisamala.  Anga soysa mala, wegíned begu moyye. 

Dey soku gwenadgannye, napi ibábo armir dorie na soy moyye.  Gwage nunmaked abalági na bega napi sunmakwis marie.  Wichumoyye sana aibir bálodibe.

Deginigwele, an gwage yelito nadbáriye.  Anmar ibmar gabdaisa malad. Nai mas mariye. 

Emi, we birga, nada pídgine, Armir sapíngan, we yar dirbir náedgala, imbar dummad basar oyyóse.  Yaug gi nele gumálad. We sapíngan oyósto yaug gin nele gumáladgan, da kargua, di wi nae, ney bole goe gudágo, budar itóed abalági.  Anmar nánasto, ukup suit yarba.  Yaug eigar ebiséga.  We misqwágwa ney dirbir náedga, armir negweburr si na oyosokardo, gan gúed nika, sibgan dakéga. Anmar ibmar durgan akwebúkwad, anmar dáed, dule anmar gwisgúoe.

Anmar we arbas málad, armir mas mala, buna mala, nassi sokali mapa dummadgi.  Anmar weginbi binsa na suli, anmar mimigan dani danikoe idúgar binsa nabáli.

Unnila mani ginbi an bina bui suli, anmar ibmar sabguédgi, an dáed sabguedgi, nabgwana sabguédgi.  Anmar burba oyyonae.

Gwenadgan, imar sokwen an soi bi bali.  Andule warambe caka bake nuggine, yo oche baba anmar bendakóe.  Nabiri, negu yase be bate ulúgine, ua uka bake mái..,  aye, tilapia anai... guedi, anmar ibmas bali. Neg isku tibe, demar dúngu tibe, anmar ua sate natáe.  Dey soku we idúgar gabdai les bali.  Nabir, we ua nas guéga, we imar imas bali we birga. Turtle researcher Horiel Campillo looks out over the town from the dead branch of a bread-fruit tree.

Daddummad abalági, budar itoe naga, wied abalági, anmar imar sokwen dummad wakalos bali.  Emidega, gwenadgan ARAP dule, anmar obatis bali wegi, na igar buli burwiburwi igar palamiéga.

Anmar ibmar obelochuli, gwenadgan wedi bégisi mala, imar obelóged, onas gúed, onas imaked, nabir igarga wega, nabir an mimigan dakéga.

Sokwengine negweburr goédgine, birga irbali, gwenadgan bukkib, anmar obate mai bali.  Igar núegan amile mabáli.  Dey soku gwenadgan an be ogan noge, gatig salai maloe.

Ibagan nana máedba, anmar dula guédgi, gwenadgan abito guedgi.  Yod tegwa, anmarse gwenadgan nanabukwa.  Bina, an bega obaro.  Ocean Courier, Pamela Longabardi, Elliot, Turistamar nanamalad. We dulemar gaya dummad mimi nae. We ney dirbir náedgi, anmar gangu, armir gangu sid. Negweburr bipi innegwele, gwaged Dummad nika.  Anmar yobsuli, negweburr dummagan anmar idu bukwamalad, sikwi dummÁgan nikkad.  Armir, oyyos gunnae emiskwágwa.  We dule mar birgi obine.  Beitomargwa gwenadgan anmar nued gangu bukwa.

Anmar aku dake, inmar sokwen nuégan obe mama nade.  Emi be dake, beca wargwen mimi obeles nade. We beca nuga ¨Beca Bunagunasob¨.  We beca, nui nika.  Deginigwar, bunolo égis, nuegambie na escuelagi obelósale egad kagúoe, yola birgagwen bendai legoe. Deig sulírdina, mimi báedka uile daile dagoe, armir negweburrgi. Wedina escuelagi si sundo.  Imar búkip anmargi dani bali.  Gangumálad. Atoed abelége.  Mag itogedche abelege. 

Emi birga gwenadgannye, imar sokwen dummad, bemar imaisa. Bemar yala billisega galu wargwen anmar odulósa. We galu núido, Yaug Galuye.  Ibu an bega obáre.  U dummadi anmar yaug-ga sísa.  Onukusto anmar yaug negaye. 

We galu sigísad. Bemar igar balamisí guégala.  Gwenadgan yaug gi nele gumála, bate noni dibe, we galúgine, igar balamisí be gunmáloe. Ágan bega soge galu Dummad anmar odulalésa.

Emi dakar bárgua, an ulubgi an ganiki, an nattibele anmar ibmar yote arbas máladi, we burgo suliye.  Ibi gala we imar arbalésad baid arbalenáed yaagine sapin dummagan guna nae.  Imar be burba bala mismálad.  Dey soku sahilamariye, negweburrye, we imar margi arbalenaed be daked, anmar, bendakéga gúoe.  Igarmar bala miléar dibe.  Bitikígwa negweburrgi binsa si, anmar igar amisána yer bana.

Napi an soybie, bela gwable negweburr, anga gomburba uisamala.  An bendas malad. Wegi an beyagi an bipirmai sadgine.  Siyámar, bunmar, dadormar, burigana.  Gwable, an bendasmalad.  Dey soku an nae sokar soku dokus nuedgine ansoydo, gwenadganye. Deginigwele, an soybido ulubgi, ai mariye DOInuediye:  Chiche, Delando, Marcos, Felix, Atiliano, Francisco Arosemena, Luisa, Fernando, Edilio, Felipe, Tigre, Esterbino, Fidel, Carlos, Nacho, Yrelia, Sunhilda, Melida, Richard, Yosidelis y Desidelia, Calvin y Kelvin, Alan, Moguii, Luperio, Luisa, Demetrio, Olo, Delfino, Itza, Yuli, Caballo Blanco, Arcadio, Aurelio, Caraballo, Larry, Tony, Ernesto, Chimmy, Manuel, Hilario, Amelio, Fredespinda, Gladys, Elber, Osvaldo, Wan Suit, Melanio, Marta y Santiago Campillo, gwable grupo Gammibe Gun  Galu, gwable profesores, gwable sahilamar, uagi arbasmalad, yaug nega sobsa malad, ansi anmar ney durwismalad, gwable policiamar, Ruedas esordámar, baid gwenadgan ukupa yaug bipi abingúsad, egi binsa guichi gusad, gucha suli, we mar egan soy bardo, do nuediye.  IchasUli gwenadgan an obarider.  Gwable, gwable neggweburrgi, do nuediye.  Bela gwable wegi, bemar, yar dirbi naedgi imar sabguédgi binsa lenae, anmar yaug sabguedgi, binsa bukwad, bemar, e sorda moga. 

My last day in Armila I went and helped the soccer team bring lumber out of the forest to help them pay their way to their regional soccer tournament. Ibabwéngine, sapin dummadi, soysa nade, began puente obay malóye. 

Nabir wegi be nanamala gala, mattaba.  Emiski an bega soy moga, we puente daisiki, yaawak buki bukwa.  We yawak, gwenaganye, emiski, an soy moga, be idugar yawag ega an gúoe.  Imar bukkip, we yawak daisiki bukwa, anmar negweburr, naibirgi nasgúed.  Unnila, gwenadgan, armir dorgan.... Anmargi si, we gab dai lesad, anmar arbanae, gángued abelege.

Napidgine, gwenadganye, an bemarga soyye....

Bitikígwa mer be ane binsas malana gadina emi dakargwa, we mergímar Amanda Morrison ebo ukubbirba yaug burwiba abarmáe bukúsad.  We mergi, Campillo achu gi gullesad.   We mergimar we gagalesmalad.  Be mar an ebinsa di gusa na yer bana be mimíbad yobi be ba bipirmaisad, we mimi, be idugar nade, weyob be an ebinsas malana gadina.  Ani, Amanda anbo, Armila an gwage yaban sesa.  An nega.  An neyba yobi an ebinsa dióe.   

Napi an soybie, and be marga sogo.  Yo eche, an dula, niku noni dibe, bunolo baba anga uísa dibe, an wése inna suit gob nonikoe. 

Itomargwa, nuegambie!

 

Goodbye Speech - English Translation

Hello family.

Sadly, I come before you in the big house tonight to say "goodbye" for an indefinite period of time.  This is my last week as an honorary resident of Armila.  Monday I will go to Panama City, the following week to the U.S.  I come before you with a heavy heart, but one that’s filled with pride of what we have accomplished together this year.

A group of young Armilans manage their own small business taking tourists out to see leatherback turtles. This year, a group of students from this small town began a long-term study on leatherback sea turtles that will be available and visible to the whole world.  They got up before the sunrise, went out in the rain, and walked the entire beach just to count sea turtle tracks.  By doing this they are putting Armila on the map for scientists and conservationists around the world.  These young people represent a future for Armila’s children, a future that’s not based on just surviving or making money, but remembering our culture of protecting our mother earth.

Also, thanks to the hard work of a small group of people, you are one step closer to putting more fish on the tables of families during the times when the wind is too strong for us to fish. 

[Someone yells: "Tilapia!" Town laughs.]

Yes, the tilapia.  We worked long hours in the hot afternoon sun to make a tank for growing fish, we received a delegation of ARAP from Panama, and even exorcized demons, but we got it done.  This work has come a long way, but we haven't tasted fish yet -- it's not finished.  I know that you all are dedicated and continue this work until you can taste its fruits.

Yet another thing you did this year: you, the community, opened your arms guests from all over the world to this town and showed them the work you were doing here, sharing the messages of your ancestors with strangers from cultures that have forgotten their role as stewards of the earth.  To name a few, Pamela Longabardi, Elliot Blumberg, ARAP, Ocean Courier, Tortuguias, and many other travelers from around the world.

