Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Upper Bay of Panama Wetlands [Part 5b of 5 / Epilogue]

In reality, the little guy and Mother Nature are never completely abandoned. I learned that Juan Díaz did have a history of protesting against expanding development, which has somewhat improved compensation from the government after severe floods, as well as local organizations’ efforts such as the Panama Audubon Society’s program “Aulas Verdes” (“Green Classrooms”). This trains teachers in Juan Díaz to educate their students of the importance of wetlands ecosystems. And maybe my little research project was a step in the right direction too; the public officials of Juan Díaz I met were glad that there was someone getting the word out about this environmental injustice in the wetlands.

Through the struggles with planning interviews, translating documents, and writer’s block, when ISP time came to a close, I was happy to see “The State of the Upper Bay of Panama Wetlands: Ecological Significance, Environmental Policy, Urbanization, and Social Justice” as a symbol of the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of environmental studies. I felt more assured that I wanted to go into environmental conservation at the interface of human-environment interactions, and I felt proud to expose this little known but critical conflict. Indeed, on the day of our ISP presentations, my classmates were shocked to see my photos of the trash accumulating in Juan Díaz and on the mudflats outside of Costa del Este. Since returning from Panama, I’ve talked incessantly about my experiences and research with friends and professors.

So, big project over, no more worrying about the Bay? Well, the battle amongst economics, politics, and environment definitely did not end after I left...so I have been checking up on recent developments (hopefully only figurative) around the wetlands. Back in January, Panama’s Supreme Court declared the reinstatement of the Ramsar site’s protection status permanent under the “No Environmental Regression Principle.” Local environmental organizations could only celebrate for so long, though. In May, for his last month in office, President Martinelli tried passing a number of laws that included one to establish the Upper Bay wetlands as protected habitat under Panamanian law--except 750 hectares of the wetlands were excluded from this proposal. Again, conservationists and lawyers rallied and persistently fought against letting developers have their way, and success did come with an injunction from the Supreme Court against the National Assembly having a meeting to pass this law. So, addressing the complicated question of how to balance human progress and environmental sustainability around the Upper Bay of Panama remains a battle, but at least there is a side committed to following international decrees. Nevertheless, the ecosystem will continue to be vulnerable to other ongoing anthropogenic threats, such as industrial and agricultural runoff from elsewhere along the coast, if their environmental implications are allowed to spread unmonitored.

Ultimately, while I did not have the chance to explore an entire continent if I had chosen to go to a more traditional study abroad location in Europe, my semester, with its focus on experiencing the multifaceted citizenry and environment of a single nation, allowed me a special opportunity for in-depth cultural understanding. Though small, with an area slightly less than South Carolina’s, the entirety of Panama cannot be tossed under simple labels or categories: “first-world” or “third-world”, tourists or locals, white-sand beaches or untamed jungle. Its history goes back way beyond the Canal. Scientists are frequently discovering new species in the tropics. Sure, that semester was a jump way beyond my comfort zone, but now I really can say from experience that the richest opportunities for learning and personal growth don’t come if you’re always going with the flow, but rather diving into new adventures.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Upper Bay of Panama Wetlands [Part 5a of 5]

As the end of the fall semester approached, the 13 students of SIT Panama were a transformed group--not just from dirt and suntans, but from countless experiences in cultural immersion. Moreover, we were well-practiced in various research methods for gathering both qualitative and quantitative data, from interviewing locals to surveying wildlife. So, as was characteristic of all SIT study abroad programs, each student in my group was to disperse around the country that November for nearly four weeks to conduct independent study projects (ISPs) on topics of our choosing. (Actually, we were all extremely nervous about going off to conduct research on our own and write 25-page papers!)

