<strong>Azuero Reforestation Road Trip</strong>
Most people take vacations at the beach. My friend Jon (a former Peace Corps volunteer living in NYC) had another idea. He convinced me to visit Jake’s (another former Peace Corps member) farm:
Jon: “Evan, lets get outta the city.”
Evan: “Where do you wanna go?”
Jon: “Wanna do some farming with Jake?”
Evan: “Hmmm… Sure.”
Jon: “Vamos pues!”
Jake had been working on a special type of reforestation project in Panama’s Azuero Pennisula. It had been a long time since the 3 of us had shot the shit together.
Jon and Jake are different from most Gringos in Panama. They speak excellent Panamanian Spanish. They are also incredibly knowledgeable about tropical ecology. Lastly and most impressively, they both comprehend the various and complex cultural nuisances of Panamanian society better than 98.7% of the Gringos in Panama. They’re <em>Pana-Gringos</em>.
Jon and I arrived to Albrook Bus Terminal at 6am. The bus ticket for the 5 hour trip to Las Tablas cost $9.75. It didn’t make sense to rent a car.
At Las Tablas we transferred buses. But before we did, Jon knew of a great local eat. The family style restaurant was self-seating with a limited menu. Basically, the waitress tells you what kitchen is cooking — take it or leave it (my kinda restaurant). $5 covered our meal. Parts of Panama are still <em>bien barato</em>.
With full bellys we boarded the next <em>buscito</em> heading to Pedasí. There, we fetched a cab for the remaining 20-minute ride to Jake’s pueblito in Los Asientos. We asked the others on the bus what the approximate charge for the cab needed to take us the rest of the way would be. The consensus cost among the locals was $6.75. Later, the taxi driver repeated the same price. I love the feeling of NOT being treated like a tourist.
Los Asientos is on few people’s maps. The small <em>pueblito</em> sits just about an hour’s horse ride beyond Pedasí (the mode of transportation for many). The few Panamanian city folks and foreigners that do recognize Los Asientos are likely to do so only because their cell phones lose signal while driving towards Playa Venao. Los Asientos is definitely not a tourist destination.
Jake was walking towards his house when we arrived. He looked like he had spent the entire day at the farm. His traditional Santeño sombrero was soaked with sweat. His was wearing an old long sleeve Oxford shirt and full length pants to protect against the sun. On his feet were a hefty set of work boots with tiny plant seedlings clinging here and there. Jon and Jake exchanged Santeño “AJUUUEEEE!!” yelps. I’m still practicing mine.
First things first, Jake popped the top off a couple <em>cervezas bien frias</em>. We caught up with each other’s life happenings as we sat on Jake’s small front porch. Children on bikes and men on horseback occasionally passed by. A complete change from the city.
Eventually, our conversation centered on the general macro reforestation effort throughout Panama. Both Jon and Jake have several years of elite schooling focused on development studies as well as several years of swinging machetes on Panamanian farms. It was a highly educated discussion.
After a couple beers, Jon and I now wanted to see an actual project. We were there to experience the reforestation effort at the micro level. Jake had been working closely with a local farmer on his 2 hecture cattle pasture. It was a demo plot to show the skeptics in the area the benefits of agroforestry. Jon grabbed the sunscreen and I enthusiastically carried the machete. We set out to see Jake’s project.
We walked for about 30 minutes. Along the way, Jon and Jake described the state of Azuero. The rare tropical dry forest has been severely deforested by extensive clear cutting and intensive cattle ranching. The native ecosystems and the biodiversity of the area have been nearly wiped out. Jake has been working with<a href=”http://eltinews.blogspot.com/2011/09/local-farmers-associations-in-panamas.html” target=”_blank”> local farmers to implement silvopastor systems</a>. Arguably, it’s the best chance to reforest the Azuero.
A <a href=”about:blank”>silvopastoral system integrates trees into cattle pasture systems</a> in a mutually beneficial way. Semi reforesting lands utilizing beneficial forage and fodder species in living fences and inside pastures, more efficient rotation of grazing lands will start to restore lost ecosystems. Cattle are still able to graze. And, in more productive systems that provide not just the calories of pasture grass, but also proteins from tree leaves and fruits. As a result the cattle have an improved diet which increases fertility as well as meat and milk production. Furthermore, increasing trees on degraded landscapes restore invaluable ecosystem services. Bottomline: It’s a win-win situation for the farmers and the environment.
Even though silvopastoral systems seem sensible, implementation is difficult. Farmers are resistant to change. Remember, traditionally, farmers view the forest as their adversary. Generations of back breaking hours have been spent clear cutting those hillsides. A deforested pasture is a sign of victory. An overgrown pasture is seen as not keeping your land “<em>limpio</em>” (well maintained). You’re an embarrassment inside the community. Yet, today, international organizations are trying to tell farmers to…. replant them? <em>Estas loco</em>!
To compound the cultural misunderstanding, there is an unusual language barrier. City boy Spanish spoken by a urban Panamanian championing the sustainability of silvopastoral systems won’t sell to local farmers. Ivy-League American interns are even worse. Local farmers don’t culturally identify with them or find them credible. As Jake summarized ,“Evan, not enough people speak Santeño nor understand the traditional and cultural constraints of implementing development projects.”. This fact is often overlooked inside the international development ivory tower.
*** <em>Santeño</em> is a person from <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Santos_Province” target=”_blank”>Los Santos</a>.
On the other hand, Jake <em>is</em> Santeño. Sure, Jake is a Gringo who earned a prestigious masters degree in Forestry. Yet, Jake chooses to live amongst the locals (instead of the highly populated Gringo areas of Pedasí and the nearby beaches). Jake walks, talks, and acts like a Santeño. He has locals sharing the latest Los Asientos gossip with him as well as picking him up while he is hitchhiking along the highway. I’ll say it again, my boy Jake <em>is</em> Santeño.
This is apparent in Jake’s silvopastoral sales pitch to Santeños: “<em>En su sistema convencional, con solamente pasto mejorado su ganado están comiendo arroz pela’o. Con un sistema silvopastoril con leucaena, botón de oro y pasto mejorado, su ganado están comiendo un plato completo (el arroz, la presa, lentejas, y plátanos fritos). Como nosotros, el ganado quiere comer bien también.</em>”
(In your conventional system, with only improved pasture, your cattle are eating plain rice. With a silvopastoral system with Leucaena, Mexican sunflower, and improved pasture, your cattle are eating a complete meal (rice, the dam, lentils, and fried plantains). Like us, the cattle need to eat well too.)
People are taking notice of Jake’s work. Silvopastoral systems are out performing surrounding pastures. The farmer who volunteered for the project can’t wait to bring his cattle to graze. Former skeptics are now asking Jake for agricultural advise during conversations at the local <em>tienda</em>. Jon and I are excited to see our boy doing such a good job!
See photos of the trip <a href=”http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2770981951893.2127232.1178324321&type=1″ target=”_blank”>here</a>.