Thanks to the kindness of these visitors, a girl from this town will be receiving a grant that will allow her to continue her studies for a year.  It's called the "Leatherback Turtle Scholarship," and it was given to her because of her demonstrated dedication to sea turtle conservation. We must understand that these visits are important.  These are people who can take the message of this town and bring it to the world.  We are a small town, but we have very big messengers.

This year, family, you did something very big.  You built a house that will be a revenue-generating monument to all the work you do to defend your turtle populations on this beach.  The "Turtle House" will be a place where people dedicated to the study and conservation of sea turtles can meet and share a home with the people of Armila.  And it will be a place where those of us in the community that are dedicated to the sustainable development of this town can convene and converse.

My boots, machete, work clothes, and field guides, left behind with one of the turtle researchers I trained.

Aside from all of the tangible things that we can point out, this year has given your children the opportunity to learn to speak English and to meet new people from around the world.  We hope that we can continue to open up these opportunities to you from afar, but we can only open the door, you must step through it. 

Just a bit more I would like to say, family.  It has been an honor to work for you and for your turtles this year.  This work should not stop because I am not here.  There are responsible people in this town that are already working hard to make things like this happen, so I ask that you support them and always think about the effect your community is having on sea turtles and their home: the beach and the ocean. 

I want to thank all the women, all the men, all the children of the town, for making this year an unforgettable experience for Amanda and me.  And I want to personally thank the following people for supporting us, both personally and professionally, over the course of this year: Chiche, Delando, Marcos, Felix, Atiliano, Francisco Arosemena, Luisa, Fernando, Edilio, Felipe, Tigre, Sara, Esterbino, Fidel, Carlos, Nacho, Yrelia, Suhilda, Melida, Richard, Yosidelis y Desidelia, Calvin y Kelvin, Alan, Moguii, Luperio, Luisa, Demetrio, Olo, Delfino, Itza, Yuli, Caballo Blanco, Arcadio, Aurelio, Caraballo, Larry, Tony, Ernesto, Chimmy, Manuel, Hilario, Amelio, Fredespinda, Gladys, Elber, Osvaldo, Wan Suit, Melanio, Marta y Santiago Campillo, all of the Gammibe Gun Galu group, all of the professors,  all of the Sahilas, anyone who came out to dig the tilapia tank, anyone who helped make the roof of the Turtle House or brought rocks and sand for the septic tank, the police force (especially Ruedas' Brigade), the women who picked plastic off the beach to make way for the baby turtles, anyone who knew where a nest of hawksbill eggs was and didn’t take it; all of these people and more have been conservationists this year, and part of a movement of people all around the world working towards the same goal: preserving a species that has been on this earth a long time and deserves our respect.

A man once told you [referring here to Tim Dykman of Ocean Revolution], I will make a bridge for Armila, a bridge of opportunity for the people of Armila to connect with the rest of the world.  These words were true, and they were accomplished -- that bridge is there.  Look at the amount of people who have come to Armila to see and support the turtles here.  Now I say to you, on that bridge there are many doors.  Those doors, my family, I now say to you, are yours to open.  I can show your those doors, but you must open them and walk through.  This is the promise I make with those of you young people who wish to pursue conservation as a career.

I cannot thank you enough for all of the opportunities you have given me to get to know your town and your culture.  And I hope that Amanda and I will not just be remembered as the crazy sea turtle researchers who walked to the San Bernardo River looking for leatherback tracks every morning [community laughs], or the silly gringos who got bitten by Campillo's dog [community laughs], but as friends and family members to all of you.  Thank you so much for all the love that you showed Amanda and me.  For Amanda and me, Armila is our home [I had to try very hard to suppress tears at this point].  A home that we will miss very much.

[Community house fills with mumbling...  The chief stands to relieve me and I muster some composure]

One last thing! If either of us has a baby girl, we promise we will come back here and have an Inna Suit [a huge 3-day long fermented cane-juice drinking ritual akin to a baptism for baby girls].

[Community laughs]

Thank you, you hear me.

[Applause]

Our five little nephews and niece that lived next door.

 

 

 

 

 

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Conservation Panama community leatherback https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/9/goodbye-armila Mon, 22 Sep 2014 16:43:35 GMT
Gammibe Gun Galu https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/7/gammibe-gun-galu

From my usual late afternoon post in my hammock in my cabin at the far edge of town, the sounds of Armila’s traditional reed-flute group, Gammibe Gun Galu, blend organically into the pulsating chorus of crickets and cicadas, the gentle swell of the ocean, and the calls of birds at dusk.  (If you want to listen to what I'm talking about as you read, you can listen to their album online here as you read). I’m often greeted with confused looks when I tell my peers that I'm brokering a record deal for this indigenous flute group.  "What does that have to do with turtles?" they ask.  To be fair, it takes a little longer than your average elevator pitch to tell the story, but the underlying connection is the foundation of our mission here in Armila. 

The idea to get local musicians involved in conservation came from Projeto Tamar, a Brazilian turtle conservation organization with whom Amanda Gibson and I conducted research in 2010.  Tamar's model focuses on providing would-be turtle hunters with alternative livelihoods, rather than just heavy-handedly enforcing environmental laws.  In many cases, they are able to achieve this while simultaneously adding value to local culture.  This was the case in Pirambú, where Tamar supported an old-folk's dance group called "Lariô" a kind of Brazilian square dance.  This endemic dance tradition, practiced only in Pirambú, was dying out due to lack of interest from younger generations and a general lack of funding.  Tamar came in, helped them produce a CD, and offered to put it on the shelves in their gift shops around the country with all the proceeds returning to the group.  Now, Lariô da Tartaruga is a "turtle-branded," self-sufficient entity with a growing younger membership.

The upshot of all this is that locals (mostly fishermen) begin look at the conservationists as the good guys, rather than just environmental extremists from the city that want to regulate their fishing practices, just to save a few turtles. "They're supporting my town's culture, keeping my teenage kid off the street and away from drugs, and giving my grandfather something to look forward to during the week."

This model seemed all the more applicable to conservation in Armila, a town where highly-localized, fading, traditional beliefs are the only thing keeping the townspeople from eating leatherback turtle eggs in a protein-scarce town.  In other words, Armila's music represents a dying ancient culture where people manage natural resources wisely. 

The entirety of the Guna musical tradition (called Nogga Gobbe) revolves around plants and animals, and is in turn jeopardized by changes in the local ecosystem.  Every song in the Guna repertoire is named after an animal and imitates its call or sounds.  And in fact, since many of the musical instruments are made from locally gathered plant and animal materials (armadillo skulls, crab claws, particular bamboo species), decreases in these species due to human pressure mean that certain instruments aren't available anymore, therefore certain songs can't be played anymore and are being forgotten: a vicious cycle between ecological and cultural degradation. When Amanda and I came to Armila and saw a musical group in a similar situation as the one in Brazil, we went straight to work.

In 2012, my brother Terrill Mast and I flew down to Armila and made a high-quality recording in the field, then mixed it in the studio with the help of Phil Schoof, an old friend and electronic-music guru.  The recordings were turned into a physical album, which was given as a perk to donors to an online crowdfunding campaign for Armila's conservation efforts.  The campaign raised over $5000 for the town, which covered the cost of creating an online CD sales portal for Gammibe Gun Galu (a self-styled name which invokes the prophet in Guna mythology who brought music and song to animals and people after God created the earth).  Even more of the funding went directly to the group, by means of Armila's Sea Turtle Commission, to help them buy uniforms for performances. 

Two years out, Gammibe Gun Galu has had album purchases from Spain, France, Switzerland, and Japan.  The group is in the process of negotiating a contract with the Smithsonian Folkways record label.  They have been featured in national news, have had a documentary made about them, and have accepted an invitation (all expenses paid) to an international festival in Panama City to represent the music of the Guna on July 30th, 2014.  Most importantly, they have taken the responsibility of preserving their culture (and their turtles) into their own hands; later this year, they plan to invite traditional flute groups from all over the region to a music festival, and split the revenue from tourism with the local Sea Turtle Commission.  They have also begun to mentor students and a couple senior members have taken on impromptu roles as music teachers at the local school.

These successes did not come easily; they were achieved over two years, across two language barriers (Spanish and Dulegaya), from a muggy isolated town in the Darien Gap with only one telephone as a line to the outside, and with a group of people who wake up every morning to catch or harvest what their families will eat for lunch and dinner.  But it's all worth it to lie in this hammock and hear Gammibe Gun Galu practicing for their debut in Panama City.

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Community Conservation Guna Indigenous Kuna Music Panama TEK Yala https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/7/gammibe-gun-galu Tue, 22 Jul 2014 02:01:11 GMT
Gathering in the Name of Turtles https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/7/gathering-in-the-name-of-turtles

Less than one week into the operation of “Yaug Nega” (The Turtle House), the building has already generated over USD 900 for the community and hosted a variety of community functions that directly support the mission of the town’s conservation efforts.

 

1. Women’s Plastic Art Workshop with Pamela Longabardi – This work was featured by National Geographic and on Amanda Gibson’s research blog for the Oceanic Society.

2.Networking and volunteering opportunities for international students.

3. Armila’s Annual Sea Turtle Festival

4.Biological research station - Local capacity building workshops for sea turtle research.