Looking west from Costa del Este shows downtown
Panama City, mangroves, and mudflats.
Initially, I wanted to do research on bird conservation, a long-time interest of mine. I researched issues with Panamanian bird conservation and actually decided to stay in Panama City after becoming intrigued by the vast wetlands habitat just east of the capital. Here, nutrient-rich mudflats serve as an important stopover site for around 2 million migratory shorebirds to refuel each migration season. This 49,000 hectare ecosystem was recognized as a protected area by the Ramsar Convention in 2009, but the country’s Supreme Court suspended this status in April 2012. After much backlash from environmental groups, the protection status was reinstated a year later. However, the national government, then under pro-business President Ricardo Martinelli, still wanted to make adjustments to the site’s boundaries that would actually reduce its total area, for the eastward spread of urbanization was already well underway. With Panama City growing both in population and economy, it was in the process of enhancing its transportation 
systems, particularly the expansion of Tocumen International Airport, which already neighbors the wetlands. In the past few years, some of the wetlands habitat has been filled, elevated, and paved over to allow for the construction of highways, an industrial park, and affluent housing developments. In particular, the business district of Costa del Este runs right along the coast to the eastern edge of remaining mangroves. Despite recommendations against developing in this area, apparently some of the construction companies had connections within Martinelli’s family who were willing to overlook environmental concerns.

Clearly, this issue was more complex than just the birds. I decided to investigate and compile all this information from interviews, scientific studies, and news articles into one report. During most of my researching, I stayed in a hostel actually located on the western end of the capital. This allowed me to walk into Ciudad del Saber (“City of Knowledge”), a community for hosting headquarters of numerous national and international organizations--including Wetlands International and WWF--and conduct interviews with environmentalists about recent environmental policy around the bay.

What's supposed to be solely a rain drainage canal in Juan Díaz
still has homes'  sewage pipes connected to it.
During my interviews and research, I also came across recent issues surrounding one of Panama City’s eastern districts, Juan Díaz, where frequent flooding has become a major problem in poorer neighborhoods with the rise of nearby development. While wetlands naturally soak up excess rainwater, paved surfaces reduce infiltration. Being the low ground among the newer urban developments, Juan Díaz then receives this runoff. Unfortunately, many neighborhoods’ drainage systems are not big enough to manage, which is only worsened when the drains become clogged with garbage and sediments carried by the flooding. Indeed, this trash problem, as well as residents’ frustrations against the construction companies, became clear to me one day when I was shown around Juan Díaz’s most affected areas by a local environmental engineer.
Homes in Juan Díaz along one of the main drainage canals,
which is prone to overflowing during rains.

The day after my tour through Juan Díaz, I packed up to move to another hostel on the opposite end of the city to be closer to Costa del Este and the wetlands themselves (which is quite an ordeal, if you’re familiar with Panama City’s Metrobus system). While November is said to be Panama’s rainiest month, I had been pretty lucky with the weather for going out to do my interviews...but of course this didn’t last on my travel day. The heavy showers of that very grey morning weren’t slowing down for anyone, so I wrapped by rucksack in its rain cover and started walking. My clothes were soaked through before I arrived at the nearest bus stop. However, this day was more unique in that, back in the U.S., it was Thanksgiving Day. If there’s a first time for everything, then this was my first Thanksgiving not spent with my parents, sister, and extended family in a heated (and dry) house feasting on cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and of course a fat juicy turkey. So, no pavo for me...what was mostly on my mind, though, was how the people I encountered the day before in Juan Díaz were faring. Sure, I didn’t like carrying all my things through a chilly torrential downpour, but I was not having nearly as bad a day as someone having to watch their home and possessions being inundated by knee-length (as I was told now happens there every rainstorm) flooding. Once again, I couldn’t help feeling frustrated at yet another David vs. Goliath situation in Panama. I thought, “Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about this? Why doesn’t the world know about this?”

Just meters away from the sidewalks of Costa del Este, piles of trash line the coast.

To be continued . . .

Monday, July 28, 2014

Curiosity Killed the Coral? [Part 4 of 5]

View from the research station boat docks.

I don’t think I would be so interested in environmental studies today if I had not spent much time outdoors as a kid, whether hiking, birdwatching, or kayaking. I think that especially because I study and admire nature, I am torn over the pros and cons of ecotourism.

