Bayano Event Brings three cultures closer
STRI Panama

Eighth grader Enedelis Briceño from the Guna indigenous community of Icandí prepared this drawing for the art contest that was part of a community event to bring together groups from different cultural backgrounds who live around Panama’s Lake Bayano. The theme of her art was the importance of the Bayano hydrologic basin.

Before the Pan-American Highway dead-ends in the rainforests of eastern Panama, travelers cross the Bayano River. The damming of the river to provide electricity for Panama City in the 1970s created Bayano Lake, which rearranged the social landscape of the region. Two indigenous groups, the Guna and the Emberá as well as small campesino and afro-panamanian populations, lost some 350 square kilometers of lowland forest to the reservoir. Having relocated to higher ground, indigenous residents are now being crowded out by ranchers from Panama’s central provinces, who continue to clear forest for cattle pasture.

Tensions between groups mount as land speculators also move in, hoping to benefit from the eastward growth of Panama City suburbs.

STRI associate scientist Catherine Potvin, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, was interested in how tropical plants store carbon. This led her to study forest carbon storage and the international sale of carbon credits as a conservation measure. She recognized that it would be difficult for Panama to participate in international conservation initiatives while territorial disputes raged. Her research group received funding from the Lucile and David Packard Foundation for the project “Establishing a new intercultural society for REDD+” from 2010-2012.

That project resulted in “Recommendations of the Advisory Board on REDD+ Conflict Resolution for the Solution of Territorial Conflicts in Panama,” published by STRI with INDICASAT, McGill University, UNESCO, USMA and the Forum and Observatory for sustainability, which will be presented to Panama’s National Land Council later this year.

A new grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, “Participatory and intercultural planning for land use in eastern Panama,” focuses on agriculture, social cohesion and forest protection — to help communities, forest ecologists and scientists to plan more stable futures. This grant supported two documentary film festivals and two workshops to teach students in Bayano to document their own experiences. One group created a short piece on Potvin’s fieldwork. Additional workshops focused on conducting scientific research and implementing better agriculture practices.

The project celebrated its advances last week in Ipetí, where the three cultures live but don’t necessarily interact. “The simple act of bringing together the people so they can talk is a major advance,” said Jorge Ventocilla, a STRI communication associate who helped coordinate the event, first proposed by a rancher association. The event included Emberá and Guna dances and decima campesina, sung poetry popular in the countryside. Volleyball, soccer and basketball games kept the 300 participants engaged between meals. Local schoolchildren participated in an art contest, depicting conservation and cultural themes. “Nothing like this had ever been done before,” said Ventocilla, who expects the event to be held again next year.

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