5.Committee for Responsible Tourism / Sea Turtle Commission /Town Hall Meeting Place

 

What a way to inaugurate a house!  This project, backed with seed funding from Amanda’s and my research grants, is a joint venture into sustainable tourism with the community that has been 5 months in the making.

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Since the house is situated in a central location in the town (right near the port at the river) it serves as a rendezvous point for visitors and residents alike, and on the night of May 25 the community hosted around 20 international visitors.  With the 300 dollars that the Yaug Nega generated on its first night in operation, the house’s management committee is already making plans to turn the house into a visitor’s information center and mini-museum to display the community’s cultural artifacts and traditions.  In fact, the community has already purchased another plot of land, and is booking tourists several months in advance to come stay in the community.

The idea for this house began last year when Amanda and I arrived in Armila for the beginning of our yearlong stint with the community.  When we sat with the Chief to introduce ourselves on the first day, he gave us a long, stern sounding speech.  Since this was in the local dialect that we hadn’t yet learned, we sat in nervous anticipation of the translation to Spanish.  The translation was roughly: “We knew you were coming, and we are very sorry we don’t have your house ready for you.  But now that you’re here, the community will build you a house to stay in.  Just give us a few weeks and we’ll have it ready.” Amanda and I breathed a sigh of relief, thanked the Sahila profusely, and over the next few weeks, hatched a plan. 

Since we were already being graciously housed, free of charge, by Ignacio Crespo, one of our good friends and partners in the community, whydon’t we take what we had budgeted for rent this year and invest in the construction of a multi-purpose house in Armila, dedicated to turtle conservation? After all, the community has long been jealously resentful of private tourism operators in the town, and the leadership has always wanted to tap into the pockets of the tourists who come here to see Armila’s exceptional leatherback sea turtle population (even charging a backpacker $5 per night would make this venture by far the single largest contributor to Armila’s treasury).  Moreover, the community lacked a gathering place or a physical manifestation of its connection with sea turtles.  If Armila were to host other researchers or volunteers in the future, they would have no public housing to offer them.  It was decided that the house would be built to support any actions that directly impact the conservation of sea turtles in Armila, including sea turtle research and eco-tourism.  Amanda and I fronted $750 for the initial purchase of materials, and promised another $750 as needed over the course of the construction process. 

Now, over the course of the past few months, the community has more than matched our support, not only in terms of dollars but in terms of time, sweat, and hard labor.  The roof, the most time-consuming part of the house, had to be built twice due to an engineering failure in which the roof completely fell in.  Thankfully no one was hurt, and the community saw the construction through to the end.

DSC_4884DSC_4884 The end result is a house that’s 40x30 feet, and 25 feet tall at the tip of the roof, with the floorboards elevated 4 feet off the ground.  There are 3 large rooms that, when fully stocked with bunk beds, will be able to comfortably house 16 people.  In the main area there is a large table where 10 people can sit comfortably to converse or hang up hammocks in the breeze while looking out to the sea and the mouth of the River Armila.  All the materials of the main structure (save for nails, screws, and hinges) are all locally harvested from Armila’s farms and put together using traditional Guna house building techniques.  Although the construction is rustic, it´s a cut above a traditional Guna house to accommodate the preferences and standards of visitors.  In less than a week, the adjoining bathroom will put the finishing touch on a 6-month long community effort.

This week, with the creation of a local sea turtle guides and researchers association (Asociación Yaug Sabgüed), the house will also serve as Armila´s first biological research station.  The Turtle House, which is the largest structure to be seen from the front of the town, stands as a place to gather in the name turtles in a community that does chelonian conservation better than any team of trained scientists ever could.

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Community Conservation Eco-tourism Kuna Panama leatherback https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/7/gathering-in-the-name-of-turtles Fri, 04 Jul 2014 19:03:46 GMT
Tilapia: Keeping Turtles off the Menu https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/6/tilapia

When Amanda and I first visited Armila as recent college graduates in late 2012, we sat with the chiefs (Sahilas) of the village to identify the most pressing issues within their community. The one that kept coming up was the scarcity of protein, an issue that not only affects people, but sea turtles as well.

The community had found out about a government initiative to support individuals and small communities in the cultivation of tilapia, a very hardy, very tasty freshwater fish that can be grown with minimal expertise and materials.  However, they needed to raise $2,000 to be able to undertake the project, and ARAP (a government institution similar to our USFWS) had agreed to donate training, baby fish, technical support, and food for a year.  Amanda and I took this project under the umbrella of a fundraiser to support sea turtle conservation in Armila.  Thanks to the generous support of over 50 donors, within a few months were able to provide the community with the funds they had solicited.

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The reason that this is a turtle conservation issue is that in Armila, from as early as October until as late as April (up to half the year), the windand waves are so strong in this coastal town that fishermen can’t go out to sea to fish.  Neither can motorboats get in or out of the town to resupply it.  All food must be hunted or gathered from forest or river, or be carried over a jungle-covered mountain by mule.  The tilapia aquaculture project aimed to keep turtle off the menu in a region where long-held taboos on eating turtle eggs are starting to show signs of wear.  And after having lived through Armila’s windy season, let me tell you that ANY kind of eggs or meat start looking pretty appetizing after having eaten nothing but SPAM and plantains for a couple months straight.

Two years after our fist visit, I am happy (and relieved) to be able to say that our first 300 tilapia are now happily swimming around with full room and board in Armila.  During those two years, there were several points at which the project seemed in jeopardy, and each time the community was able (sometimes with a bit of urging from Amanda and me) to surpass these obstacles and move on. 

 

Setbacks

When Amanda and I first started working full-time in Armila, we arrived in the town to some interesting news.  According to local authorities, a demon (yes, a demon) had been spotted near the construction site for the tilapia project.  This had not only halted construction, it had placed the aquaculture project at the center of a rare, traditional religious ceremony that the Guna perform to exorcize malignant spirits from their town.  Amanda and I were asked to leave the town while the intricate, ancient ritual took place.  This included the smoking of copious amounts of tobacco, building a makeshift town for women and children on the other side of the river where they spent the better part of two weeks, and opening a metaphysical portal into which the demon (metaphysically bound and gagged with the help of spiritually-animated wooden dolls) was cast into the fourth level of the Guna underworld.

We discovered later that the woman who had spotted the demon was the wife of one of the town’s most prodigious fishermen, who was afraid the new source of protein would drive down the price of fish in the community and destroy his livelihood.  The process of explaining the benefits and drafting regulations on the use of the limited source of tilapia took several months of sitting and communicating with townsfolk, both in their homes and in the village council.

After this had all blown over, Amanda and I lobbied for the project to go forward.  The community still believed it would be in their best interest in the long run, but many people were scared to continue; no one wanted to take the reins.  We discussed the issue with the religious leaders that had led the cleansing ceremony and confirmed that it was okay to proceed, then gave pep talks to several people in the town who re-organized and slowly began to dig out the massive fish tank.  Funds from our Indiegogo campaign, managed by a dedicated Sea Turtle Commission in the town, paid for plumbing, blowtorches, shovels, pickaxes, wheelbarrows (locally constructed), and cold drinks when it was particularly hot outside.  CArd2-409CArd2-409

Several times throughout the year, the project seemed destined to fail.  Since the workers spent a majority of their day looking for food to feed their families, they could only afford to work a couple of hours per day, in the hottest part of the dry season.  But the community always found a way.  At times, project funds would feed the families of the workers so that the men of the house could break their backs digging this tank all day. A couple of times, the local police force would put down their machine guns, place an armed security detail in the jungle surrounding the tank, and throw pickaxes and shovels alongside the community.  Amanda and I would go out every afternoon for nearly 2 months and move earth with the community, and afterwards go to the town council to help the “Tilapia Co-Op,” as they referred to themselves, quell the incessant complaints of the fishermen.

While by day they worked the earth, by night the battles were fought in the town council. Would the tilapia tank reduce the town’s water supply? Would the pond breed mosquitoes and spread disease in the town?  Would we anger the demons by spiting them with this project?  Should we sell the fish or give it away?  If we sell it, at what price? To whom do the benefits go, the town, or the people who put the work in to build the tank?  While the town dug, delayed, and deliberated, deadline after deadline was missed and thankfully extended by the national government.  In the end, all these issues were resolved and Armila finished the tank spectacularly. 

DSC_3459DSC_3459 The final tank measures around 80x70 feet, about 4 feet deep all the way around, the largest aquaculture tank in the region and the first in Guna Yala (see video below or on YouTube for a view of the tank).  A tube comes off from the town’s aqueduct to provide water and oxygen.  Amanda asked the government to train two more people from Armila in managing the fish, and the community sent two young students to the other side of the country (partially with funds from the Indiegogo campaign) to learn proper tilapia care and tank maintenance.  In a few months, these fish will be of reproductive age and will give birth to the first generation of tilapia born in Armila.  After that, the government has already destined a large plastic tank (the size of a small house) to Armila to help with the reproduction and harvesting process. 

 

The Future of Tilapia in Armila

Although I won’t be able to taste the tilapia by the time I leave this year, I feel like a major milestone has been reached in this project.  The people of the town come to me every day telling me how big the fish have gotten, asking me whether they’re getting enough water, and generally showing a lot of positive interest in the project.

The Tilapia Co-Op and the Sea Turtle Commission are not only proud of their work, they’re now thinking of other ways they can pool their manpower to feed the town in diverse ways.  They want to use the runoff from the tank to grow rice, or fence off some of the surrounding area to start an iguana-cultivation project.  I’m excited to see how these two bodies will collaborate in the future to defend the non-consumptive value of leatherback sea turtles in Armila’s local culture.

