“If only they left one nesting tree standing, they’d have all the benefits of birds distributing seeds, eating insects,” Andreas said, “but no, they want to fill all of the land – their productive asset, they call it – with plantation.” He sounded exasperated as he continued, “Then you’ll see all the pests and diseases spreading freely. And fire, as they leave no fire breaks either.” This was the way things were done in other reforestation projects. But not the one he and his wife Iliana ran.
We were standing on an open field outside the village of Las Lajas, Chiriquí Province in western Panama. Not long ago, the field had been used for cattle ranching before it was purchased by Andreas and Iliana’s company, Futuro Forestal. They had recently planted it with diverse types of native trees that used to grow here before the ranchers made inroads into the area. The seedlings were still very small, their immediate growing space protected from undergrowth by black plastic squares. There were a couple of old large trees standing on the sides of the field – nesting trees, Andreas explained. Always leave a few nesting trees for the parrots and other birds. This not only makes ecological sense, but also is good for the plantation as it provides natural protection against insects and pests.
In its ten years of existence Futuro Forestal had grown fast, purchasing degraded land in Las Lajas for reforestation with native species and selling the plots to investors mostly from Panama, Europe and North America. The first years had been hard. Iliana Armien, a local girl with a degree in forest engineering, had met Andreas Eke, a geographer from Germany. They had found a mutual passion for the conservation of the lush Panamanian environment and rich biodiversity. They had embarked on two daunting projects simultaneously: they founded a family and Futuro Forestal. Las Lajas had plenty of land that was primarily used to raise cattle. The ranchers would chop off large tracts of forest for their cows. The grass would overtake the land and it would become degraded. Lots of biological diversity was lost. The young couple decided to make a difference – for the land, the biodiversity and for themselves – so they started the company with their own hands and the little capital they had, just enrolling some of the locals in Las Lajas to work on the reforestation projects. The first years they labored from dawn till the night fell barely able to pay the bills.
Western Panama had many reforestation projects but these were invariably monocultures of commercial trees like teak designed for quick financial returns to their owners. As I was driving down the Carretera Panamericana, or the Pan American Highway, with my wife Yoko we could see many planted teak forests on both sides of the road. The trees were lined up straight in dense rows as if a zealous drill sergeant had arranged them. It all looked very regimented with the dark big leaves of teak hanging limp around the straight trunks.
That morning we had got up early in the capital and caught an Aeroperla flight at the domestic airport. The airport had been busy although there were only a couple of flights departing at that time. The taxi driver who brought us there had inquired optimistically whether we were on our way to Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast. When we told we would go to David in Chiriquí he looked disappointed: “Next time you’ll have to go to Las Bocas; it’s very beautiful there.”
Sitting on rows of plastic chairs in the departure lounge we watched other passengers board the plane to Bocas del Toro. There were many foreigners who looked like tourists. The crowd that would board ours was diverse. A Chinese businessman dressed in a suit checked in at the counter next to us. He eyed Yoko curious to see whether she was one of his. Behind me was a tall woman in her 30s who looked fresh in a generously open yellow silk blouse and elegant black trousers. When we settled down with our excellent cups of Panamanian coffee – grown according to ecological principles in the highlands of Chiriquí! – next to me sat an Amerindian couple. The husband was dressed in western cloths but the wife was wearing a traditional outfit with a colorful skirt with blue and bright red patterns. From the style I could gather that she belonged to the Kuna Indian tribe. Her hair was short and her ears and nose were pierced. She wore multiple red loops around her ankles and wrists.
The flight from Ciudad de Panamá to David lasted no more than an hour. The propeller plane seated a couple of dozen passengers. The route followed the central cordillera that is the backbone of the country. The hills looked beautiful and largely uninhabited. When we landed we could see the Barú volcano on the northern side. On the left glimmered the Pacific Ocean. Panama is a narrow country: from a vantage point up in the hills or the plane one can see the Pacific to the south and the Caribbean to the north.
David’s modest airport held counters from most major international car rental companies. I received the keys to a tiny Toyota Yaris and soon we hit the Carretera Panamericana, the main – and only – highway in Panama. It crosses the country west to east on the southern side of the cordillera. It is fully paved and mostly very smooth, although at times it becomes surprisingly narrow, especially in view of the heavy traffic of trucks and tankers. At times, our Toyota felt tiny between the fast moving and generally much sturdier traffic.
