Catherine Potvin
How are carbon stocks verified by local communities?

As the buzz of chainsaws fill the air, Evelio Jiménez pilots a canoe through the Guna territory of Madugandí in eastern Panama. Timber stacks line the dry-season shoreline and once the water rises with the return of the rain, the lumber will be ferried out. It might appear like another all-too-common scene of deforestation in Panama but Evelio says he’s not worried. Commercial loggers will no longer be allowed to operate in the 230,000-hectare territory by 2014, the Guna leader says. He has already moved beyond timber, anyway. Carbon is his concern.

On this May expedition in the comarca, Jiménez is leading a team of Smithsonian scientists and indigenous technicians who will measure the carbon stocks across 30 hectares. The research will generate on-the-ground carbon estimates that will be compared with a carbon map created by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Carnegie Airborne Observatory. Using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology, the map is considered the most precise nation-level inventory of carbon stocks to date. But the Guna leader won’t trust the results until he and colleagues gather ground data for comparison.

"For (the Guna) to believe the result from this plane is just like an act of faith that they are not necessarily ready to do," explains Potvin, an associate scientist at STRI. Potvin considers views her role as an intermediary between high-end technology and the indigenous understanding of the forested landscape.

Potvin says indigenous peoples involvement is essential to carbon science in Panama. She estimates that 60 percent of Panama's primary forests are on land under the jurisdiction of the country's semi-autonomous indigenous groups.

Potvin’s lab, researches the relationship between carbon stocks and biodiversity in Panama. They also study the natural environment in the context of the societies of the people who live there. Through two decades of working in Panama’s indigenous communities, the approach - which her students call "Science for Empowerment" - seems to be working. After initial guidance and training, locals maintain long-term conservation and research projects.

"This is very important because if this territory wants to engage in a carbon market, for climate change, like payment for ecosystem services ... they need to be able to measure carbon, estimate the carbon, monitor the carbon," says Potvin. Evelio agrees. If the indigenous leaders decide to enter a carbon market, they will be ready. The Gunas will "have knowledge of how many tons of carbon there are in Madugandí," he says, proudly.

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