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Conservation Guna Kuna Panama Yala alternative aquaculture community leatherback livelihood sustainable tilapia https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/6/tilapia Sun, 15 Jun 2014 18:16:38 GMT
Rescue https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/5/rescue

An adorable 7-year old Guna girl named Nagi arrived at Amanda’s and my doorstep two weeks ago, sweating and gasping for breath, and announced softly that we were needed at the river immediately. Someone in their dugout canoe, on their way home from gathering medicine, had just spotted a leatherback turtle that had been stuck in the Armila River for the entire day.  For an animal that spends its life in salt water, I imagine this change in salinity can be quite a shock to its system, but in addition to this the poor animal turned out to also be completely tangled in a thick matrix of grassy weeds that clog the slow-moving tributary called the Rio Negro.  As I jogged over to the river, several older women commented that the turtle had come into the river to die. 

When I arrived, Delfino Evans and Ignacio Crespo has already macheted their way into the place where the mother leatherback was struggling with the weeds.  Every 30 seconds she would push her head out of the water to take a breath.  The weeds were tightly wound around her flippers, and the only way I could conceive of removing her was to tear her free with the force of an outboard motor and bring her to the mouth of the river.  We had come in Demessio’s (a.k.a White Horse’s) fiberglass launch with a 75hp motor, so we took the anchor line and threaded it carefully under and around the turtle, using an oar as a needle.  If any of us were to try and swim the rope under or try to get our arms around the carapace, I was afraid that either the force of the flippers against the side of the carapace or the spasmodically violent movement of the turtle itself could have seriously injured someone.

Once the rope was fastened to the bow, White Horse put the motor into reverse.  The turtle slowly was pulled free of the weeds, although a large mass remained wrapped around her massive head and front flippers.  After a multi-point turn in the narrow tributary, we very slowly towed the leatherback in reverse to a bank near the mouth of the river, where a throng of spectators had gathered.  During the 500m or so tow, the turtle hung limp, lifting her head twice to breathe.  Delfino and Ignacio flanked the turtle in the back, rowing their dugouts while standing.  Once we were near the beach the motor was cut and the rope untied from the bow, and four or five men hauled the turtle the rest of the way to the bank.  The turtle didn’t fight, nor did she propel herself forward, and I felt ridiculous tugging a 600+ pound turtle through the water as if it were an obedient dog. 

Once the mother turtle had come out of the river and onto the beach, we removed the “leash” and advised everyone to stand back behind her to let her get her bearings.  The sun was setting over the mountains to the southwest.  She wasn’t breathing hard as you hear the mother turtles when they’re in the finals stages of nesting, during which they have to camouflage their precious investment and haul their enormous bulk back to the crashing waves.  Nevertheless she seemed utterly exhausted, almost in shock, with her eyes unmoving.  She sat there like this for maybe three minutes without moving and let me get a good look at her.

She was about about 6 feet long, lacking any identifying tags from other research projects.  She had no visible scarring on any flippers, but had deep cuts on her throat and the top of her head, suggesting a confrontation with a shark or other predator.  These cuts looked fairly old, with the fat visible under the torn skin, but they were bleeding very slightly near her nostrils, probably from the day’s struggle against the weeds in the river.  

The life of a sea turtle has never been easy.  Not only had this particular turtle survived a lifetime of attacks from deadly fungi, bacteria, crabs, vultures, seagulls, raccoons, sharks and fish of all sizes that have preyed upon her species for hundreds of millions of years, but having been born in this particular century she had also survived the loss of nesting habitat to beachfront resorts and rising seas, rapidly changing ocean chemistry, shrimp trawlers, boat collisions, long lines, and pollution.  And now she’s spent a day lost and trapped in fresh water and has lived to tell the tale! 

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Conservation Panama community leatherback turtle https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/5/rescue Tue, 06 May 2014 16:51:34 GMT
VIDEO: Innanega Construction https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/4/innanega Previously I have described in detail the process of building a Guna house.  About a month ago the community built a new "innanega," or "drinking house," which is used for the elaborate ritual preparation of the ¨strong drink¨ used to celebrate special community events.  I took the opportunity to film the process as best I could and just cobbled it together into a short video.  To appreciate the details, the video is best viewed in full-screen 1080p, if your connection can handle it.

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Conservation Panama community construction traditional https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/4/innanega Tue, 22 Apr 2014 18:34:44 GMT
Turtling and Translating with Ocean Courier https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/4/turtling-and-translating-with-ocean-courier

For the last couple of weeks Amanda and I have had the pleasure of hosting the three-man team of Ocean Courier in Armila.  Ocean Courier, a project of The Ocean Foundation, is a non-profit dedicated to spreading hopeful messages about the state of ocean health by highlighting small, little-known grassroots conservation projects.  Its founders, Ben and Teresa Carey, are big names in the sailing community who plan to sail around the world pursuing this mission, and we are honored that they chose Armila for the pilot episode of their television docu-series.

Amanda and I met Teresa, Ben, and Chris (the happy and hardy cameraman and producer) in Albrook Airport in Panama City, and shared some unexpected reunions with some local Armila-bound friends. Once we arrived in Armila, the community received their guests in the congress house and began organizing an exhaustive showcase of the town’s people, culture, and turtles. 

Ocean Courier spent several days working directly with the professors and filmed some of the environmental education activities taking place at the school.  They were brave enough to load some expensive camera gear onto a couple of very “tippy” canoes in order to go out onto the river with Demetrio, a local fisherman and aspiring community leader who regaled us with stories from medicine men and elders from distant corners of the region.  They picked up shovels and pickaxes to help put the finishing touches on Armila’s tilapia aquaculture tank (more good news on this front in a couple of weeks).  They learned to make traditional Guna roofs with Felix Espitia, the art of the Mola with Gladys Crespo, and Teresa even learned to dance with Gammibe Gun Galu, who organized a special presentation for the group. They also sampled all the food that Armila had to offer, elegantly arranged by Chef Jesus.

Finally, Teresa, Ben, and Chris went out with me and some students to see leatherback turtles nesting less than 100 meters away from the Armila River.  They also helped me out on my morning patrols along the beach.  It was everyone’s first time seeing a leatherback.

The 12 days blew by quickly and Amanda and I saw off our new friends in Puerto Obaldia on Sunday, March 30th.  By now, Ocean Courier is well on their way from Colón, Panamá to Maine, which they plan to do in six weeks flat.  Best of luck to our friends on the Rocinante!

The last few days have let my brain calm down a bit; no one in the group spoke Spanish so for nearly two weeks everything anyone said around me had to be translated by me into another, sometimes two other languages.  Amanda and I are gearing up for one of our last long stretches in Armila.  We have a house to finish building, an aquaculture project to seed, a traditional music group to sign, and nine grades-worth of Guna students who all want to learn more about ecology and English.

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Conservation Ocean Panama community documentary leatherback https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/4/turtling-and-translating-with-ocean-courier Sun, 06 Apr 2014 19:30:37 GMT
VIDEO: Panama Canal Crossing https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/3/panama-canal-crossing Even before I nearly won the geography bee in the third grade (I knew that Lake Titicaca was the world’s highest navigable lake, but not that the capital of Cuba was Havana), my mind was always oriented around geography.  While some people catalog their own memories by recall terms as “happy moments” or “high-school years,” I am able to remember the exact intersection at which I last listened to a particular Red Hot Chili Peppers song, or to pinpoint the exact tree where I last saw a particular species of beetle. 

Because of this affinity for geography, spending a year in the jungle-clogged bottleneck of the Americas, the historic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific, has been a constant source of entertainment for me.  In January I did something I have wanted to do all of my life and crossed the Panama Canal as an Oceanic Society Expedition guide.  I created the below timelapse video of the crossing.  Best viewed in 1080p. 

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Canal Daytime Oceanic Panama Society Time-lapse Transit Video https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/3/panama-canal-crossing Tue, 25 Mar 2014 17:43:29 GMT
Catalyzing over Implementing https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/3/catalyzing-over-implementing

After a couple of months working in Armila, Amanda and I have decided to take a short break to see some of the rest of the country (we really only know the town of Armila and a couple of locales in Panama City; hardly enough to say you've "been to" a country).  Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí are on the itinerary.

As we sped away from Armila in a fiberglass launch, leaving it in its small bubble of relative isolation, we felt satisfied knowing that we were leaving behind three projects that were being run on their own, without need for our direct supervision.  These are 1) The construction of a community-run guest house that will open up opportunities for the broader community to get involved in eco-tourism; 2) The excavation of an aquaculture tank, which in six months will be producing hundreds of pounds of affordable fish per month, enough to keep pressure off of turtles and their eggs as a potential source of protein; and 3) a community-powered sea turtle nesting beach monitoring protocol which will help Armila gauge the abundance of their sea turtle population.

As if to see us off on our short tour, a leatherback turtle continued nesting until around 7:00 AM, long enough for me to come across her on my morning patrol the morning we left.  These monitoring efforts for the next two weeks will be under the direct supervision of local ANAM official Delfino Evans.

Our underlying goal in all of our work here is to develop local capacity for conservation, catalyzing rather than taking charge and leading projects.  As long as benefits are broadly understood, the community is able to organize itself around a common goal and see to its completion. Thus, most of our work is focused on reaching across these cultural boundaries to communicate the potential of certain projects and help the community take their development into their own hands, on their own terms. 

