Suddenly, the road goes off the rails. Deep craters spread like a rash, then become pits that enlarge into rain-filled gaps. An elderly man on a mule passes by without a smile. The terrain remains the same: rolling ranching land dotted with clumps of jungle, banana, and bamboo, but the houses have shrunk in size and become impoverished. The neatly painted residences of the morning are replaced by wooden shacks. Around them, chickens, canines, and children scratch. Under a thatched canopy, an individual slumbers in a gently swaying hammock. A wheel of the vehicle falls into a hole with a jarring crunch.
Panama and Costa Rica are neighbors and share many characteristics, including some of the most biodiverse forests on Earth. Panama has approximately 4,2 million hectares of forest, compared to Costa Rica’s 3 million hectares. Nevertheless, upon crossing the frontier a few days prior, I was immediately aware of the differences. Panama seems crisper. There is more traffic on the Pan-American Highway, garish advertisements in the cities, and shopping malls in the American mode.
However, signs of consumer affluence are mirrored by those of poverty. Now I am noticing a further distinction: Panama has more Indigenous people – almost 500,000 out of a total population of about 4.3 million – and one of the primary roads leading to their rural heartland is crumbling before us. Eventually, we arrive at our destination, and a juvenile capuchin monkey leaps from the vehicle, climbs my leg, and bites me on the arm.
It does not draw blood, but it is not a particularly warm welcome.
I’m on a journey through Central America, flying into the capital of Costa Rica, San José, and out of the capital of Panama, Panama City, with land travel in between. Long-distance flying requires substantial justification, and I am on the lookout for initiatives and locations that make a compelling case for benefiting or even saving a portion of that unique environment. Finding and pursuing new eco-projects in Costa Rica is facilitated by the government’s fundamental framework, which consists of numerous large national parks and robust environmental protection laws. In Panama, things can be more idiosyncratic and homegrown; much more depends on the individual. This trip is all about unique people, one of whom I’m about to meet.
Willow, a community worker, has been fighting an uphill battle to promote tourism in Ngabe-Buglé, one of the five comarca indigent, or indigenous communal areas, for the past decade. People here are unaware of the potential benefits. They are cautious” This suspicion is understandable. In the past four centuries, indigenous contact with outsiders has not been successful.
Alongside Toto, the capuchin monkey, who is riding on the back of his favorite dog, we cross a girder bridge bridging the local river. If I occasionally tickle Toto’s stomach, he will comb my facial hair. Women in traditional long blue dresses embroidered with geometric serpent patterns and men in jeans and T-shirts populate the village of Soloy. Willow states that males abandoned traditional attire several years ago. We believed it would facilitate our integration into Panamanian society.
It amazes me that men and women could make separate judgments about something as personal as clothing collectively.
“Has it worked?” I ask. “Are you accepted?”
Willow chuckles and replies, “No.”
A few weeks before my arrival, this community had blocked the Pan-American Highway for a month in exchange for promises of improved schools and roadways. Staying here feels like a gesture of support, but will it also be enjoyable?
The sense of dislocation and unnatural formality dissipates gradually. Toto breaks the chill by nestling in my lap when we are seated. An elderly woman demonstrates how she weaves hammocks. Another performs a cacao ceremony of welcome and, unexpectedly, reveals how she became a Bahá’ convert. Then, Willow plays his trump card: he takes me to his local cascade, Kiki, which we walk behind on a rock ledge before emerging into a cloud forest. We meet his mother at a nearby homestead, where she is seated in the shade next to a hammock and a traditional hearth. She’s in her late seventies. I inquire about the evolution of life and the environment during her lifetime. She speaks in Ngabere; Willow provides the translation. Her statement is unanticipated.
“When I was a young girl,” she explains, “life was not pleasant. There was excessive alcohol consumption, wagering, and domestic violence. The forest and rivers were also in poor condition. In 1962, a local woman named Delia began having visions. She witnessed aliens and Jesus riding a motorbike down from heaven. She stated that if we did not alter our ways, Armageddon would occur and all indigenous peoples would perish. Only whites would be able to survive.”
Willow’s mother, along with thousands of others, traveled for two days to witness the visions, which had endured twelve days. The region had exploded with enthusiasm. When the visions ceased, Ngabe Buglé’s existence changed drastically. Mama Delia had prohibited drinking, wife-beating, and polygamy. There was renewed confidence in their language and in caring for the forests and rivers, a pride that led to the formation of the Comarca Indiana, a self-governing region that encompasses a total land area of 6,220 square kilometers.
Now, the struggle is to stop the destructive exploitation of the land, especially through hydro schemes and copper mining, while simultaneously lifting the people out of destitution.
In Britain, we’re accustomed to hearing tales of eco-saviors such as rewilders, green energy experts, and sustainability initiatives, but I’ve never heard a tale like this. I observe that there are more butterflies in the village than I have seen elsewhere. Along the river, the birdlife appears to be more abundant and diverse. The stores only carry essentials, and everyone keeps poultry. There is a great deal of trash. It appears that a conflict exists between a consumerist lifestyle and traditional values. My lodging for the night is at a neighbor’s residence. Their belongings are heaped in a corner, and none of them are handmade or traditional. I suggest to Willow that they construct a cabin for tourists, but he explains: “I prefer that tourists stay with locals.” The community requires this interaction with outsiders.”
My subsequent experience couldn’t be more dissimilar, but at its center is another remarkable individual who is also working tirelessly for conservation. Mount Totumas is located on the border of La Amistad national park, which straddles the boundary between Panama and Costa Rica. It is one of the most significant and unexplored reserves in Central America. When Jeffrey and Alma Dietrich arrived from the United States in 2008, this was an overgrazed ranching area right up to the park’s jungle boundary; however, they have created a 160-hectare (400-acre) wildlife-rich buffer zone and hired the ranchers as guides.
Reinaldo, one of these aides, leads me up the steep path into Mount Totumas’ cloud forests. This is a world of enigmatic veils: cloud wisps and golden lichen drapes. Reinaldo’s call causes the uncommon Costa Rican pygmy owl to respond by flitting past. On the peak are micro-orchids measuring no more than a few millimeters in diameter. The bird list for this location is nearly as impressive as the mountain lodge’s collection of literature on wildlife, but the rarest species are rarely spotted. Jeffrey shows me footage captured by a trail camera near the lodge. “Watch the time code,” he instructs. “Same day, same camera.”