Late in October, my study abroad group went to Panama’s coast along the Caribbean Sea to spend a week at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s research station on the island of Bocas del Toro. Each day was an opportunity for exploratory snorkeling around the mangroves and coral reefs. Between the warm water and astounding biodiversity, who could resist such a paradise? Actually, a drive through the main part of Bocas town during the evening displayed streets lit with vibrant colors and lined with restaurants and bars that blasted contemporary music, buzzing with tourists of all ages. Now that we had become accustomed to seeing the “real Panama” by experiencing how different Panamanian communities lived and worked, this environment felt foreign and artificial to us. I didn’t see “culture,” I saw a money scheme.

Vacation homes among the mangroves...
How much would that view cost?!
My favorite discovery lay hidden just under the surface:
mini aquariums among the mangrove roots!
One evening, we watched a documentary about the conflict in recent years between island residents and developers. Again, we saw the triumph of bigger financial interests (mainly the tourism industry) and their quest to acquire property. We empathized with the mixed feelings of the island’s locals toward the rising influx of foreign visitors. They did allow the local economy to boom, but we young environmentalists could not help worry over the pressures this put on the surrounding ecosystems. More people means restaurants demanding more seafood to feed them and more trash being generated. Whether on privately-owned or public tour vessels, boat motors release greenhouse gases and can harm wildlife. I’ve even heard of “reef walkers”: water shoes that allow divers to step over coral formations while protecting their feet from the rough surfaces. Well, facilitating nature exploration sounds nice, until you realize that no one should be standing on fragile coral habitat in the first place.

This was my most personal conflict in Panama yet; while I wished more people to learn from experiencing the natural wonders of the tropics, this environment has already suffered much anthropogenic abuse. However, if we only engage with nature through images from books and TV shows, we build limited connections with the natural world. The power of the outdoors to enliven the mind is unparalleled; nature inherently speaks to all our senses: leaves rustling in a cool breeze carrying an array of forest aromas, waves crashing onto a beach while molding your feet into the wet sand in their ebb. Only by truly experiencing nature can it have meaning within us, value that feeds our curiosity, beckons us to explore more, and teaches us respect for the Earth. Does “sharing nature” mean allowing ecotourism for all to explore or limiting it to preserve ecosystems for all future life? Unfortunately, whether due to distance and/or financial limitations, excursions to “get back to nature” have become greatly reserved to those of socioeconomic privilege...and in
demanding comfortable accommodations and the latest outdoor gear, we ironically create another great feast for consumerism. Regardless, I think this highlights the importance of and increasing need to bring nature closer to our own homes. Whether that means greening community spaces or making your backyard more wildlife-friendly, we can easily use environmental stewardship to reap the physical and mental benefits of engaging with nature--far more feasibly than seeking white sand beaches a plane ride away.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Water Gives and Water Takes [Part 3 of 5]

Considering that water is essential for life but is in limited supply for human use, how could it not be a major subject of environmental ethics? Our group of 13 college students from across the U.S. learned that water serves the citizens of Panama in a variety of ways. It provides people with other natural resources such as food and energy, as well as ways to make a living, but, depending on how it’s managed, can also threaten these.

Once low tide exposed the mangrove roots,
we went clamming in the mud! 
For example, during our week-long field course on Panama’s Pacific marine resources, we met each morning in the port town of Pedregal to be taken to mangroves and beaches along the Gulf of Chiriquí, located on the western side of the country. Our lab work involved learning local fishermen’s methods to harvest different species of clams and fish, then collecting our own samples to study. For all the time and effort the fishermen put into harvesting each day, the job was not particularly profitable. Yet, they knew the importance of maintaining this operation’s  sustainability; on the community--rather than corporate--scale, these aquatic ecosystems remained healthy and plentiful.  

We all took turns scaring fish into the net.
We spent little time in the town of Pedregal itself. Our academic director warned about the local problem of gang activity, which rose as children dropped out of school and had nothing else to do on the streets. However, the man leading our boating crew was well-reputed around the town for his efforts to recruit youth into fishing, providing a more productive way to grow and earn money. Indeed, a couple of the boat operators who travelled with us were around our age or a little younger. In Pedregal, water meant opportunity.