Our short break is looking to be productive so far; on the first morning in Casco Viejo, we walked into a café where the current president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, was sitting in the corner, sipping his coffee and reading a newspaper with his face on the front (he owns the newspaper).  I walked up to him and introduced myself, and told him about the exceptional leatherback turtle population that his country hosts.  His eyebrows expressed some surprise at the fact that Panama was such a globally important place for turtles.  Luckily, I was wearing his old campaign baseball cap that day, and he greeted me with a smile and a firm handshake.

In other good news, my computer’s shot hard drive was replaced for a mere 120 dollars at the only Mac Store in Panama, and I will dedicate the next week or so to restoring all the lost data.  More updates to come now that I have a word processor.

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Conservation Panama aerial community leatherback turtle https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/3/catalyzing-over-implementing Mon, 17 Mar 2014 14:24:46 GMT
Journal Entry: 02/26/2014 https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/3/wednesday-february-26-2014

This week I'm posting a long-winded, detailed journal entry to give readers and idea of a typical day in Armila.  This was my day on Wednesday, February 26th.  

Amanda I woke up at 4:00 AM to go monitor the eastern portion of the leatherback turtle nesting beach.  We met up with one of our local partners who has been involved with the local Sea Turtle Commission since its inception.  We wake up early to monitor this stretch because once the town starts to wake up, it becomes the place where the community deposits its waste, everything from plastic to tin cans to the various embodiments of yesterday’s food.  No turtle tracks on this side of the river today. 

We split our monitoring schedule in half today because it was announced last night that a local girl had had her first period.  This is a celebrated coming-of-age milestone in the life of a Guna girl, and I went out at 5:30 AM with the other men of the town that morning to gather “urua,” yard-long leaves from a species from the Helaconiaceae family that will be used to create a special room in the house of the girl where she will be interned for the duration of the event. The whole town supports the girl’s family in this ritual and in return the family provide all who come carrying stacks of leaves with a breakfast of “madun,” a sweet, Guna drink made of mashed up plantains.

After breakfast I finished the rest of the day’s sea turtle monitoring work while training a friend and local conservationist in the SWOT Minimum Data Standards Protocol that's being implemented on this beach (see my last blog post for more details).  At 7:07 AM we found one track near the town of a leatherback turtle who came ashore and apparently laid eggs, as opposed to briefly entering-and-exiting (false crawl) as sometimes occurs when a female turtle isn’t quite satisfied with the situation on the beach.  On the 3-mile walk back from the end of the beach, I had a long conversation about the underground economy of the region, which has changed drastically since guerrilla groups are no longer present.

On returning to the mouth of the Armila river at 9:30AM, the first thing that met my gaze was a large construction site at which were working diligently two friends.  Since our friends in Armila were kind enough to offer us free lodging for the duration of our stay, Amanda and I invested part of our previously budgeted rent in the construction of a community-run guest house in which the town can receive tourists, government employees, and other visitors who are passing by or staying for a few months.  I stayed with Felix and Demetrio and used a generator-powered skill saw to straighten out the edges of some of 2x6’s which had just been brought down from the forest in a dugout canoe.

From the construction site I returned to my cabin at the east edge of town.  It’s considered “the boonies”, but it no more than a two-minute walk from the center of town.  I filtered some river water and took a ten-minute nap in my hammock to the sound of crashing waves and hummingbirds. At 10:45 AM put on my rubber boots to go work on an aquaculture project that Amanda and I, along with the financial support of nearly 50 generous friends, family members, and strangers had made possible through a crowd-funding campaign a year ago.  This week the Sea Turtle Comission of Armila has agreed to support the local soccer team (reigning regional champions) in return for their manpower and support in this project.  The men involved in the Tilapia Work Group, sponsored by ARAP, are pictured below at the site of the tank.

At noon I went to my Guna mother’s house to eat a lunch of rice, fried plantains, rice and lentils with Amanda before going to the local convenience store and retiring to our hammocks for the swelteringly unproductive period of 12:30 – 2:00 PM, during which nothing, no matter how much initiative you may think you have, can be accomplished outside the shelter of shade. 

At 2:30 PM, after tending to my cassava crop behind the cabin, I walked across the soccer field to the border patrol barracks to introduce myself to the new presiding lieutenant and to invite the soldiers to participate in some of the town’s work tomorrow.  The Panamanian border patrol are decked out with what looks like US-issue uniforms and gear, and as I walked in two soldiers were firing their glocks (with forest green slides) at a paper target stapled to a palm tree.  I introduced myself and talked about Amanda’s and my work, and he agreed to have a few men come lend a hand with our work the next day.

From the barracks I went into the center of town to catch up with some friends, then went to the river to see the day’s progress on the house.  While I was there, I stripped down and jumped in to cool off a bit, surrounded by naked 4-year olds doing backflips off a log, and watched the old medicine men paddle their canoes into shore after a day of harvesting herbs in the mountain.

After reminding a couple of town committee chairs to organize a meeting tomorrow, I cut down a couple of coconuts, picked some wild basil, and went back to have dinner in the cabin with Amanda. Our friend Demetrio called me over on the way back and offered us a pineapple from his farm, which we would devour after dinner.  Always, during our our post-dinner food-comas, we sit in the hammocks and read aloud from the kindle (best gift I’ve ever received, thanks Judy) until the sun sets and we can no longer make out the words. 

You would think that after waking up at 4:00 AM to go fishing or harvesting your plantains, every person in the town would eat dinner and pass out.  Instead, everyone in the community is required to dress up and gather in “the big house” on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for “namagge” or “singing,” where the Sahilas (learned elders and leaders of the community) swing in their hammocks sing fables, legends, and stories from the ancient Guna tradition.

Sometimes these sessions go on until 10:00 or 11:00, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the community debates on local issues; luckily for Amanda and me, the singing concluded at around 8:15 PM tonight.  The novelty of two white people speaking in their congress obviously hasn’t worn off, since all the women looked up from sewing their molas and the men woke up from their naps to watch us explain in broken dulegaya (the Guna language) that we couldn’t teach English lessons last night because the solar panel system that powers the school’s lights wasn’t working (this caused a stir of grumbles among the townspeople, since yesterday’s debate was a heated blame-game to decide whose fault it was that a group of people had plugged in a freezer to the school’s newly installed solar-power system and blown a fuse the week before school was supposed to start).

After a collective chuckle and some pity-applause for the poorly-spoken “mergis,” (Americans) Amanda and I shuffled back to our cabin with a thinning crowd of Gunas, all of them commenting “gabe di gala” – I should be in bed…           

 

 

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) ARAP Armila Conservation Panama aquaculture community https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/3/wednesday-february-26-2014 Thu, 13 Mar 2014 13:43:46 GMT
Leatherback Season Begins https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/2/leatherback-season-begins First confirmed leatherback crawl of the 2014 season in Armila, Guna Yala.
 
After nearly four months of living in Armila, several members of the community reported the first nesting attempt of a leatherback sea turtle on January 28th (18 days earlier than last year).  This marks the beginning of the leatherback nesting season in Armila, which peaks in May and finishes completely in August, when I am scheduled to return to the United States.
 
It also marks the official beginning of the research component of my work here, which is just one element of a multifaceted community-based conservation plan that is finally starting to heat up.  I´ll discuss updates on the community projects on the next post in early March, but wanted to take the time to discuss the scientific component of my work here in this post.
 
On February 2nd, I began monitoring the beaches according to SWOT's Minimum Data Standards for Sea Turtle Nesting Beach Monitoring.  This means I walk the entirety of the beach four mornings per week and record the number of sea turtle emergences that occurred the previous night by counting the large tracks or "crawls" left in the sand, which to someone who's never seen them before look like the tire mark of a giant, 4-foot wide tractor wheel.  Each emergence is photographed and geo-referenced.
 
This is the first time that this beach will be closely monitored for such a long period during the nesting season, and will not only give us an idea as to how many turtles nest here during the year, but where on the beach they are nesting.  This could help the community prioritize their regular beach-cleanups, which are done in preparation for peak nesting season and the arrival of tourists.
 
While I will be keeping track of when, where, and how many turtles are nesting, another piece of data that interests me is the reliability of community's daily turtle count.  The walk along the beach is not only made by the turtle researcher 4 times a week, but by anyone that happens to be gathering coconuts, going hunting, gathering plantains, or hewing out a new canoe near the San Bernardo river.  People routinely count the tracks and report them offhandedly, so I plan to actively solicit and keep track of all reported counts and run a statistical comparison to my confirmed counts over the course of the season.
 
In addition, I've invited everyone in the town to learn the monitoring techniques I am using, so that they can collect photographic and geographical information on turtle crawls.  The way the GPS data is collected allows me to confirm that volunteer researchers have walked the entirety of the beach, and the geo-referenced photos allow me to see all the crawls that the volunteer is recording as fresh crawls that occurred the previous night.  At the end of the year, I hope to
 identify a group of people that are adept at generating this data and maybe help them secure a research grant for subsequent years of monitoring.
 
The beginning of nesting has given me a second wind here in Armila, which is helping me restore the energy sapped from me daily by manual labor with the community and the swelteringly humid climate.  I look forward to the start of the school year in late February, when I will help revive the after-school science club and Amanda and I will meet with teachers to decide our role in managing the school's curriculum for natural sciences and computer science.
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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Conservation Panama community leatherback nesting sea turtle https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/2/leatherback-season-begins Sat, 15 Feb 2014 17:13:31 GMT
December 17th, 2013 https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/1/guest-post-terrill-mast The following is a guest blog post by my brother, multimedia artist Terrill Mast, who came to pick me up from Guna Yala in December.  Follow the link to see Terrill's paintings, writing, and music.

