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Tree Bank Panama

Our Tree Bank has sprouted another branch!


The Earth Sangha's Tree Bank program has been working with a community of small-holder farmers in the Dominican Republic, near the border with Haiti, since June 2006. The Tree Bank Hispaniola program seeks to improve farmers’ incomes while restoring native forest on parts of their land. Almost every year, the program expands by one metric or another — in terms of plantings or forest area in care, or in terms of farm credit available or shade-coffee production.


In September 2023, we began the process of opening another branch of the Tree Bank, this time in western Panama, on the Caribbean side of the isthmus, not far from the border with Costa Rica, and only about 20 miles or so, as the harpy eagle flies, from the Caribbean Sea. These two branches are different in many respects, but they share a common theme: both seek to improve economic well-being by conserving or reestablishing native forest.


This new branch will work with the Naso, one of several indigenous peoples who live in that region.  Our partnership is based on a shared belief that indigenous peoples have a crucial role to play in the conservation of their homelands — and not just for their own benefit. Many of these homelands are now of global importance in the struggle against climate change and biodiversity loss. That is definitely true of the Naso homeland.

If you'd like to read more about how our DC area and international programs connect, check out Matt's blog post "Northern Virginia, Hispaniola, and Panama - What's The Connection?"

Some regional numbers:

The Naso homeland (their “comarca,” to use the Panamanian legal term) consists of 400,000 acres of old growth rainforest and rivers. That’s about about 625 square miles. (A local comparison: the land area of Fairfax County amounts to 391 square miles.) But there’s more forest than that; the comarca lies within a group of very large protected areas. 


Most of this is in Panama but one huge park, the Parque Internacional La Amistad (the International Friendhip Park), extends into Costa Rica. On the Panamanian side of the border, these protected areas cover 663,679 acres as far as I can tell. (That includes the Naso comarca.) The Costa Rican side adds another 250,000 acres, for a total of 913,679 acres or 1,428 square miles. An important consequence of this large size: there is likely enough habitat here to preserve stable populations of even the most demanding of the native range-demanding species, like the jaguar or the harpy eagle. That’s the good news. But I should also mention that not all of the official protection has succeded; illegal encroachment is claiming some forests, although thus far very little in the Naso comarca.

Biodiversity and local governance:

These reserves, including the Naso comarca, support an extremely diverse flora and fauna, much of it threatened or endangered. For example, the complement of mammals includes five of the ten neotropical cats; there are also monkeys, sloths, peccaries, the coati-mundi (a kind of tropical raccoon), the olingo (an arboreal fruit-eating relative of the raccoon), tapirs (these look a little like pigs but with long, prehensile snouts), the tayra (a kind of big weasel), and lots of bats. The bird diversity is just as astonishing and offers some of the best birding anywhere in the world. Amistad may be home to as many as 600 bird species. You can see quetzals, toucans, parrots, eagles and many less famous species. Diversity at ground-level is no less impressive. The region is home to the magnificent little poison dart frogs (don’t touch! There’s a reason they’re called that). There are at least 263 species of amphibians and reptiles, including at least seven amphibian species that are thought to be endemic (they don’t occur naturally anywhere else). And over 10,000 flowering plant species are known for Amistad alone. 


Apart from its biological diversity, the Naso realm is remarkable in another way as well: its governance. Over the course of the past couple of decades, land under Naso control has had a deforestation rate of only 0.4 percent, as opposed to the region’s parkland under federal control, where the rate was 1.8 percent, or more than four times as great. Partly in recognition of this achievement, but mostly as a consequence of a court decision in 2020, the Naso have won the right to govern their own lands, but they do that in partnership with their federal government.