On the other hand, further inland in the Chiriquí province, water--literally and figuratively--is power. Spending a week in the highlands, we learned how hydroelectric dams are extremely controversial around the country. I was plenty familiar with discussing the pros and cons of different energy sources from environmental science classes. Though hydropower is a much cleaner energy source than burning coal or oil, constructing dams and their upstream reservoirs inundate habitat for both wildlife and humans. It was a new experience for me to be where this clash between economics and environmental justice was close to home, for nearly all rivers in Chiriqui have seen dam development. When generating energy from water means money, and money means power, it seems that one either has all or nothing.

One of the dams we drove across on our way through the mountains.
Comprising around 8% of Panama’s population are seven unique indigenous tribes that, in the midst of globalization and industrialization, have seen mixed success in preserving their culture and autonomy today. Yet, the national government’s wish to expand development, from dams to mining and deforestation, exacerbates the struggle to defend tribal land rights. Conflict arises between indigenous peoples and electricity companies as the former fights against relocation, and the latter is backed by the government. Most electricity generated from the dams in the countryside goes to populous and wealthy Panama City, leaving many communities closest to the dams in the dark. We met a few people from the locally-based NGO FUNDICCEP (in English, the Foundation for the Community Development and Ecosystems Conservation of Panama) to hear about their activism for river conservation. This includes working with communities, business, and other stakeholders, using environmental education to promote informed decision-making.

Alas, the ever-complicated issue of balancing development and sustainability strikes again. With, this infrastructure already so well-established around the country, would it be remotely feasible? What would be the better alternative? These questions confused and frustrated us. We wanted to see change that was just and environmentally responsible, but what could the thirteen of us do? Challenging society’s great systemic forces such as crime and politics seems like a never-ending struggle, but it was encouraging enough to meet leaders whose passion and persistence was making a difference locally.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Water, Privilege, and Potties [Part 2 of 5]

Just a couple weeks after my study abroad group of thirteen students from across the U.S. arrived in Panama and adjusting to our main homestays in bustling Panama City, we departed the concrete jungle to spend a week really among the trees. Just a few hours on the road westward brought us into the mountains in the small community of Loma Bonita, which translates to “pretty hill,” where we would immerse in a lifestyle far different from what we were raised to see as “the norm.” We were told that “the norm” in much of rural Panama was small homes of cinderblock with little-to-no electricity, outhouses, and who-knows-how-many large insect visitors in your room each night.

My homestay dad showed me an
overlook of the community
Once I was introduced to my homestay parents, it took a 45 minute uphill walk in the dark to arrive at their house. After having dinner and some conversation by flashlight, I asked where I could find the baño. A flashlight illuminated a small shack on the edge of the property, and lifting away its door, which was a flat of old lumber propped up against the entrance, revealed a toilet that was basically a whole in the ground with a concrete seat. There was no toilet paper, but I did pack some of my own. “Well,” I thought, “I’ve experienced worse Port-o-Johns in the States.”

Though the focus of this homestay was more about the experiences with our individual 
families, issues of public health were obvious. 

¡La casa! Living quarters on the left, kitchen and eating area on the right.
The students were required to buy advanced filtration water bottles before arriving in the country, for we were warned that the drinking resources during some of our excursions would be unsafe for our digestive systems, pampered by the plumbing we grew up with at home. The bulky filters in most of our water bottles cost us about $50, as they were designed to remove the tiniest of microbes; some of the students had bottles with UV filters that were even costlier. So, for that week, I also had to improvise for the task of brushing my teeth, squeezing out hyper-filtered water to wet my toothbrush. Whatever was in this chunky green bottle was my water supply. When it ran empty, I informed my homestay dad, as I felt it would be too imposing to refill it without asking. He would then show me to the PVC faucet coming out of the ground behind the house, but a few times he walked me to the faucet by the home of the neighbors, who were also in the family. (Perhaps it was when their well was running low...I couldn't be sure).

