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.