Watershed Watch Expeditions

Expeditions this month scout sites for our recently announced Watershed Expedition School, along with our amazing indigenous partners at ODESEN, the Organization for the Development of Sustainable Ecotourism for the Naso, the last Kingdom in the Americas. After much exploration, we agree that Palenque is the place.

Palenque is a sacred river valley where the spirits of rainforest river ancestors live among almond trees, abandoned banana and cacao plantations, a river teaming with yummy fish (Boca Chica) and colorful tropical fish that seem, at first, to be out-of-place in a river.  But this international biosphere reserve (La Amistad) is one of the most biologically diverse places left on earth; so there are no real surprises…

Rio Teribe Watershed School Swimming Hole

… except for the multiple hues of blue water that seem more like the Caribbean than a river … except for the canyon-like rock formations that seem better suited to a desert than this rain-forested paradise … except for the fact that we drink water straight from the river and feel great four days later … except that the only scientific expedition to this territory recently revealed more than 30 species not previously known to man … except for the fact that this territory is still ruled by a king.

Freshwater Crab on Sublime Riverside Beach

The old ones are not forgotten in this mystical place. The Naso are known inside La Amistad International Park as Tjer Di, and Palenque is known by the names of its abandoned pueblos, Sheg and Klouua, and the tributary Skinyic. The Tjer Di make annual pilgrimages to these pueblos to visit their ancestors, who moved downriver 50 years ago for a better education in the schools of the main pueblos, Sieyik and Sieykin.  Not everyone moved downriver, Palenque’s beaches and islands are guarded by giant iguana. We are honored to be invited to help the Naso share this mystical place with students and teachers from all over the world.

Raphael fishes with a snorkel mask and underwater slingshot.

Palenque is the staging point where the foundations students departing from Costa Rica hike to meet their kayaks, camping inside La Amistad’s one million acres of tropical biosphere reserve. From here students, teachers, and indigenous guides paddle toward a Caribbean island, home to two tropical research stations, pausing for outdoor scientific inquiry, ecological and environmental education.  Where the river meets the sea, they are met by the catamaran “Biosphere I” to sail to Bocas del Drago for their final courses regarding how the health of rivers effect the watershed and the sea, and for a graduation ceremony.

The lodging standard approaches perfection.

This amazing educational adventure will be the focus of monthly updates.  For now, the focus of this photo travel log is the journey from Palenque.

Your guides were river men from birth.

We camp inside an UNESCO World Heritage Site is 14 kilometers from the border of Costa Rica, in Panama, where students and teachers hiking into La Amistad from Costa Rica will meet their indigenous Naso guides, share meals, continue their coursework, and depart for the kayaking segment of the three-pronged program: mountains, river valley, to the sea. The dymanics of turbulence are thoroughly explored.

Supplies and kayaks are delivered to Palenque by Indigenous Naso long boats.

One of the many interesting things students first learn is how cold the nights can be in the tropics. Another is how people live sustainably off the land. Edwin & Adolfo are two of our program’s leaders. Their grandfathers lived in Palenque 100 years ago.  This weekend their team pulled 7 fish from the river for dinner … in mere minutes.  As a testimony to the biodiversity of this place, we find fresh water crabs, an eel, and good-sized freshwater shrimp.  This is a healthy watershed. The species of birds, butterflies, frogs, and other amphibians is stunning.

Naso Leader Edwin Sanchez with freshwater Eel

This week we developed curricula for short and long programs. The short program involves three days hiking into the watershed, three days paddling, three days of more structured programs focused on watershed ecology and environmental issues, and one day sailing out of the watershed to understand how everything that happens upriver affects the marine environment. In all, 10 intensive, educational and fun-filled days focused on watershed ecology and environmental education… in paradise.

View from a watershed school in paradise.

As we break camp at Palenque, we are thrilled at the prospect of 16km of river running through La Amistad. We pass many waterfalls and tributaries. The river is mostly Class II, with nice breaks by Class I resting spots and Class III rapids for adventure.

Young Naso children enjoying their Rio Teribe

As we cross out of La Amistad into the Palo Seco reserve, we come to the site of a proposed dam. We discuss the effects of hydro-electric projects: pros such as as refrigeration and electricity for schools and health clinics; cons such as cascading biological system failure and the possibility that the Naso’s way of life will be exterminated by decreased river flows making the Rio Teribe un-navigable by boat.

The government covets Naso Territory and has its foot in the door for planned exploitation.

Our next overnight point is at the twin pueblos of Sieyik & Sieykin, where we are invited to stay with the Sanchez family. Here we meet the nephew of King Valentin Santana, Maestro Ricardo Santana, and enjoy the hospitality of the Sanchez family.

Edwin Sanchez with children Marjorie and Gerald.

Biologists know, “Nothing alters a river as totally as a dam. A reservoir is the antithesis of a river – the essence of a river is that it flows, the essence of a reservoir is that it is still” (P. McCully). We discuss ecological sustainability and micro-hydro as an alternative to dams for the Naso. We debate the position of the international community’s efforts in the Rio Teribe watershed, the lifeblood of a World Heritage Site¸and the interplay between domestic policy in Panama and local Naso-driven initiatives.

The political, social, economic, and cultural issues of watersheds are complex, almost as complex as the natural, biological, and ecological systems.  Without the latter, however, there could be no one alive to debate the former. We discuss the consequences of human decisions, filthy cities, biosphere reserves, and the dynamics of watershed management; this is a perfect classroom for exploring such issues because they are playing out presently.

Expedition team: Edwin, Karina, Silivino, Raphael & Noel

Our third overnight point is the eco-lodge at Wekso. We revel in the flora, fauna, and wildlife of this watershed school. ODESEN’s leaders are quick to share their cultures’ view of Grandmother River. She breathes life into Mother Earth. They don’t understand how anyone could sell their mother or grandmother.  But there is a dam being built here, which provides for comparison and contrasts with the upriver experience, especially in water quality samples.

Naso Children at Wekso Ecolodge, courtesy of ODESEN

The Naso avoid “consumer culture” to the extent possible in this interconnected world. That it is possible at all is encouraging for those who don’t believe those two words belong together. That these people are so obviously happy, this is a constant reminder to students and teachers alike … less is more.  My own children will testify to the marks made on their souls by the Naso in 2007. No child should be left indoors to miss this lesson. Help us spread the word, and plan to join a Watershed School program with us?

Karina & Marjorie Sanchez assist with a pre-dawn departure to get me to church on time 😉

Finally we reach the Caribbean Sea, but that is another story.  You are invited to follow and participate in our curricula development. The first course is set for July, after a trial run in June. Next month we will detail the rainforest hike into La Amistad, to be undertaken with our Tico friends. Pura Vida!

Our friend, Capitan Edwin Sanchez, Tjer Di


About Stephen Kaczor

Co-Founder, Big River Foundation; Writer, Alternative Emerging Investor; Producer, Grandmother Water; Organic Farmer in Panama
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4 Responses to Watershed Watch Expeditions

  1. eric says:

    you were right. pow!

  2. Violet Pratt says:

    Outstanding work Steve! which speaks tons of your true love for Mother Nature. I wish you the best on your efforts to bring awareness and education on one of our greatest natural resources in Panama’, as you call it “The Grandmother river” .
    And as for your invitation to explore and be part of this extraordinary educational and fun adventure, well, I can’t wait to actually do it again …:)

  3. Stephanie Mahathey says:

    Beautiful. Are you taking teacher applications now? : )

  4. PJ says:

    Keep on keepin’ on! Great article, and good luck with the new curricula. When there’s so much heart and hard work put into such a worthy cause, things will naturally fall into place.

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