 

 

I left Chicago no sooner than the fall semester had ended, driving east for twelve hours straight towards Washington D.C. where I spent two nights at my parents’ home in Virginia before boarding a plane to Panama City, Panama. Dad had been waiting for two hours in the baggage claim before I finally passed through immigration. Together we found a place to stay in a barrio called Casco Viejo. After dropping off our bags at the hostel we walked to a nearby bar recommended to us by my older brother, Morrison, called La Rana Dorada, where we sat eating pizza and drinking pale ales, plotting our next move.

 

Our mission was to get to Armila, the southern-most village in Kuna Yala, an indigenous community located on the Caribbean coast of Panama where the Kuna people have been living for centuries on a network of islands, clinging onto their traditional way of life. My father and I hoped to be there before the end of the following night to find Morrison, who had already been living there for several months working as a Fulbright scholar, building community support for the continued protection of the town’s nesting sea turtles. I myself had lived there several years ago on the island of Narganá filming a documentary for a non-profit organization called Ocean Revolution. This would be my fourth visit.

 

We waited for a man named Felix, a native of Armila who would help us arrange passage to Cartí, the northern entrance of Kuna Yala. From there we could catch a boat that would take us down the north coast as far as Puerto Obaldia, near the Colombian frontier, where one could proceed on foot to Armila. That night Felix called a friend to pick us up at 4:00 AM in a car that would take us to Cartí.

 

I awoke at 3:00 AM and dressed in orange flip-flops, a pair of jorts, and a t-shirt. Dad wore long pants and a safari shirt. We had almost missed our ride to Cartí because we had no phone to call the driver and confirm our transfer. It was thanks to the hotel manager, who happened to be awake at that early hour, that we contacted the driver who, despite our directions, had no idea where we were. It seemed that luck was already on our side, and that was always valuable, if not necessary, when trying to get anywhere in Kuna Yala.

 

There were seven of us crammed inside the SUV which drove us out of the city, through the outskirts, and over the rolling green mountains, stopping only briefly for breakfast. I practiced sleeping in transit when I could, conserving energy for when I would need it most, and when we arrived in Cartí I was rested and ready for the next leg of our journey. The beach was a long strip comprised of many concrete and wooden docks. A small navy of assorted boats bobbed in the waters before us and in the distance I could see an island much like the one where I had lived, covered in shacks and palm-leaf huts and a cell phone tower. A stiff breeze blew from the east.

 

We left port around 10:00 AM in a panga seating 14 or so passengers, mostly travelers like ourselves. I sat near the back of the boat between a French man (who had already made his way from Canada and was headed to Argentina with his girlfriend) and a cute, portly Kuna woman dressed in her mola blouse and patterned green skirt, with beads covering her arms and legs. She and I frequently smiled at each other silently while huddled underneath a plastic tarp to shield us from the splashing waters that completely drenched those sitting ahead of us, including Dad. He was more aggravated by the rough seas that sent us slamming down, wave after wave, hurting his back. There was a moment when I was almost sick from the scraps of cold, flavorless food I had consumed earlier when we stopped in Narganá, where for ten minutes I ran around the dirt paths looking for people I recognized and would remember me.

 

I was relatively dry compared to Dad when we briefly stepped out in Caledonia to switch transports, downgrading from a panga with two 75 horsepower engines to a canoe with a single 40. The remaining ride to Puerto Obaldia was more unforgiving than that leading to Caledonia. We were soaked to the bone, with our bladders on the brink of bursting and our stomachs rolling with the swells. There was nothing to avail us of these discomforts except our own laughter and the prospect of reaching land. The sight of the harbor was an ineffable relief, as was that of my brother standing by the dock next to two Panamanian border patrol soldiers, wearing his boots and gym clothes from high school.

 

The instant we made landfall Morrison urged us to hurry. The final leg of the trip was over a mountain and the border patrol forbade anyone from making the climb after 5:30 PM... We quickly went through the military customs: unpacking our bags, repacking, and having the dogs sniff for drugs. Cornelio, an aging Kuna who still had few yellow teeth to his smile, arrived just as we finished and changed into our boots, then the four of us set off. Morrison persuaded the reluctant border guard to let us pass by turning back the hands of his watch to 5:28 PM.

 

We marched along the beach to the mountainside and began our ascent. I was out of shape, carrying two cumbersome bags that weighed a total of 40 pounds. My heart was pounding through my skin as we hiked the muddy and rocky trail. Halfway up it began raining and I asked Cornelio to take one of my bags, for which I am still incredibly grateful. By the time we reached the top to pause for rest and water we were immersed in a darkness magnified by the thick canopy. Morrison, who on average made the climb three times a week for the past two months, had led the way with ease and went back down to help Cornelio with my bag while Dad and I sat exhausted on a boulder. 

 

Before we started the latter half of the climb I switched bags with Morrison so that Cornelio wouldn’t have to carry mine anymore. The descent, however less strenuous, was significantly more dangerous. Without rocks for good footing we moved carefully through the mud, slipping now and then. Once we were out of the forest and could finally see the lights of Armila we found ourselves beside a steep drop that led to certain injury. We clutched desperately onto branches and leaves that cut into our hands, and as we arrived on the beach with our clothes and bags caked in mud Morrison said what Dad and I had been thinking all day: “How lucky are we to be together and do this kind of shit?”

 

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Conservation Herndon Panama https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2014/1/guest-post-terrill-mast Wed, 22 Jan 2014 15:35:08 GMT
Seeds Planted in 2013 https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/12/seeds-planted-in-2013 DSC_2287DSC_2287

 

“It’s very important to plant something every day, that way your land will always be producing, even if it takes some time for the fruits to show themselves.”  When Sahila (Chief) Esterbino Evans gives advice like this, as he often does while working, it’s hard to know if the metaphors are intentionally implied of if he’s literally just talking about the bananas and cassava we’re planting together on his parcel of land in the jungle.  Either way, I am learning that whether you’re living off the land or some far-removed source of funding, the Guna’s perspective on life is very useful.  Regardless of the fact that leatherback nesting season has yet to begin in the Caribbean, these first few months of community engagement and rapport building in Armila have been an invaluable component of the research process.  Below are updates on some of the projects that have been sown in the past few months.

 

“Bunagunasob” Science Club

In the Guna language, “Bunagunasob” is the scientific name of the leatherback sea turtle.  The extracurricular Bunagunasob Science Club is composed of several middle-school students with an inclination towards conservation biology that have the opportunity to present their work at a national science fair in Panama City.  In 2014, the club will be involved with collecting and publishing sea turtle nesting data in accordance with the SWOT Program’s Minimum Data Standards for Sea Turtle Nesting Beach Monitoring.  The club will also be an integral part of Amanda’s efforts in plastic pollution and community outreach. 

 

The Turtle House

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Although remote, Armila sits smack on the political meeting place of South and North America, which is frequented by backpackers from all over the world and eco-tourists from both Colombia and Panama.  Since my friends in Armila have been kind enough to house me free of charge, I’ve decided to invest my lodging budget in the collaborative construction of a community-managed guesthouse, so that the community can benefit directly from the growing ecotourism sector.  Our donation will be matched by the community’s labor in harvesting locally available construction materials.  The planned house will not only be furnished with a septic tank, solar power, and a kitchen, but will serve as a information center for tourists and research base for local and foreign conservationists studying the area’s globally notable leatherback sea turtle population.

 

English Classes

English is a requisite for dealing with international tourists and getting a decent job outside this indigenous reserve.  And although English is taught at all levels in school, none of the teachers here have more than a rudimentary knowledge of the language.  Four weeks into our extracurricular English classes, Amanda Gibson and I have established a small group of dedicated students (adults and minors) who have mastered basic introductory phrases and a practical knowledge of numbers (counting money, negotiating prices).  We hope to increase the number of students come January, and will continue to give weekly classes over the course of our visit.

 

DSC_2319DSC_2319 ARAP Visit

A delegation from the Panamanian Authority on Aquatic Resources visited in late November to conduct the surveys necessary to name Armila a nationally-recognized Special Reserve Zone.  Amanda and I were able to organize a town-hall panel with citizens from diverse sectors of to community to help explain the government’s role in brining new sustainable development projects to the community.  More on this in my last post.

 

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A recently implemented project from the Interamerican Development Bank funded the installation of over 50 solar panels in Armila, enough to bring light to the school, health clinic, town congress and every household in the town.  Amanda Gibson and I are currently working with beachfront homeowners to make sure that newly-installed lights visible from the beach at night will not interfere with sea turtle nesting come February.

 

DSC_1480DSC_1480 Science Curriculum

After several meetings with the Educator’s Committee, Amanda and I have been charged with enriching the government-mandated science curriculum with presentations, lectures, and class projects that take advantage of the exceptional natural laboratory that Armila’s sea turtle nesting beaches provide.  In accordance with the findings of Amanda Gibson’s anthropological research, the curriculum will be designed to reconcile western perspectives on the environment with Guna traditional ecological knowledge, and provide students with the necessary resources to follow a career in science or conservation.