The hens provided fresh eggs, but the rooster would gladly 
crow even before the sun rose.
Despite trying to be as polite as possible, I couldn’t help feeling like I was saying that their water wasn’t good enough, that I needed special catering. Their tap water didn’t look any different than what I drank at home, but I knew that microscopic killers such as cholera could be flowing through this faucet at anytime, even if the residents of Loma Bonita seemed fine with drinking it most days. This water, whatever risks it may hide, must be their life sustenance, just as every other human requires. Their concrete toilet serves its purpose just as any “porcelain throne” in the US. These amenities are what they have, and it seemed to be enough.

Though one week isn’t enough to say I fully understand this way of living, it was enough to shake me out of my comfort zone, for just seeing images of global poverty in magazines or on the news doesn’t nearly compare to first-hand living experience. It is easy to fall into the mindset of “Wow, this experience made me so thankful for the luxury of [insert simple first-world amenity],” but comparing my experience with this standard of living to the consumerist culture I grew up in made me unsatisfied with mere reflection. I see action as the most desirable route to take, and though the reality that there are millions of people in dozens of countries living with water and sanitation issues, maybe humble cultural exchanges like a homestay in Loma Bonita are a first step.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

¡Mucho gusto!

Maddie the intern here, and I am very excited to be working with Art for Water this summer! Since entering Gettysburg College, I’ve often been asked how I “got into” doing environmental studies. Well, when was I not a nature kid? When I was little, I was largely inspired by watching Steve Irwin and other naturalists on Animal Planet traverse the Earth to diverse ecosystems to teach curious viewers about the remarkable animals inhabiting them. Pursuing such adventures became my “when I grow up” dream, so I devotedly followed opportunities to expand my knowledge of the environment in school. However, you can only learn so much about the outdoor environment from an indoor classroom. So, last fall semester, I studied abroad through School for International Training (SIT), a major proponent of experiential education.

I bought a waterproof point-and-shoot camera just before my trip. 
What a great tool for capturing tropical aquatic ecosystems in all their brilliance!
I eagerly applied to their program for “Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation.” What better place to experience the wild than down in the tropics? So, for three and a half months in the Crossroad of the Americas, our group of thirteen estudiantes from across the U.S. sure got our hands dirty. For lab classes, we collected specimens for analysis by digging the rainforest floor, trudging through mangrove mud, and even swimming through coral reefs. How many people can say they’ve gone snorkeling for class?

I thought it was so cool to see the sun beams through the water.
It really lights up a totally different world down there!
Actually, one of the tropics’ spectacles that I most anticipated going to study in Panama was the water. Yes, the water. I fantasized about swimming in postcard-perfect ocean water, shimmering turquoise and as warm as a bath, as well as being close-up to the diverse organisms within.

Of course I couldn't go without making some art of my own. 
Science can be quite beautiful!  
Indeed, we learned much about Panama’s various issues dealing with water, all demonstrating the interconnectedness among nature, human rights, economics, politics, and development.

Over the course of this summer, I will be blogging more in-depth about my experiences in and around the waters of Panama. Though my words could never say nearly as much as first-hand experience does, my Panamanian immersion opened me to new ways of thinking about the planet and its resources, and I hope I can share some thoughts on water you will find intriguing, eye-opening, or--yes I’m going there--refreshing.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Announcing the Launch of Our Indiegogo Campaign to Take the Stream of Conscience Virtual.

Stream of Conscience is the public-participation art project that culminates in a monumental installation that poses
 the question: How are words like water? The installation is created from torn pieces of paper on which participants write their thoughts and feelings. Water is a huge topic in so many places right now. We want to reach a wider audience and use this project to connect exhibition venues around the world to the issue of clean water. Through kinetic typographic animation, participants from anywhere can add their creative content to an international river of words. Please help us create this dynamic, global art project by visiting the Virtual Stream of Conscience on Indiegogo. 

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