We crossed Rio Chiriquí, the largest of the many rivers that flow to the Pacific from the cordillera, its brown water bringing masses of topsoil from the hillsides to the ocean. We were on the coastal plain but the topography was still surprisingly varied with forested knolls dotting the land. The forests were all modified by human action over the decades of use. The teak plantations appeared at regular intervals along the roadside. As the road climbed to higher ground we had wide views over the agricultural valleys towards the cordillera with some of the peaks rising high above the valley. About an hour after we had left David we came to a crossing: to the left was the village of San Felix, to the right Las Lajas. Choosing the right turn we entered a gravel road and after a mere kilometer saw the entrance to the hacienda style house where Iliana and Andreas resided.
Having refreshed with some cool water, we soon found ourselves in the offices of Futuro Forestal not far from the house. The company now employed half a dozen administrative people and some 100 workers in planting, harvesting and other works in the forest. Yoni, one of the professionals, was working on the computer entering data into the new geographical information system that accurately depicted the location and features of all the parcels managed by the company: borders, topography, soil types, species planted etc. Cholita, the accountant, Minerva were working in the office. Outside were the nurseries that produce the saplings for the reforestation project, as well as timber that had been recently harvested. After nine years, this had been the first thinning needed for maintenance. A four-wheel-drive pulled up to the modest one-storey offices. The new entrant was José Manuel Perez, Deputy Director of a native species research project of Yale University and the Smithsonian Institution’s tropical research institute in Panama. The venerable SI was very interested in the path breaking approach taken by Futuro Forestal to tropical reforestation. José Manuel would join us for the day inspecting the projects.
Las Lajas is a small community of about 400 households. Like all Central American villages, it has a center with a small square, a school, a soccer field. Yoko observed the absence of a church but was corrected that there were several belonging to a number of Christian denominations; just a formal structure with a bell tower was missing. The place where the congregation really gathered, though, served cold beer, we were told.
Futuro Forestal’s holdings were scattered around the village but not in a haphazard manner. Restoration of native biodiversity is a complex business that not even the good folks at the Smithsonian fully understand. The interaction between species, the type and thickness of soils, their nutrient content and ability to retain water are highly variable and make reforestation a risky affair. Reforestation by itself does not bring back the biodiversity that is so vital to both nature and humankind. The requirement is to help the spread of the tree species that used to support the variety of life here. Therefore, Andreas and Iliana have taken an experimental approach, planting various types of native species in batches that allow each to survive. The ever-present grass is overwhelming the saplings and it is essential to keep it at bay.
The forest parcel we first visited was already advanced with trees reaching high up to the sky. A posse of workers was cutting the undergrowth with machetes. This was hard work and the crews were lucky to have regular 7-hour days with the company paying them full social security and health benefits, a rare practice in the Panamanian countryside. Futuro Forestal is the largest employer of native people in the province. The company also trains the workers to provide them with skills to properly manage the trees so that the trunks grow straight and strong. The training also allows the people to advance their own lives. Some locals are being trained to design and make furniture. One of the women working for the company has decided she wants to become a forest engineer. Futuro Forestal had recently been rewarded as one of the best employers in the area. In return, the workers have to show up at work sober on Monday mornings, not an obvious achievement for many. After centuries of hard low-paid labor in the coffee and cocoa plantations, the native communities have lost their traditional culture and alcoholism is rampant. The strict rules established by the company help to maintain discipline.
At the second parcel, the newly planted open plot, a fresh wind cooled us down in the tropical heat. A vulture circled the field. The nesting trees that Andreas had left standing on purpose hosted a number of colorful parakeets that would zoom past us. The site was located next to an estuary lined with mangroves, a veritable wildlife refuge. Recently, the villagers had been startled to see a huge black cat there, a jaguarondi. Big animals like that need a large area to roam. One of the services that the reforestation area will provide is to expand the corridors along which the animals can migrate. Another is to establish a buffer to the estuarine mangroves so that the villagers will not be tempted to cut them down for construction material or wood fuel.
Along the road we saw other reforestation projects, including one owned by a large landowner in Las Lajas. Knowing that Iliana was a trained forest engineer, the man had asked for her assistance in setting up the project. He had been very glad when she had agreed – “I knew I could rely on you,” he had said – but mightily disappointed when she had indicated that professional services usually came with a cost. This was too much for the man who had brashly stated that he’d rather buy his professional services from a male forester. Machismo is alive and well in the Panamanian frontier. The results of his bullheadedness were obvious for all to see. The teak was planted densely with no provisions for biodiversity services or fire protection. Fungi plagued the lower parts of the trees and new branches were protruding from the trunks that had been carelessly pruned.