After three months here, it is obvious that one of the most discussed issues and the community’s predominant concern is the deterioration of the Guna culture.   This sentiment doesn’t just come from the town elders; I hear it repeatedly from 15, 25, and 30 year-olds as well.  Since the Guna culture is what has allowed leatherback turtles to thrive here during the hundreds of years of human presence in the area, this shared sentiment allows me to align my conservation and research goals directly with the development goals of the community.  In my field, communicating the value of biodiversity and the importance of sustainable development is more than half of the battle, and the Guna certainly have a more practical and experiential grasp of the concept than I could have ever hoped to have gained from my past work and college degrees.  Having traveled to conservation projects all over the world, I can say that this is a very unique situation and I’m grateful to be able to learn from a people that have not yet forgotten the value of healthy, biodiverse ecosystems. 

 

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The actual seeds we've planted on our little plot on the edge of town: watermelon, cantelope, cassava, pineapple, 2 squash varieties, tomatoes, carrots, a bunch of herbs/spices and (if we're really lucky) onions.

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Chief Sahila Fidel Martinez explains at the middle-school graduation ceremony the importance of education, conservation, and the preservation and practice of the Guna culture. 

 

 

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) ARAP Armila Panama Turtle community conservation sea turtle https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/12/seeds-planted-in-2013 Tue, 31 Dec 2013 21:12:23 GMT
ARAP Visits Armila https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/12/arap-visits-armila DSC_2316DSC_2316

The disconnect between the realities on the coast of Guna Yala and those in the capital sometimes seems as thick and impenetrable as the thousands of hectares of rainforest that separate the two.  When I arrived in Panama City in September, I capitalized on my time in the capital and met with everyone I knew.  One of those visits just paid off in the form of a visit to Armila by a delegation of nine technicians and directors from the Panamanian Authority on Aquatic Resources (ARAP by its initials in Spanish).

In the capital I visited a friend and fellow sea turtle researcher in ARAP’s headquarters, who had offhandedly mentioned that a few years ago Armila had requested that ARAP name the town’s beach a nationally-recognized Special Reserve Zone because of the high volume of leatherbacks that come between February and July.  After chatting with another director we were able to convince her that Amanda’s and my research could help support the creation of the Reserve Zone, and they decided a few weeks later to send a team of nine to carry out the preliminary surveys and interviews necessary to submit the zone for review.

With little more than two emails and three phonecalls (two of which were dropped since Armila was low on prepaid phone cards) Amanda and I were able to connect ARAP with people on the ground to make the visit possible.  2 topographers, 3 sociologists, 2 biologists, 1 aquaculture specialist, and the regional director arrived by plane to Puerto Obaldia this past Tuesday ready for a 5-day intensive survey of the area.

During their time here, they carried out socioeconomic surveys, ecological surveys, and geo-referenced the beach while we and a couple members of the local Sea Turtle Commission ran around organizing translators, meetings, and research assistants to aid in ARAP’s work. Amanda and I organized a panel discussion and invited representatives from all sectors of the community to join in the conversation.  We were pleased to see leaders of sports teams, women’s work group leaders, students, teachers, police, and all the chiefs of the town stop by to listen to ARAP’s goals and add to the dialog.

ARAP did a lot of great work and inspired a lot of hope in future projects, promising support (monetary and technical) for sustainable development projects in Armila.  Regardless, I wasn’t surprised to see a lot of miscommunications and misinterpretations.  This is normal in these situations, and all the more so when there’s a significant language and cultural barrier.  From what I have seen, locals’ first reactions to a team from the capital fall into two categories: 1) These people are here to take advantage of our resources; or, 2) These people are giving us money.  The tough part now that ARAP has finished their work for the moment (they return for a follow-up in May) is convincing the community that neither of the above suppositions is correct, but that ARAP’s support is invaluable to the sustainable development of their town. 

The creation of latrines, a recycling program, internet, and significant support for the school’s environmental education efforts are just a few projects that Armila might stand to benefit from, and which outside institutions (not just ARAP) would be willing to support.  The trick now is not letting outsider mistrust or disappointment with non-monetary benefits let these beneficial projects slip from Armila’s fingers.  Most Armilans are interested, but in a subsistence society it takes either the consensus of a whole community or a living wage for a couple people to make projects move.  

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) ARAP Armila Conservation Government Reserve Zone https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/12/arap-visits-armila Sun, 01 Dec 2013 19:13:15 GMT
Building a Guna House https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/11/community-building

The Guna language (“Dulegayya”) is not difficult for westerners to learn because of any irregular conjugations, nor because of subject-verb agreement issues, nor any of the things we all spent countless hours memorizing with wonky mnemonics when we learned Spanish or French in high school.  Once you learn the verbs and nouns and master the pronunciation, conversing in Dulegaya seems to pose a challenge in its extended use of metaphors.  One of the extended metaphors that reoccurs in my many meetings about community projects and economic development is the oft-used metaphor of the house.  “Knocking on the door,” is often used to signify solicitation or approaching someone with a proposal.  When infrastructure changes or community-wide development projects are undertaken, the chiefs talk about fixing the roof or the window (the first time this came up, I craned my neck to look for the hole in the roof before being lectured like a child about the use of metaphors).  In fact, the community-powered way in which the entire town of Armila functions is apparent in the way they build their homes. 

When a couple is ready to start their family, the town will build them their first house.  Preparation starts months in advance.  The heads of the two men’s cooperatives, large working groups that together include all able-bodied men in the community, will serve as foremen for the project.  Each man will be assigned a specific number of materials that they are will have to collect before the date of construction.  For instance, Jaime might be assigned to collect 200 “pencas” (palm fronds) and 50 canes of “caña flecha” (a sturdy, bamboo-like chute).

On the day of construction, “neggwebur watchirbaggebag onakwed yaba arbae--” (I think this is how you say “everyone wakes up to work at four in the morning;” still learning).

First the postholes are dug and the bases of the main posts, made of the trunks of trees from the mountain, are secured by several large stones before being buried.  Then the large cross-beams are cut with a machete so that they fit onto the main posts and are lashed into place with rope made from soaked roots and vines from the forest.  By the time the sun has peeked over the edge of the mountains to the southeast, the main frame of the house is in place. 

Several lengthwise roofing beams, made of long poles of the bamboo-like material, are lashed into place from bottom to top along the long roof by lines of people.  Once all these are in place, we begin to make the roof.  People inside the house use their hands at first, and later long fork-like poles, to pass up palm fronds three at a time to people on the roof.  These are arranged and tied into place along the lateral roofing beams.  Since the roof takes the most time to put together, the men stop for lunch at around 1:00PM. 

The women of the town have also come together to prepare a giant feast, organized by the family for whom the house is being built.  The men sit down on long benches together and are served by the women.  They eat as a community and pass around a large communal gourd full of juice from which every one takes a long gulp.  They go immediately back to work and finish the roof by about 4:00PM.  Then the walls, made from lines of caña flecha, are put in and lashed together before sunset. 

By the end of the day, this community of fewer than 300 adults has come together to make two full houses.  They are approximately 80 x 20 feet, with the highest point of the roof at around 20 feet.  Flip through the slideshow at the top to see photos from the construction of a house in Armila.

Watching the way the residents of Armila build their impressive homes, and knowing that the extended metaphor of “the house” is constantly used to refer to community development, it makes me hopeful that Armilans might approach the sustainable development of their community and conservation projects with the same spirit of collaboration they employ in building their homes.

But after the first few weeks of my research here, it’s apparent that many of the intra-community feuds and jealousy arise from situations in which individuals that have made their own investments are doing very well for themselves.  This is particularly evident in the growing sector of the population involved in eco-tourism.  “That guy hosts all the tourists and never shares anything with the community, he keeps it all for himself!”  The intra-community competition, rather than being embraced as a requisite for economic growth as it is in western society, is more often considered by many to be a strain on the traditional way the community has always functioned.  It will be interesting to explore this theme during the coming year and to see if there is any way these two ways of thinking about the local economy can be reconciled.

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Armila Construction Dulegaya Panama community language https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/11/community-building Thu, 07 Nov 2013 22:42:12 GMT
Backyard Macros: Virginia https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/10/backyard-macros-va An old draft of a small collection of so-so photos I couldn't bring myself to throw away.  Once I have access to some bandwidth I'll follow this post up with my favorite macro-shots from my backyard in Panama.  The other lens taking the photo of the assassin bug is held by Elliot Blumberg, best friend and colleague during the first month here in Armila.  These were all taken during the summer of 2013 in my back yard in Herndon, VA.  Except of course the jumping spider, which we brought into my house to get a closer shot of those irridescent chelicerae.  

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Insects Invertebrates Macro Photography https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/10/backyard-macros-va Tue, 29 Oct 2013 02:55:10 GMT
Working Remotely https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/10/working-remotely 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).

A fisherman rows out to sea with his son in Armila, Guna Yala. 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.

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Kuna Yala community conservation development sea turtle tourism traditional travel turtles https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/10/working-remotely Sun, 20 Oct 2013 19:08:03 GMT
Armila: Week One https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/10/armila-week-one After flying past the Panama Canal and the skyscrapers of Panama City in a small Cessna Grand Caravan, we entered into a thick blanket of clouds.  Whenever a gap opened up, all we could see below us was the uninterrupted, thick forest of the Darien Gap.  I fell into deep, REM sleep.  Sitting next to me is Amanda Gibson, an Oceanic Society Research Fellow who is studying the impact of plastic waste on indigenous communities.  She and I had stayed up the entire night before separating our possessions into those we would carry on (money, expensive electronics), those we would check as luggage (clothes for a week, medical kit, and other essentials), those we would ship in a waterproof case via plane cargo (less essential but very useful things such as rope, bug-spray, books, extra medical supplies), and those extra luxuries and furnishings that would make the long journey by 4x4 through forest and sea all the way to where we were headed: to a small town called Armila on the border of Panama and Colombia.  

