March 2010

A site development visit to Caizan

March 21, 2010 — garypeg

Peace Corps Panama sends volunteers to potential new sites for future volunteers. They talk to locals to gauge interest and then send sector leaders (who are PC employees) to meet with the locals so they can explain the PC program and evaluate the community. If the community is appropriate and a future volunteer seems like a good match, the community gets a volunteer. March 20 was the second visit to xxxxx (location deleted) for this purpose.

About 15 people from the community came to the meeting in the hopes of getting a PCV. They have several projects and problems they would like help with. A group received a grant from the PAMBC, commonly called the Biological Corridor, an organization which helps protect this environmentally important zone. It does so in part by helping establish environmentally friendly businesses. This group has such a grant, The problem is they do not have a market for the trees they grew with the grant money. ANAM, the government’s environmental agency, suggested they might be able to sell the trees to the hydroelectric project which is right in town, and which is required to plant 10 trees for each one they remove. The group’s trees are ready to plant and there is no offer in sight to purchase the trees.

I would guess that the group started the nursery without ever talking to project management and if they did without getting a commitment. Volunteers almost always find that planning is given short shrift if it is given any at all.

Those present eagerly shared their complaints when asked, except for the 30 minutes when it was raining. Most roofs here are metal and when it rains hard no one can hear. I was wondering if there would be a meeting at all but finally the rain abated.

Towards the end there was some interesting discussion about how the community and volunteer would adapt to one another especially in the first three months when the volunteer is expected to live with host families. Food is a big issue and I explained that Americans do not have a rice based diet and many find the quantity and frequency of rice consumption to be overwhelming. Some might be vegetarian. To help avoid problems they were told not just to serve food but to ask the volunteer what he wants so the volunteer does not feel obliged to eat something they do not want. There was discussion about language, too and cultural differences. Panamanians are very indirect in their communications. We told them to be more direct with the volunteer if they can, since given the language barrier especially at first, it is very hard to decode subtleties.

This community has a housing shortage, as is common in the area. Their last application for a volunteer was not filled because there was not a dwelling the volunteer could rent. One of the locals is fixing something up for the new volunteer. This will be inspected before the volunteer arrives, as will the host families, probably by the regional leader, who is a PCV usually in their third year (you can choose to extend to a third year).

I came in part because I want to organize some training for the groups like this in the area, that number upwards of 15. All of either have projects they are running or would like to have one and they get no training in manangement skills, so their projects often do not perform as well as they could. In this case, no one has been paid for labor on the hope that the payment for their efforts would come when they sold the trees. Without a Plan B those trees are likely to die in the nursery, and you do not have a Plan B if you have never had a Plan A.

Atop Volcan Baru

March 20, 2010 — garypeg

My wet jeans were about as damp as the iffy mattress I slept on and only slightly more so than the sleeping bag, so I did not freeze when I slipped them on. I suppose that having put the jeans underneath a blanket and my sleeping bag into which I added my body heat helped reduce the moisture a bit.

Outside it was bright and cool, perhaps around 60F, the sun warming us up as we walked from one side of the cell phone tower compound to the other looking at nearby Volcan and Cerro Punta, with Costa Rica and the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro in the distance. There was still cloud over both the Pacific and the Caribbean, which changed a bit later just enough to allow me to see Puerto Armuelles on the Pacific side and a patch of emerald blue to the east.

Short video from from atop baru. At the time we could not see either ocean.

After an unusually oil-soaked breakfast – I think they even fried the plastic plates – we took began walking down the moutain on the east side, which will take us to Boquete. On this side the walking is easier, although in parts you are in walking amongst the stones and boulders of what looks like a dry stream bed, so you have to be very careful not to slip. The path is wide and there is no getting lost, unlike the Cerro Punta side, where a Peace Corps volunteer was lost for three days last summer before a small army of searchers finally found her.

The forest is thick on either side but like on the Cerro Punta side there are more birds in Santa Clara or there seem to be and you can easily see them there whereas here the ones you can hear you rarely see.