At another old reforestation site, the forest was thick and biodiversity alive and well. Some of it bit painfully, as both Yoko and I would testify for several of the coming days. We did avoid all the snakes that are supposed to be abundant in the area. José Manuel told us that in the veterinary school he had been taught that poisonous and harmless snakes could be told apart by their eyes: the poisonous ones had pupils the shape of a slice while the kinder ones had round pupils. José Manuel himself confessed, though, that he would not be the one to stay to study the eyes of the slithering thing should he happen face to face with one. The forest smelled musky with humid scents. Despite the fact that it was only midday, it was quite dark as the high growth muted the sun. Where it was filtered through the leaves of palms and other plants the light was soft with a lovely green hue.
Getting hungry in mid-afternoon, we drove back to the Panamericana and across the road to the neighboring community of San Felix for a late lunch. We entered one of the four small restaurants, and widely considered the best, serving both villages and were welcomed by the cheerful matron who had run the place for years. The food was tasty. I ordered a dried beef jerky while Yoko had succulent chicken. Both were served with patacones, or fried plantains eaten like French fries and that are the staple in Panama. We washed it all down with heavenly passion fruit juice. The place was popular with the locals; which could of course be explained by the fact that it was the only game in town, but surely the good food and friendly service were the real reason. Young women in the provincial Health Department uniform entered the place while we were enjoying a cup of strong coffee with condensed milk.
Suddenly, when we were about to leave the skies roared and an amazing rain that obscured the view fell. There was nothing we could do but to run back to the Land Cruiser, totally soaked in just seconds, and continue on the increasingly muddy roads. The rain would subside soon enough, as was common with afternoon showers in the tropics.
Driving back along the road we passed a small airstrip. “Las Lajas International Airport,” said Andreas with a laugh. This flattened grassy field apparently was one of the many stops that uncharted flights would take on their way from Colombia and other South American countries to satisfy the demand for their products in North America. Not long ago, the Panamanian police had been there to collect an abandoned airplane. Leaving a perfectly good Cessna or Piper made a small dent in the profits of successful transport operations.
When the rain clouds had moved away and the forest was already getting dark, we visited one of the villagers, Felix, who had been one of the earliest participants in Futuro Forestal managing the plot located right behind his own small farm. The forest looked to be in fine shape with tall straight trunks rising towards the darkening sky. This had been the first area reforested ten years ago. Iliana and Andreas had toiled long days alongside Felix, all learning as they were doing. The charming old man in boots and a battered hat welcomed us with a big smile as Andreas’ friends. He grabbed a several meters long pole with a sickle attached to its end and cut down a few coconuts that fell to the ground with a thud. He sliced them expertly with a machete and offered us fresh coconut milk. Immediately also his roaming chickens showed interest and eagerly took the opportunity to peck on the white coconut flesh as we discarded the shells. Felix explained to us that at 73 he still needed to work for eight years before he had earned the required years for his pension fund. Futuro Forestal had been the only employer in his long years of hard work that had contributed to his social security. Then again, he acknowledged that work was the only thing that kept him going. The knees were getting stiffer by the day and with no physical work to look forward to it would be increasingly difficult to get up in the morning.
From a small start Futuro Forestal had grown to be a solid and very professionally run operation. It currently managed reforestation projects over some 500 hectares but there was considerable potential to increase this manifold. One of the main tasks was to scout for and purchase suitable land with sufficient soil quality and topography. Now the scale was still so small that people could just write it off as an interesting yet somewhat idealistic experiment: “I like what you’re doing – but I am making money with my teak.” Andreas and Iliana want to grow their company so large that its approach and successes cannot be ignored. Their ultimate goal is to change how reforestation is done in the tropics through the restoration of biodiversity.
That particular day ended on the Pacific beach just half an hour’s drive away from Las Lajas. The sun setting into the Pacific turned the sand first golden, then yellow before fading into dark red. Pelicans were fishing in the coastal waters as we sat down to enjoy well-deserved Panama beers that a sweet and shy young girl running a bar from a wooden shed on the beach fished from an icebox. Yoko had found a bunch of new four-legged friends and was scratching a scrawny mongrel on the wooden bench. What unusual happiness for the little beast while her friends were scuffling in the sand. What unusual happiness for us tired, dusty and muddy humans. The night on Panama’s Pacific coast falls quickly. The village was alive with people and dogs. But by sleeping time only the sound of crickets and a mild wind from the cordillera soothed us to a deep sleep. I was dreaming of a future where people would live in harmony with each other and the other creatures that inhabit the forest. Clearly, such a future is possible as long as we don’t accept environment destruction as an inevitable price for progress.
© Juha Uitto 2004