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.