Indigenous control of indigenous lands: this is hardly a new idea, but more often a slogan than a fact — or so it seemed to me when the Earth Sangha first contacted the Naso, to learn more about them, and find out whether they could use our help. That was back in April 2022. The response was an enthusiastic yes, since the Naso have no outside funding to speak of (apart from a certain amount of government support) nor any real conservation agenda. (An agenda is needed to manage outside pressures, especially encroachment.) The Naso don’t want to be shut off from the world. They want positive change on their lands — maybe eco-tourism, for example, but nothing that harms their “brother trees” nor anything that would increase damage from a misguided hydroelectric project that was opened in 2011.


There are likely 5,000 Naso (estimates run as low as 3,500). Most of these people live in the comarca, working as small-holder or subsistence farmers. In addition to their farm production, I’m told that some Naso produce clothing or artisanal goods for sale in markets off the comarca. Perhaps a thousand Naso live in towns and cities, usually to study or work.

Our partnership


Formally, our Tree Bank Panama partnership is with Ometran, an NGO founded and run by the Naso. “Ometran” is short for “Organización de Medicina Tradicional Naso.” (The Naso generally speak Spanish as well as their own language.) Like the Earth Sangha, Ometran focuses on plant conservation, broadly defined. Unlike the Earth Sangha, Ometran has no funding of its own and thus far, no way to develop stable, long-term conservation projects.


Our partnership already has a preliminary long-term agenda — a “vision document,” you might call it. I present it below. This is something that I worked out with Reinaldo González Gamarra, our partner in this endeavor and a co-founder of Omertran. Here is a little background on Reinaldo before we get to our vision items: Reinaldo is Naso, as is his wife, Deiny Gissele Nicolas González. They have two little girls, ages 8 and 5. Reinaldo is 35 years old; he’s a nurse in the hospital in Changuinola, the town where the family lives, and he is studying for a degree in midwifery. Changuinola isn’t far from the comarca. To get to the edge of the comarca from the town is only about an hour by car, then another hour by boat.


Reinaldo has seen, not just a lot of forest, but also a lot of ocean, since he worked for a time in the international merchant marine sector. One other interesting item on his resume: one of his uncles was for a time the Naso king! (There is another king now. In the Naso realm you can’t be king for life.) I’m told that the Naso are the only indigenous people in the Americas to have a monarchy. I don’t yet know how their monarchy functions, but I’m sure that we’ll find out. 


Here's a look at that long-term agenda, and after that, I’ll explain our first project.

Our agenda


Our partnership will focus on the comarca’s principal watershed, that of the River Seiy. We will look for practical ways to improve Naso livelihoods while preserving Naso forests and rivers. Interests of the partnership:


  • 1. Reducing poaching, beginning with the “Cave of the Jaguar” area (see banner photo), a sacred site for the Naso of the Siey Kjing community, and addressing other sacred sites as our capability permits.

  • 2. Developing a capacity for forest restoration, for managing the relatively small areas in or near the comarca that would benefit from this type of attention.

  • 3. Developing the comarca’s extensive potential for eco-tourism — including guided hiking, birding, botanical exploration, rafting, and so on — in ways that keep  disturbance of forests and rivers to a minimum.

  • 4. Facilitating or undertaking scientific research on the comarca and its extensive flora and fauna.

  • 5. Assisting the Naso with efforts to promote and maintain their culture, and improve their standards of living.


Our first project focuses on an urgent problem, one that could affect much of the comarca, if allowed to fester. We need to stop or at least greatly reduce the poaching of the comarca’s wild animals. We plan to start by focussing on a sacred area called the Cave of the Jaguar. The Naso recognize sacred areas here and there throughout their realm; this one is on land controlled by Reinaldo’s family, so it’s an obvious place to start. The area includes about 160 acres and, at present, it is home to a huge quantity of game animals — but that’s not entirely a good thing, since the hunters are driving more and more game into this tract from neighboring areas that are increasingly poached out. And we know that poaching now occurs in the Jaguar Cave area because Reinaldo and his family have encountered the poachers.


