Watershed Ecology Program in Central America

Classrooms all over the world are preparing to participate in a new watershed ecology program in Central America. This education and eco-tourism project is in Parque Internacional “La Amistad”, a biosphere reserve and World Heritage Site shared by Costa Rica and Panama, as designated by the United Nation’s Scientific, Educational, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). International students will study alongside local students whose participation is funded by grants. Together they will study in programs developed by the Big River Foundation, operated by indigenous and international teachers, side-by-side.  All will return home with tools and insights important for their own watersheds, and with unforgettable memories of an adventure of a lifetime.

What is watershed education?

Watershed conservation and education programs are essential for our collective future.  Healthy communities are impossible without healthy rivers.  As water flows over ground and along rivers, it gathers nutrients, sediment, and pollutants which are transported with the water to affect ecological processes throughout the basin.  Watersheds act like funnels, concentrating, filtering, and distributing water.  We all live in watersheds.

Forty percent of the world’s watersheds are already experiencing severe problems, and the world’s population is growing rapidly. Without focus and reform in watershed management, dozens of countries will soon be coping with disasters caused by unhealthy watersheds and the collapse of associated ecological systems. (World Bank Institute Water Policy Reform Program, 1999)

The Big River Foundation has pioneered programs addressing these issues. Programs range from one week introductions to watershed ecology, to three-month intensive programs related to the environmental science, politics, and economics of watershed ecology. Teachers will begin with explorations utilizing kayaking and rafting to engage students in water sampling techniques, analysis, and conservation strategies. The program will help teachers develop curricula to bring nature into their classrooms, and to take their classrooms into nature upon returning home.

Central America’s Perfect Watershed Classrooms

In the Americas, communities with the healthiest watersheds and most-intact ecosystems are found where development has been most modest, in areas inhabited by indigenous Naso, Ngöbe-Buglé, and BriBri populations in the highlands of Panama and Costa Rica. These indigenous communities face challenges today similar to those faced by settlements colonized centuries ago.  Knowledge, awareness, and technology, however, have improved exponentially since colonial times.  Today these communities are microcosms of ecological hope buffered (for now) from ecosystems far further out-of-balance than their own.

These communities are ideal ‘classrooms’ for exploring sustainable development concepts that balance the needs for healthy rivers with the development needs of healthy, growing communities.  On the border of Costa Rica and Panama, we find some many of the most sparsely-inhabited watersheds in the western hemisphere. Many rivers originate in the mountains along the ‘Cordillera Talamanca’ … home of La Amistad; National Park Volcan Baru, the 2nd highest peak in Central America; and the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé, a sparsely inhabited stretch of the Cordillera Talamanca. Programs will pull local students from across the Cordillera to participate with international students and teachers.

Big River Foundation Chair with Captain Sanchez

Nothing Alters a River as Completely as a Dam

Some of this region’s rivers are pristine, most are healthy; some at lower elevations are stressed by agriculture, still others are dammed.  Indigenous communities’ resources in this region are coveted for hydroelectric and development projects.  It seems not even UNESCO World Heritage Site status is sufficient to protect virgin rainforest from the engines of economic development.  In 2011, the first roads and bridges are being constructed at the entrance to the international biosphere reserve La Amistad to support a dam. “Nothing alters a river as totally as a dam. A reservoir is the antithesis of a river – the essence of a river is that is flows, the essence of a reservoir is that it is still. (P. McCully, 1996)

One dam alone was sufficient to depose a king in this rainforested paradise. The Naso tribe maintain the last kingdom in the Americas, within the La Amistad biosphere reserve.  King Tito’s sale of his people’s natural resources, against their wishes, led to his being overthrown in the wake of his agreement allowing roads and businesses into La Amistad. In 2004, King Tito was deposed following his approval of this hydroelectric project now underway in Naso Territory.  His rule was rejected in a civil uprising in the Naso capital of Seiyik and he was forced into exile in Changuinola. Panama’s National Assembly has not officially recognized the Naso’s new leader, who remains opposed to dams according to the wishes of the majority of his people, who wish to live in healthy communities with healthy rivers.  His name is King Valentin Santana.

