After being introduced to creeping human land changes and their consequences on ecosystem functions in Altos de Campana, we flew across the country to a place where human land changes are minimal: La Comarca de KunaYala, an indigenous autonomous territory.
38% of Panama’s territory is protected. 30% of Panama’s territory is indigenous territory.Interestingly,60% of Panama’s remaining primary forest is within Indigenous territory. We went there in order to understand what is the role of Indigenous communities in conservation and we left there with a hole new set of questions.A 20 person, tiny and noisy air plane took us there. He flew at sunrise above Panama city, across agricultural lands, into the clouds and finally above a markedly homogenous area of primary forest.
We landed on the coast, across the village island of Ukupseni. A bridge connects mainland where the landing strip, a school and a cemetery are, with the small island. In this tiny island, approximately 2000 Kunas live in small houses made with bamboo walls and roofs thatched with palm leaves. From all the village islands of the Comarca, Ukupseni holds a special characteristic because back in 1925, leaders and community members of Ukupseni revolted against the police in what they call “La Revolucion Kuna”.Consequently, Panama’s government recognized Kuna’s territory in 1938 to what used to be called La Comarca de San Blas.
We stayed in pairs with host families on the island. Our host families moved their hammocks and let us attach ours for 4 nights. Kunas live in big families: once women get married, the husband has to move to the bride’s house with the mother and father in law. The house where I stayed had uncountable children and the structure of the family is still quite confusing. Nephews, daughters, second marriage sons, cousins and neighbors gathered one of the nights we were there to watch a telenovela in one of the two rooms of the house of mud floor under the palm roof and the hanging clothes .
We got to have lectures in spanish given by Kunas themselves in the primary school of Ukupseni, right next to the water. Lectures were about Kuna’s culture, traditional knowledge, indigenous rights and indigenous relations with nature. It was an awesome opportunity although we all were pretty sleepy since we had had very active field days the previous days.
In Kuna Yala we got to contribute to a long-term monitoring study of mangroves, coral reefs and sea grass. Separated in groups, we were distributed in each of the sites and conducted the same methodology other PFSS students in previous years have done. I was lucky to be in the coral one and go snorkeling as a lab exercise! We had to count, along a transect the diversity of corals by going in and out of the water to shout what we had seen to the note taker sitting on a dugout canoe nearby. We saw mostly lettuce, brain and fire corals,sponges, coralline algae as well few anemones, and lots of macroalgae. That reef was in fact in very bad health, noticeable by a considerable dominance of macroalgae cover which grows on dead corals. Additionally the only few fish we saw contribute to the growth of macroalgae. Héctor Guzman, a marine biologist from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center here in Panama was there to help us with the exercise and told us that the Kuna have depleted the fish of the area and are now even fishing the remaining herbivorous fish, which are beneficial to the reef as they control the pressure of macroalgea’s growth thereby contributing to the coral’s recovery.
Since the 1970’s Kuna’s population has increased by more than 62%, the islands that they’ve occupied since the beginning of the 20th C have reached their maximum capacity. To accommodate their population expansion, the Kuna have mined the corals to build seawalls and landfill their islands. This coral mining along other mismanagement practices of the reef resources have resulted in a decline of 79% of living coral cover of the area in 30 years (I’m taking all these numbers from a conservation biology paper H. Guzman published in 2003). However, coral reefs are protective barriers that brake the energy coming from the wave. Without this natural shield, the waves reaching and damaging the islands are even greater… and this goes without even mentioning the currently experienced sea level rise that only reinforces this problem with serious long-term consequences.
On our last day in Kuna Yala, after conversations with Héctor G. and our professor Catherine, they suggested that we intervene with the hope of improving the coral’s health. So there we went on a boat from reef to reef searching for sea urchins. The idea was to remove a few sea urchins from a better off reef, and introduce them into the reef that was worse off. Sea urchins are herbivores and ideally would help control the macroalgea’s growth thereby allowing corals to recover. Additionally, eating sea urchins is not a common practice in Kuna Yala, and therefore they are not threatened by fishing – hopefully-. We only took 9 sea urchins from a reef after assessing their density, snorkeling back and forth. I took care of the floating cooler where we were putting the sea urchins.