The trip down took over 5 hours and my thighs began to ache, and I began to slide inside my left boot, banging my large toenail against the front of the boot. The last two hours were difficult. When we reached bottom my toenail was blue. One of the former PCV’s is a nurse and she said I would probably lose the nail. But I had made it and fortunately Lourdes had arranged for someone to pick us up. Even after two ibuprofens I could not have gone much farther.

Video: on our way down the volcan

Climbing Volcan Baru

March 14, 2010 — garypeg

Volcan Baru is a national park and protected area not far from where we live, as the Tucan flies. On March 9th I received an invitation from Lourdes, the leader of one of the local agro-environmental groups. Gorace sells organic produce purchased in the Chiriqui Highlands, to join her and 5 others on a hike to the top, at an altitude of about 11,000? or 3400 meters. From here Balboa, I think it was, who was the first European who saw both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans at the same time, the only place on earth where you can do so except at Cape Horn but that’s at sea level.

We left the next morning at 8:15, although I expected an earlier departure but then again I always expect things to start on time at least when it is important to do so. So I got there at 6 as instructed.

It is a beautiful hike from the Cerro Punto side of the volcano. But is is not easy walking as you pass through three vegetation zones at least, and in places you are on cliffs looking at 30-70? drops on one side. My heavy breathing must have shook the heavens as once we got near the top, 10 hours and who knows how many miles later (at least 8 I think), the lighting and thunder that had been worrying me for an hour now turned into a mostly light rain and hail storm. But we were within an hour of the top, the steepest part of the climb that had me taking one step at a time and then six deep breaths. The younger ones- that would be everyone else- flew by me on the way to secret cabaña Lourdes had secured and which had led me to accept the invitation despite the short notice.

I had delightful company. There were two former Peace Corps volunteers including one who worked with Gorace and another who served in Africa. The former still works for the Peace Corps and the other was a recruiter as well after her two year stint in Africa where she climbed Mt. Kilimangaro! Both were a lot of fun and I learned a lot from them about their time in Peace Corps.
Short video of the climb:

Next entry: At the Top

March 8th

March 9, 2010 — garypeg

Today was mostly about working on PC projects in our office, which is really in my case a desk Anel made for me. Anel lives down the street and he produces various organic products.

In January our sector director asked me to head a project to import refurbished desktops. That is what I worked on today. This means writing letters.

But at noon I showed up at the local school, grades K-9. The government has been pumping money into IT, putting in computers and even internet access. But suddenly they decided not to send teachers. So here is a room with 15 computers (they are 15 short, so some of the computers I will import might show up here) and no teacher. So the principal told the teachers they all had to learn how to use and teach computers. Most of them do not know anything. So Peg and I are going to teach them at least the basics.

Today however was the first day of school and although the principle decided that we should start today, when I arrived things were too chaotic. So he will call when they are prepared.

March 8, 2010

March 8, 2010 — garypeg

Yesterday morning a volunteer friend and I drove to a cabaña high in the mountains (between 8000 and 9000 feet).  This is a good spot to see birds.  Saturday evening we walked into the forest for about an hour.  We heard a lot of birds and saw few.  Neither of us are birders and other than having a book on Panamanian birds and binoculars we are of little use to one another.   While sitting on the deck overlooking the valley, however, I saw what I think was a female quetzal. In the slide show are some of the birds I saw during my previous with Sarah, a true birder.

Sunday morning we not only heard many birds but had 6 good sightings of brightly colored birds plus a few hummingbirds.  This does not count the more run of the mill birds, such as the swifts that were flying about the cabaña.  Most of these sightings were near the forest edge and around the house.

We saw only a single monkey, a spider, but we heard howlers.

Starting at 4 (really at 4:40 by the time people showed up) there was a meeting of our local group.  It lasted until a bit after 8 p.m.!  They were about to start a project to plant a heap of celery and other crops.  The plot of land is an hour walk each way.  One member convinced the others to have each member dedicate a plot for an organic project.  The members will help one another prepare the soil and the like.  Each member will otherwise be responsible for the work and will receive whatever income results.  Organic produce, even if not certified, brings a better price.

The Situation in the Chiriqui Highlands

March 2, 2010 — garypeg

The Thickening Plot

Peace Corps policy prohibits volunteer participation in political activities. Panamanian prohibits political activity by non-citizens. I am reporting here on activities that are occurring in the region in which we are working but we  maintain a neutral posture.