This hunting is entirely illegal and may occur at any time of the year. The hunters use modern equipment — rifles and shotguns — so they’re very efficient. Dogs are also brought in to track game, and of course the dogs cause additional disturbance. The hunters will take just about anything that they find, from little “painted rabbits” on up to the big creatures in the forest canopy — the monkeys and birds. Some of the resulting bushmeat is consumed by the hunters’ families but most of it is sold outside the comarca, at local markets. Unfortunately, it commands a very good price.


This poaching threatens the forest on several ecological levels, because the animals and the trees need each other. Sorry to sound like a children’s book, but it’s true! The animals pollinate, disperse seed, and renew soil. In return, the trees create habitat for the animals. Damage to one side of this equation inevitably results in damage to the other side as well.


So that’s our first big challenge. And we need to stop this while there are still populations of game animals that could recolonize the area.

What's the remedy?


The remedy that Reinaldo has devised — but not yet implemented for lack of funding —  is to take advangage of the local topography to discourage the hunters, who prefer secrecy for obvious reasons. Here’s how this would work: the Jaguar Cave area has a high point, where visitors can see most of the surrounding forest, including areas not visible from the little nearby “forest farms” growing cocoa and other shade crops in the forest understory. (The poachers don’t like those areas because of the people.) That high point is where Reinaldo plans to build a little, three-room “casa de vigilancia” — a “watch-tower house,” except without the tower. From this shelter, "forest stewards" can use the casa as their base when they walk the trails of the cave area, and the casa could perhaps also be used as a rest area for hikers and birders and other harmless visitors. Based on prior encounters with the poachers, Reinaldo is reasonably confident that this intermittent presence of "forest stewards" will discourage much of the poaching. It may not eliminate poaching completely but it will be a good, solid first step in that direction.


Bear in mind that the hunting is already forbidden. Just being in the forest with rifles and dogs is enough to get you into trouble. Panama has strict gun laws, and the federal police take a dim view of this sort of thing — and they’re in contact with the Naso. Offenders may end up with their gear confiscated. I think that Renaldo recently had a case like that.


The casa will be built in the Naso style, with a steep thatch roof and an open wooden platform as the floor. (See example below.) I think also that there will be a little storeroom. We want the project to be as environmentally benign as possible, so we’re using the minimum amount of timber. There are at least 22 serviceable fallen trees in the area, so most of the structure will be made from those. We’ll cut as little as possible. The overall floor area will probably be about 35 feet by 30 feet. We’ll adapt the dimensions to the site.


A traditional Naso dwelling. The casa de vigilancia will be built in the same style using local techniques and labor. 

Benefits both ways


The benefits of this partnership don’t just run in one direction. The Sangha stands to gain from this work as well. Here are some reasons why:


The Naso are offering us a role in a long-term social experiment that could prove crucial for conserving many tropical forests: are indigenous reserves better for conservation than regular parks? Perhaps not in every instance but the Naso experience is producing fresh evidence in favor of indigenous management, at least when it comes to tropical forest.


We will be working in a region that is still, by and large, in excellent ecological condition. Just to be there is a kind of priviledge.


We will have a sophisticated and very persistent partner. For the Naso, conservation is an existential struggle. Despite their legal victory in 2020, they understand that litigation and public education must now be a permanent part of their agenda.


Our work with the Naso will be relevant to both of conservation’s global crises: the loss of biodiversity, and climate change. (Old growth tropical forest is a major carbon store.)


There is a connection to the sacred. The Naso regard the trees and other plants as their brothers and sisters, because the plants give them their food, water, and medicine. Sounds good to me! We’ll take whatever help we can get.


There is a reasonable level of safety. Naso land is not one of those State Department “Do not Travel” no-go destinations. Of course there is crime but the level of violence is very low by central American standards.


There are first-rate tourist amenities within a day’s travel: beaches, mountains, rivers, and plenty of forest. This could help boost the eco-tourism approach. It could also be good for the Sangha’s own guests. You can’t work all the time!

Banner: Looking our towards the Mirador del jaguar (Cave of the Jaguar), a sacred site for the Naso of the Siey Kjing community, from our project area in Panama. Photo by Reinaldo González Gamarra.

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