It was quite fun to be swimming fast across the reef to wherever the others were calling me when they had an urchin in hand to pick it up. We did this with two Kuna locals. Catherine was very insisting and clear at explaining to them the situation and the point of this conservation experiment so that they could understand what was going on and why it was important. I believe that it is conservation biologists’ duty to seek solutions, it is up to them to trust their knowledge and propose solutions and even though it may seem like a patronizing action to do it in a place where we don’t belong, I think that as ecologists, we are the ones with the power to put the facts and solutions on the table and then its up to the locals to take care of the situation with an understanding of problems and possible ways to deal with them. Conservation biologists have an understanding of systems and how the removal of components affects the rest, and they have to share this knowledge with non-scientists to make it useful. This is what makes conservation biology a social and scientific enterprise. Being culturally sensitive when explaining conservation projects to the locals is a long term process. Cultural lenses–cognitive frameworks shared by members of a social group that help them make sense of the world- are obviously different across cultures, and cross cultural misunderstandings can greatly lead to failures of conservation projects. We learned that considerations of local customs and values are super important when developing/designing conservation projects because projects have to be locally inspired and relevant for their objectives to be achieved. And for that it is key to be reflective, which is to have the ability to analyze the assumptions embedded within ones’ own cultural lenses when doing conservation efforts. One should not assume superiority of the scientific method in generating knowledge. Two-way cross cultural understandings are very valuable in any collaborative project… We have so much to learn from the Kuna’s protection of the forest for example, and we (PFSS students), as we’ve been monitoring the state of their mangroves, corals and have observed from the data a clear decline in their health, we can warn them about this situation and propose them solutions. It is tricky because the resources they are depleting is to fill their needs…
Anyway I could go on and on since we learned so much in Kuna Yala but its getting too long… But in general we discussed quite a lot the contrasting states of the sea and the forest as a consequence of Kuna’s cosmology and culture. The answer was multifactorial and had to do with the formation of Kuna’s cosmology that took place when they lived back in mainland in the tropical forests of Panama and Colombia (they’ve only moved to the coast and inhabited the islands since the mid nineteenth century). The Kuna have a sacred respect for the forest but perhaps their relatively recent relation with the sea is not so much part of their cosmology. Interestingly, they bury their deceased on mainland, on top of hills. We actually had a walk to the cemetery of Ukupseni. It was the most beautiful and peculiar cemetery I have ever seen. The deceased are buried with all their personal belongings in their hammocks hanging in holes on the ground. To protect the graves from the rain, they build palm roofs on top, just like the roofs of their own houses. Every morning, family members, especially women,leave the island, cross the bridge, walk up the hill and spend time with the death, cooking and chatting with each other under these palm roofs. The view from the graves to the coast from above was astonishing…
We also discussed how Kuna’s traditional knowledge is inevitably being eroded leading to practices that are not as sustainable as they used to, mainly in response to population growth and overture to other cultures only to mention a few factors. This happens to all cultures however: cultures cannot stay static over time. The rate of change is what is important, the ability for a society to adapt to those changes and their related resource management is what matters. How traditional knowledge is transferred and what are the societal structures that allow or not this to happen was another big topic. Measures that force kids to go to school or even laws that forbid ‘child labor’ for example have effects that I had never thought of before this trip: spending time away from their parents, away from their household routine working with the parents, means reducing the time parents can teach their children all their cultural practices such as fishing, cooking, sewing, hunting, working the land, dancing etc. And this affects the conservation of traditional knowledge which is mostly transferred orally for indigenous peoples… The school in Ukupseni is now making efforts at integrating traditional knowledge and Kuna language in addition to Spanish to their curriculum.
Another big topic touched on the concept of poverty and how poverty indices are not quite culture specific and therefore are often not applicable to different societies. For example the Kuna may appear as poor people according to western indices although when we asked directly to our host family if they considered themselves poor, the dominant answer was “no…”
Few! so much more to say, but I’m going to end it now as I am already quite delayed with this. Gladly I have another journal with more thoughts taken non the spot…
All the photos were taken by Will Miller since we considered it was not very respectful, from our position of foreign students, to be all taking pictures of our times in Ukupseni. All pictures taken with Kuna people were actually sent back to the community. Sadly we recently learned that last week 43 houses in Ukupseni burned down affecting more than 250 people who lost everything (each house hosts many Kunas!). Today, along with the printed pictures we got organized and sent them food, clothes, soap, utensils and a letter…