King Valentin Santana

World Heritage Site: Parque Internacional La Amistad

Meanwhile, UNESCO reports that Panama is lagging in the monitoring and reporting requirements necessary to preserve La Amistad’s World Heritage Site status, possibly because of the potential to sell concessions for development rights for additional dams within the park itself. The case of the proposed dams in La Amistad was presented to the American Commission on Human Rights in June, 2010.  Such international scrutiny is problematic for development planned in resource-rich indigenous territory, as Panama is finding out with the proposed expansion of mining rights in Ngöbe-Buglé territory.  An excellent PhD dissertation on this subject highlights the need for greater care, skepticism, and scrutiny “when assessing the objectives and justifications provided by the academics, government agencies, local authorities, and private companies involved in the conservation and development of indigenous peoples’ territorial resources”.  (J. Paiement, 2007)

Big River Foundation’s programs are not politically motivated; eco-tourism development and education are the goals of the program. These goals are high priorities for Panama’s current administration, indigenous communities, and international aid organizations.  Big River Foundation’s programs address watershed conservation and education in classrooms and on rivers, utilizing kayaks and rafts to engage students and to develop eco-tourism revenue for local populations.  These programs are good for each of the region’s stakeholders.

Organization for the Development of Sustainable Eco-tourism for the Naso (ODESEN)

The Naso live in 11 communities along the Rio Teribe which is Spanish for the Naso “Tjër Di”.  ‘Di’ means ‘water’ and ‘Tjër’ means mythical “Grand-Mother”, who was endowed by God with the secrets of botanical medicine (Instituto de Estudios de las Tradiciones Sagradas de Abia Yala, 2001). In the Naso culture, grandmother water nurtures mother earth. The Naso live “off the grid” and raise their food in abundance. There are both family and communal farms in each village. They have no roads; the river is their highway. They also travel by footpath and horseback. They sell excess crops to import the few things they need but do not produce, such as machetes.  Here cacao is picked for chocolate from community farms and floated to market with zero ‘carbon footprint’.

Rivers were "roads" without pollution, long before "roads" existed.

Big River Foundation’s partner organization is ODESEN, the Organization for the Development of Sustainable Ecotourism for the Naso. ODESEN works with ANAM in the area of resource conservation in Naso territory. Ideally, this organization will play a greater role in monitoring and reporting to UNESCO on the biodiversity, with the aid of students and teachers worldwide.

Many organizations have recognized the Naso for their sustainable land use practices, including UNESCO, The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, Panama’s National Assembly, University of Panama, and the London Museum of Biology, which conducted the only formal exploration in La Amistad in 2006 to generate baseline biodiversity information for the park. (This first and only expedition lead to the discovery of 31 species new to science.)

In summary, no group or region provides a better classroom for studying the interplay of watershed ecology and sustainable development issues than the Naso in La Amistad. Sustainable indigenous communities face increasing pressure to develop their lands beyond the capacity maintained for thousands of years by subsistence-based land use.  Why did the Maya abandon their amazing cities? No other large-scale society has collapsed to be replaced by nothing. “The Maya collapsed because they overshot the carrying capacity of their environment; they exhausted their resource base” (S. Morley, 1930).

Panama City and San Jose are already exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment in Central America. How smaller communities decide to address such issues, outside of the culture of conspicuous consumption, is as essential for them as it is for societies already out-of-balance with the ecosystems which sustain them.  It has become clear in cities where citizens can’t drink the water, can’t breathe the air … man must seek balance between modern desires and the needs of mother earth and grandmother water.

Foundation's Executive Director with Team ODESEN

Big River Foundation

The philosophy that guides Big River Foundation’s mission is simple:  “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and, we will understand only what we have been taught.” This thought comes from a 1968 speech by Baba Dioum, Founding Member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Executive Governor of the International Council for Environmental Law.

We live today in a world where children are increasingly divorced from nature. This disconnect has profound implications for the health of future generations and
“the health of the Earth itself” (C. von Zastrow, 2008).  We must go beyond introducing children to science solely in classroom lectures; we must foster stronger connections to nature, and a respect for this biosphere that supports their very existence. We must teach them to study, understand, love, and nurture healthy rivers and watersheds, so that the ecology has a chance.


About Stephen Kaczor

Co-Founder, Big River Foundation; Writer, Alternative Emerging Investor; Producer, Grandmother Water; Organic Farmer in Panama
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6 Responses to Watershed Ecology Program in Central America

  1. Nevia says:

    Good job Stephen! Very impressive and important work. Please keep it up! Nevia

  2. Jennifer says:

    Pura vida! Proud of you!!! Honored to know you and be a part of your project! Let’s get the treatment ready NOW for the doc….. k?
    Big Hugs!

  3. Bruce says:

    This kind of work is essential for the survival of the region and the way of life of its indigenous people. Let’s all work toward a solution that respects the precious nature and culture of this unique corner of the world! Many thanks for your great efforts!

  4. Pingback: Changes in Latitude » Blog Archive » La Amistad International Park – World Heritage Site

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