Bocas del Toro—October 2006
— 21 November 2006
— in Neotropical Environmental Education Program
Saskia and I had to be at the airport at 6:00 a.m. for the 6:30 flight from Panama City to Bocas del Toro. Luckily, we did not have to submit to the requisite “two-hour-before-take-off wait” or extensive security checks. The trip to Changuinola, the capital of the sparsely populated province that borders Costa Rica, is a short, one-hour puddle jumper flight. As we were approaching Changuinola we could see miles and miles of banana plantations that seem to surround and almost swallow up this small provincial capital town.
The Peregrine Fund has been working in this area for about three years, in which time we have released five Harpy Eagles in the area. Combined with the releases, we have implemented an environmental education component in the area. The Neotropical Environmental Education Program’s goal is to work in the communities around where we have released Harpy Eagles, to raise community awareness about what we are doing in the area and teach locals more about these large forest raptors. For the past three years we have worked closely with the National Environmental Authority (ANAM), Panama’s equivalent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as all of these communities in which we work border La Amistad International Park.
Señor Villamonte is the director of the park and has always helped us out with logistics when we work in the area. This particular trip was going to be different in that we were going to be working in four new communities in an area where we had never been before. We chose to work in this area because it is the next watershed over from where we have released Harpy Eagles and a large tract of intact forest connects the two watersheds. The river that runs down the heart of this area is the Yorkin River, which separates Panama from Costa Rica. The communities in this area are Gnobe Indians, who cling tightly to their traditions and are the most numerous of the seven indigenous groups in Panama. Many of the older generation don’t speak Spanish (some of our talks were translated) as well as practice polygamy.
After picking up food and supplies in Changuinola we headed out. Leaving Changuinola, we spent the first 30 minutes driving through banana plantations before the land opened up to deforested cattle pastures which finally gave way to more mountainous forested areas. We drove about two hours, but had to wait an extra hour for a wrecker that was stuck (towing another car) in a stream crossing. After jacking it up several times to pile rocks under the tires and 10 guys barking orders, they somehow managed to get through.
We arrived at the end of the road at a small community called Las Delicias. Las Delicias is an interesting community in that it is located on the banks of the river that divides Panama and Costa Rica. On the Costa Rican side there is a larger community and Las Delicias is basically a shopping town for Costa Ricans. Almost no one lives there but there is a restaurant and several small “we sell everything” Walmart type stores. These goods can be bought much cheaper on the Panamanian side than the Costa Rican side. We also noticed cables spanning the width of the river that brought electricity and a public telephone connection to Las Delicias. Interestingly, to call Panama would require a long distance call. This is such a remote area of Panama that it is easier for the Panamanians to get these services from Costa Rica, and I imagine a Costa Rican guy paddles his boat across the river every month to collect for the electricity and phone bill. There is no immigration or customs in this area.
From Las Delicias, we took a two hour ride in a motorized dug out canoe up this river that divides the two countries. As we got further away and the river got narrower, the forest got thicker, and things became a lot more beautiful. We got to a point where we had to get out and walk, because the amount of weight in the boat was causing it to scrape bottom. We would meet the boat further up river. Trails in this area go by the least amount of geographical resistance and therefore criss-cross the river several times seeking out flat land. So our walk took us back and forth from Panama to Costa Rica till we met up with the boat again, just where the trail started to lead uphill. As planned, there were porters waiting for us to help carry the equipment up to the village. It was about a two hour uphill walk to get to the community of Agua Salud.
ANAM had a workshop scheduled in this community for the following day, so we were piggy backing onto one of their presentations. When we visit a community we usually work in the school in the morning and have an activity with the students, then at night give a presentation to the adults and the rest of the community. Since it was our first visit to these communities, we spoke about what The Peregrine Fund does and general information on the Harpy Eagle. Even though it’s a lot of trouble to get it there, we always pack in a generator, laptop computer, and a projector. Using the projector is a strong educational tool and a real treat for these communities as they live without electricity. The use of the projector also helps to boost attendance for our presentations (not to mention that we show a movie afterwards). We have also been implementing a new evaluation method with the school children. We give the students a ten question pre-exam before the talk to find out their prior knowledge on the subject (in this case the Harpy Eagle and The Peregrine Fund). We then give our presentation and follow it up with a dynamic game that reinforces the subject we are presenting. After the game, the students take a post exam (the same 10 questions as the pre-exam) to see how much information has been learned. Everything went really well in the community of Agua Salud, they seemed really excited about the idea that we have been releasing Harpy Eagles in the area.
Schoolchildren learn about our conservation work.
Over the next three days we had three more successful community visits to the communities of Palmita, Altos de Yorkin, and Guabo de Yorkin. The distance between these communities is roughly two and a half to three hours. To get from one community to the next we hired porters to carry our equipment. Even loaded down with our gear, the porters walked at a pace that Saskia and I had a really hard time keeping up with. With the amount of rain in the area, the trails from one community to the next are reduced to one long series of connecting mud pits. The only types of footwear that do not get destroyed in this area are rubber boots or bare feet. We opted for the rubber boots, which still seemed to keep us in first gear as the porters continued in third gear. Saskia and I were relieved once we finally got back down the river again where we would be picked up in dug out canoe and taken three hours downriver to where the truck was waiting.
We were very pleased with the success of these community visits. These communities are rarely visited by the various Panamanian government agencies because of the remoteness; therefore, they are really appreciative of any organization that comes in to work with them. Since the communities are also in a heavily forested area that connects to an area where we have been releasing Harpy Eagles we feel that it is necessary to start an environmental education program in the area to support this effort. In addition, a couple of the adults who attended our presentation had seen wild Harpy Eagles in that area. This will hopefully be the first in a series of visits to these communities in the years to come.
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