“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
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 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.
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.
Heading-off Light Pollution Issues
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.
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.
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.
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.