The last few days of our research were the highlight of the program for me. Our second and final field work location was at the top of a rather steep hill to the northeast of Bermejo from last week. We arrived at the foot of the hill, met our guides, then set off up the steep slopes of Altos de Espave. The trail was rocky, narrow, and very slippery. I was terrified of going down in rain, but luckily we had very nice weather the whole time.
Along the trail, we saw some amazing wildlife. Bananas, papaya, stinging nettle flowers, crab spiders, tarantulas, banana spiders, frogs, swarms of migrating ants, and African bees. Sounds terrifying, but I loved every second of it!
About 1km north and 350m higher in elevation, we found the community’s excavated spring aquifers and reservoir tank. We returned to the site for the next two days, taking water samples at the source and exploring further up the hill looking for point-source pollution. Towards the top, we found a large open cow pasture with a very steep slope. Atop the pasture, we had an amazing view of the surrounding landscape. Fortunately it was a clear day, so the photos give some justice to these mountains.
We made it to the river without a drop of rain! Most of us jumped in, but I stayed out and mostly took pictures of spiders. Still, a great and relaxing afternoon. The water was crystal clear, and the surrounding area was gorgeous.
Also, I’ve been fiddling with the settings on my camera a little and finally got a decent picture of the mountains here. This last one almost does them justice!
Today has been great – so far! We are all taking a break after visiting an organic farm all morning and the weather is currently determining our afternoon plans. Yesterday, after some community work in an orange field, our team was caught in a deluge of rain from the heavens. Luckily, we all made it back safely with smiles on our faces and dry electronics in our backpacks! I have been very surprised with how little rain we’ve seen so far in Panama. It’s still extremely humid, but for the past week the rain has come in about 30-minute periods each day in only light showers. I was very happy to be soaked through after a hot day in the sun.
The organic farm was a pretty neat experience. The people there were very friendly and showed us their coffee, cucumber, bananas, mandarin oranges, a rare white Panamanian corn, broccoli, rice, papaya,orchids, and so many others I can’t remember! They also cooked for us a delicious lunch of rice, beans, pork (but not for me!), salad, and two different kinds of plantain. One was the double-fried green plantain, and the other was one we hadn’t had yet, but it tasted very similar to Platanos en Tentacion. The best way I can describe the latter is apple pie in a glazed banana-like form. It is incredibly delicious.
Also, we got to see the Santa Maria again! It’s nice to finally see the river after studying about it so much. Hopefully we can go see it this afternoon when it stops raining!
-And as I type we leave for the river!
Bermejo was our first field work site. We spent three days in total here interviewing the local water board (JAAR), learning about their water reservoir and aqueduct, and then doing our own tests on water quality and GIS analysis of the area. We split our team into two groups: water team and GPS team.
Each day, the water quality team stayed near the source and did chemical tests on the water from the community’s reservoir ranging from ph, salinity, coliform presence, turbidity, and so on. The GPS team went uphill of the source so see what sorts of possible pollutants may be affecting their water supply. We are currently processing our data with the maps and SRTM DEMs we made from class over the past two weeks to determine the site’s microwatershed. If we can locate from which points water accumulates in the area, we can determine which houses and environmental factors uphill of Bermejo may be affecting their water source.
Here are a few highlights from our days in Bermejo, we’re having a blast!
I don’t have time to upload my posts from yesterday and today, but I will upload a few scenic photos from our field work:
Arachnophobic friends should stop scrolling at this point. Panamanian Tarantula 🙂
Day three was a very busy day for our team. We left our cozy Holiday Inn in Panama City at about 7:00 and drove five hours out to Santa Fe. The drive wasn’t bad at all and we made a few stops for some delicious food on the way. All of the food so far, by the way, has been absolutely delicious. When we arrived at Santa Fe, we dropped the girls off at the house of a prominent community member, Senor Jacinto. The guys were driven down the road to the main restaurant, which has boarding rooms upstairs that we have been staying in. The girls joined us shortly after for lunch downstairs, where we ate rice with beans, chicken/pork (but not for me), a salad, and plantains. This constitutes the “classic” Panamanian meal. The plantains have been an interesting experience for me: they are amazing, but they are so filling that I have trouble eating more than a few. We’ve had yellow plantains glazed in cinnamon and fried green plantains.
Throughout the afternoon we met with several members of the Hector Gallego Foundation and the local cooperative. Hector Gallego was a Colombian priest who came to Santa Fe for missionary work. He taught the locals his religion and instructed them on proper business tactics so that they could better take care of themselves. Gallego was kidnapped and never heard from again in 1971, but his legacy is carried on by members of the Hector Gallego Foundation, who work to promote education and serve the community.
We toured the local coffee mill where the coffee beans are grown, sorted, ground, and sold. I’m not a fan of coffee, but I enjoyed learning more about the process. After the tour, we went to the local cooperative where we met with the Mayor and several other community members. The main departments of the cooperative are agriculture and education. The cooperative is currently working on installing a bottled water facility and a gas station in Santa Fe (a one hour drive to Santiago is necessary for fuel here). The first floor of the cooperative is the town’s main grocery store, so we all stocked up on water and Pringles.
The view here in Santa Fe has been absolutely amazing.
Later on Monday afternoon after we ate lunch, we went upstairs in the CATHALAC building to speak with Joel Perez about how climate change has affected Panama. We discussed the differences between hazards (natural disasters, physical conditions) and vulnerability (cultural, political, economic dispositions of a community). Joel explained that the main hazard that Panama has faced recently has been an extended dry season, causing drought conditions that leave the impoverished rural communities particularly vulnerable. The most important question Joel left us with was this: What kinds of information or data could be useful to these communities. In later meetings with cooperative and JAAR members of Santa Fe, we learned that our much of our research could be used to help the Santa Fe community, as we shall see in further blog posts.
After our early afternoon sessions were all over, we drove out to the Mira Flores lock of the Panama Canal. The canal’s museum was located near the lock, so we were able to learn more about the history of the canal. We saw some very useful demonstrations of how the locks work as they raise and lower the water level so that ships can pass from the Caribbean to the Pacific and vice-versa (I’ll admit, I really didn’t understand myself until I saw them in person).
We learned that each boat requires about 52 million gallons of fresh water to cross the canal. Many plants and purification centers are located near the locks, so they are able to sell both water and electricity. What I found most interesting was that the canal was forced to close in 1997 due to an extreme drought caused by the El Niño. The effects of El Niño in Panama baffle me, because the event seems to have the opposite effect on most of the country compared to the rest of Latin America. I’ll have to research this more closely when I return stateside!