Armila, like many other towns near sea turtle nesting beaches, is limited in the resources it can allocate to scientific research. My goal for the next year is to establish a monitoring protocol according to the State of the World's Turtles Program's Minimum Data Standards for Sea Turtle Nesting Beach Monitoring.  This small handbook was developed by SWOT in conjunction with the Marine Turtle Specialist Group of the IUCN to help such communities produce scientifically significant data.  In addition, Amanda and I will be bringing together local conservationists, educators, researchers, and government officials to support the community's nascent conservation efforts.

We stepped off the plane and were greeted by a familiar face.  Elliot Blumberg, who has been working on his photojournalism thesis in Armila for the past month, helped us carry our luggage to the SENAFRONT station (border patrol) in Puerto Obaldia, where we presented our credentials and boarded a small fiberglass boat bound for Armila, a bumpy, 15-minute ride away.  It’s always an experience coming into the mouth of the river next to which the town is situated – it takes an experienced, local motorist to ride between two 8-foot waves and not run aground on an invisible sandbar.

It seemed the entire town knew us by name, and had been expecting our visit.   Old friends immediately greeted us and filled us in on the happenings in the town.  On Friday there would be a “Chicha Fuerte” ceremony – an exceedingly intricate ritual that begins with the gathering of sugarcane, cacao, and coffee and ends with the entire town gathering in the Big House to drink the night away.  Amanda and I attended, but didn’t see much of each other during the ceremony since men and women celebrate separately on opposite sides of the massive room that serves as the town’s religious and political meetinghouse.  The men gather in circles of ten, fill a gourd with the champagne/red wine-tasting “chicha” and perform a dance.  Amanda dressed in full traditional dress (mola) and attended with some new friends, who assured me they would make sure she didn’t drink too much (apparently the peer-pressure to drink among the women leads to notoriously bad hangovers).  In the middle of the ceremony, everyone leaves the Big House and runs to the river to bathe, before coming back and drinking more.  It was a perfect atmosphere for making new friends and catching up with the old.  The drinking and relaxing continued throughout the weekend, during which time Amanda and I sat and talked with townspeople, caught up with Elliot, and presented ourselves to the chiefs and elders of the town.

The leaders in a Guna town are called Sahilas.  There are five in Armila: Esterbino, Osbaldo, Carlos, Caraballo, and Fidel; the latter of which is the head Sahila.  After we had introduced ourselves and stated our purposes, they told us that they have been expecting us to come and are glad we had fulfilled our promise to come on the exact day we had told them (the people of Armila seem to be accustomed to foreigners and Panamanian politicians that don’t live up to their word).  They said that we are now part of the community and that they are at our service.  They insisted we come to them with any concerns or questions we have throughout our stay.  They also said that, as members of this community, we were entitled to have a house made for us on our own land, built by the community.  We thoroughly thanked them for their warm welcome and generous offer of a house, and agreed that we would discuss the matter in more detail during the coming weeks.  All of this was done in the local dialect, so even though most of the Sahilas speak very good Spanish, our words had to be translated into the local dialect before they could be acknowledged, and the Sahilas spoke to us through the town’s official translator.

The revelry of the weekend transitioned abruptly transitioned into the workweek.  Most men in the town wake up at 0400h to start working; work until lunchtime at 1300h, rest, socialize and/or work during the hotter part of the day; eat dinner around 1800h, then attend city council hearings and meetings until sometimes 2300h.  Amanda’s and my daily schedule consists mostly of work in the mornings and social/business meetings in the afternoons.  I have been dedicating a couple hours a day to learning the Guna dialect from a children’s book for learning Spanish.  There is only one public telephone in the town, which is currently working for incoming calls (you can call me at 011-507-333-2060, ask for “Moe-ree-sone ee Ah-mahn-dah”).  The only way to call out is with a phone card and the town’s fresh out, but we can make emergency calls out via the radio at the police station if need be.  Currently the only internet access is a 1.5 hour walk away in the town of Puerto Obaldia.

This week I will meet with the Sea Turtle Commission of Armila to discuss the status of their conservation efforts.  We will also meet with Gammibe Gun Galu, the folkloric group, for whom my brother, Terrill Mast and I recorded, produced, and promoted an album, which is now in the process of being submitted to Smithsonian Folkways for publication.  I have also arranged meetings with the educators of the town to talk about how they are collaborating with local conservationists to achieve their goals, and to discuss how Amanda and I would be willing to implement English and environmental education/biology education programs targeted toward students and adults.  The goal is to start a conversation about the mission and vision of the community so that everything we help out with during out 10-month stay can be tied back to community-set goals.

All is good here in Armila with Elliot, Amanda, and me.  We are safe, healthy, and happy.

 

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) Community-based Conservation Conservation Guna Kuna Panama Sea Turtle Yala https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/10/armila-week-one Wed, 16 Oct 2013 19:21:58 GMT
Lionfishing https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/10/lionfishers

It's been a productive and happy first week in Panama.  Amanda and I have had security briefings at the American Embassy, submitted our research permits to our respective host institutions, seen the historic district of Panama City, and shopped for our new place out in Guna Yala, on the Caribbean coast of Panama.  We are indescribably lucky to have such great friends here that have done everything from drive us around the city, take us into their home and feed us, help us navigate the foreign bureaucracies with grace, and even wake us up with a 6:45AM phone call to invite us to a lionfish-fry on the other side of the country.  

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My research advisor had not returned my calls until the crack of dawn saturday morning, at which time he demanded I leap from bed and book it to the highway towards Colon, where he was there waiting with a bus full of employees from the ARAP (Panamanian Authority on Aquatic Resources), the equivalent of our Fish and Wildlife Service.  The bus sped past huge freighters loaded with shipping containers chugging their way through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean.  When we had reached the Atlantic an hour later, we unloaded coolers of drinks out onto a gazebo on a dock, where around 25 locals were gearing up with scuba tanks, wetsuits, harpoons, and home-made fish traps to participate in ARAP's First Annual Lionfish Tournament.  Lionfish are voracious predators native to the West Pacific that were introduced into the Caribbean, supposedly when a hurricane in Florida caused a handful of display specimens to escape from an aquarium into the ocean.  They've since spread as far south as Brazil, outcompeting native reef-life at all life stages.  They reproduce so quickly and outcompete so effectively that they'res been a big push by governments, NGO's, and local communities all across the Caribbean to start commercializing lionfish.

While we waited for the fishermen to come back, I met with regional and national directors for ARAP, and told them about Amanda's and my proposed work.  After a conversation with the secretary to the national director, we decided that it would be a good idea to collaborate on declaring Armila a national protected area, which would allocate state funding for Armila's conservation efforts.  Before establishing a protected area, they need to conduct both biological surveys and socio-economic analyses, projects to which both Amanda and I are respectively positioned to complete and which would mesh nicely with our current research goals. 

After a couple hours of chatting some of the first lionfishermen returned.  Each group of 2 fishermen had at least 10 lionfish, from 3 inches to nearly 15.  Gift cards were awarded to those who caught the largest, the smallest, and the greatest number of lionfish.  A lionfishing advocate from Colombia taught top Panamanian chefs how to clean and filet the fish, and the chefs proceeded to cook up an orgasmic lionfish curry, fried lionfish fingers, and lionfish ceviche (all of which were promptly devoured by the crowd).  A couple fishermen stood on the sidelines watching the fervor, soaking their hands in scalding water to ease the pain and swelling caused by the lionfish stings (apparently it hurts like a strong bee-sting, but subsides quickly in hot water).  After taking a couple hundred photos of the festivities, we drove back to Panama City in the afternoon to prep for a day out on a friend's ship in the Pacific tomorrow to go whale watching, kicking off our last week in cushy luxury before diving headfirst into living in Guna Yala.

 

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) ARAP Colon Conservation Control Fish Hunting Invasive Species Lion Lionfish Panama Pest Portobelo https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2013/10/lionfishers Sun, 06 Oct 2013 11:40:06 GMT
A Green Wilderness in the Heart of Suburbia https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2012/6/an-green-wilderness-in-the-heart-of-suburbia The summer sun sets on the cul-de-sacs, loopy drives, strip malls, and parked cars that populate the periphery of a great metropolis.  Despite the massive human alterations this landscape has seen from both indigenous and foreign influences,  patches of verdure, teeming with non-human life, continue to spring forth as if from nothing.  However, these patches of weeds arise from colonization events just as directed and enterprising, on their scale, as the colonization of the Americas.  Their inhabitants, locked in fierce competition for resources, press ever outward into the well-groomed lawns and gardens of unsuspecting suburbanites.  They do this via wind and muscle, much like many of our ancestors, in order arrive in richer lands where they might grow and give their progeny a leg up.  These insects were all found in a 10 foot stretch of green at the edge of a small patch of forest in Northern Virginia, surrounded on all sides by pavement and housing developments.  2012-03 Spring Break Duck NC-1725 2012-03 Spring Break Duck NC-1736 2012-03 Spring Break Duck NC-1720 2012-03 Spring Break Duck NC-1630-2 2012-03 Spring Break Duck NC-1649-2 untitled-1773 2012-03 Spring Break Duck NC-1655-2 untitled-1729 untitled-1763-2

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morrison.mast@gmail.com (Morrison Mast) https://www.morrisonmast.com/blog/2012/6/an-green-wilderness-in-the-heart-of-suburbia Fri, 22 Jun 2012 04:30:27 GMT