In Focus, April 2004
by Abigail Rome
Fifteen years ago the Panamanian army often dropped soldiers into the middle of the thick tropical forest with only a canteen and a knife to test the survival capabilities of its recruits.
The young charges would need to find their own food, fend off wild animals and eventually find their way back to Pana Jungla, the military survival training school located on the banks of the Teribe River in western Panama.
Today's visitors to the forest have a very different experience as honored guests of the indigenous Naso (Teribe) people.
With assistance from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) as part of its strategic approach to connect critical areas through economic incentives in Southern Mesoamerica, the Naso are further developing, managing and marketing their Wekso Ecolodge.
The lodge is located on the border of La Amistad Biosphere Reserve near Bocas del Toro, Panama, a priority focus area for CEPF in the Mesoamerica biodiversity hotspot. La Amistad has one of the highest rates of unique species in all of Central America and greater biodiversity than most other areas of equal size anywhere in the world.
The Naso live in small communities along the Teribe River next to La Amistad International Park and the Palo Seco Forest Reserve. These two protected areas, along with the soon-to-be-declared Comarca Naso (or Naso indigenous reservation), form part of the larger Biosphere Reserve.
For hundreds of years, the Naso have enjoyed the riches of the forest - hunting, fishing, cutting trees and extracting plants. With a population of approximately 3,500 and a unique form of government—the only nation in the western hemisphere ruled by a king— they have, until recently, been able to sustain themselves well.
However, in the mid-1990s, they began to see their world changing in ways they didn’t like.
“We live here because we like the forest,” relates Eliseo Vargas, a member of the the Organización para el Desarrollo Ecotursitico Naso (ODESEN, or the Organization for the Sustainable Development of Naso Ecotourism), established in 1995 to develop community-based ecotourism to generate income and improve the lives of the Naso people.
“We have always used the forest to satisfy our needs, but until recently we didn’t notice that we were harming it," Vargas says. "As a result of the environmental education we have received, we now realize that to continue to live here, we need to find alternative lifestyles that do not endanger the forest."
ODESEN found an ideal ecotourism site in the former Pana Jungla training camp, abandoned since 1989 when the military regime ended. With the help of Conservation International (CI) and government agencies, they built a rustic lodge and received training in tourism operations and environmental education.
The first five years of their tourism venture saw a slow but steady increase of visitors, but without additional infrastructure, a business and marketing plan and additional training, economic and conservation success seemed uncertain.
When ODESEN members learned that the CEPF Mesoamerica program emphasizes the integration of diverse partners to conserve critical areas in their region, the Naso jumped at the opportunity to work with CEPF. Their desire to protect their forest while also using it is consistent with CEPF’s philosophy. However, it wasn’t easy.
“We understand the theory, but the practice of fundraising is more difficult for us,” Vargas says. He is referring to the job of writing proposals, determining objectives and defining indicators of success, requirements for applying to CEPF. “Luis Murillo helped us through the application process. It involved many meetings and much discussion among the Naso people.”
Murillo, the regional coordinator for CEPF in the Talamanca-Bocas del Toro and Talamanca-Osa biodiversity conservation corridors of Southern Mesoamerica, and Eladio Beitia, a businessman from the nearby city of Changuinola and an active member of ODESEN, concur that working with community-based groups is one of the most difficult and rewarding aspects of their conservation work.
Beitia says, “This project gives me a lot of satisfaction. I have a lot of confidence in the Naso. They understand the forest, and they will feel the direct benefits of their success.”
He and others see a real market for ecotourism in the lowland rain forest along the Teribe River. Already, Changuinola is the jumping off point for thousands of national and international visitors who go to Bocas del Toro, a cluster of Caribbean islands well known for their excellent snorkeling, diving, beaches and wildlife.
The Wekso Ecolodge will offer ecotourists an alternative adventure: an opportunity to experience the vast biodiversity and cultural diversity of inland rain forest while also contributing to its conservation.
The partnership aspect of the project extends beyond the ecotourists, the Naso people, ODESEN and CEPF. It includes the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (the Panamanian National Authority of the Environment), as it owns the former military training school and maintains a park office nearby; and another Naso nongovernmental organization, the Asociación de Médicos Tradicionales Naso (the Association of Traditional Naso Healers). The association, known as ASOMETRAN, was established to conserve and revitalize the centuries-old knowledge and practice of shamanism and medicinal plants use.
During its eight-year existence, ASOMETRAN has established medicinal plant gardens in three Naso communities; participated in a series of educational exchanges with traditional healers from other communities and indigenous groups; and established a small herbarium of dried plants – activities helped with support from CI and the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group.
Its members are also seeking to further their work in collaboration with the Wekso Ecolodge. They hope to improve and amplify their gardens and open them up to visitors. In addition, they plan to produce a book on medicinal plants and Naso culture and establish a 10-hectare medicinal plant forest. These activities will enhance ODESEN’s ecotourism program, and will contribute to the conservation of natural forest and Naso culture.
Meanwhile, ODESEN has been busy improving its tourism infrastructure. A new water system is in place, the kitchen is being enlarged, sleeping quarters are expanding and a new dugout canoe for transporting visitors has been launched. Next steps include developing a business plan and presenting Wekso to tour operators in Panama City.
With these new facilities and more to be constructed, future visitors will have a hard time considering their experience even remotely akin to jungle survival training. At the same time, the Naso will be better able to generate income from the forest while also conserving it.