The Old Chiriqui River (Rio Viejo Chiriqui) runs from the mountains outside Cerro Punta, all the way to the Pacific Coast. To call it a river might give the wrong impression. At least from Cerro Punta to our area you can walk across it. It sometimes moves swiftly but no one would call it a river on the scale of the Mississippi. In English we would call it a stream.

The Panamania government has contracted with at least two companies so far to install hydroelectric electricity generating plants. One project is well along towards completion. The one in our area has been started, a least to the extent of the letting of the contract, the completion of the required environmental impact statement and the like, at least some work on the river bed and some work on the dams.  The plans call for somewhere between 6 and 14 such projects, depending on who you ask, on a river that runs approximately 80 miles in length.  The portion of the river in our area will be routed through a 10 foot diameter tunnel for a distance of about 5 miles total in two separate tunnels.

Rio Viejo Chiriqui near Volcan not far from the dam

The project consists of two plants, The Pando and the Monte Lirio.  According to the environmental impact study commissioned by the company,

The Pando and Monte Lirio plants are two hydropower projects configured in cascade on the Chiriquí Viejo River… The Pando hydropower plant (HPP) is located about 4 km west of the town of Volcán, Bugaba District, Chiriquí Province. It includes a 28-meter high dam and a reservoir of 440,000 m3 of usable volume with an average storage of 8 hours and covering an area of 18 hectares, which will allow daily peaking power production; a 5.1 km-long derivation tunnel; and a powerhouse with an installed capacity of 32.9 MW…

The Monte Lirio HPP is located just downstream of the Pando HPP tailrace, about 1 km from Plaza Caisán town, Renacimiento District, Chiriquí Province. It includes a 15-meter high dam but no reservoir; an 8 km-long derivation tunnel; and a powerhouse with an installed capacity of 50.4 MW.

The local environmentalists, or at least some of them, want to change the law so that a hydroelectric project can only take 50% of the river flow, instead of the current 90%.   They are also demanding an environmental study of the impact of the entirety of the 12 or more projects (we have heard varying numbers starting as low as 6.)

Electron Investment S.A. is a Panamanian corporation established for the purpose of constructing the project in our area. As seems common in Panama, they are distributing money to local communities for various projects. .  On March 1 and March 2nd I attended meetings with them at the request of our local community.

On Monday the meeting (the second) was attended by representatives of most of the Renacimiento.  EISA had established this committee a month ago in conjunction with the mayor of our region. The committee meets to approve applications for community projects followed by a vetting process performed by the company to determine feasibility and to compare the various projects approved by the committee.  There were several projects approved having to do with extending electrical service to some more remote areas.

On March 2nd we met with EISA here in our town.  This was to discuss other possible projects in our community, our groups role in the anti-hydroelectric project movement, and to discuss reforestation.   During the meeting EISA expressed an eagerness to work with environmental groups such as ours and dismay with the hard line that others were taking.

EISA has stated their commitment to reforesting the area which will be effected by the installation of around 5 miles of tunnels. This will lessen the environmental impact of the project. Our agro-environmental group has experience in reforestation, although not of the scale of the entire project we are talking about here. But they would like to be in the running for such a project.

EISA learned, however, that some members of our group attended a meeting to discuss whether the areas environmental groups should oppose the hydroelectric projects that the Panamanian government has seemingly sprung on the people.   EISA was not sure if attendance meant support for the subsequent statements made by the organization formed as a result of that meeting, whose acronym is APRODIPA.  Our group, however, has not signed any protest documents nor agreed to do so at this time.  In the meeting EISA seemed to accept our groups statement that it had not signed onto any protest agreement.  Our president, however, did state that the 90%-10% was not right and supported the study of the environmental impact of the project as a whole.

The newly formed enviromentalist group APRODIPA is strongly encouraging our agro-environmental group to join the protest.  If our group enters into any agreement to assist EISA then further projects with the local environmental groups might be in jeopardy.

Our group has decided to not make final decision on the matter until they know more.  Proposals to reduce the amount of water the projects can use and other such mitigating factors might change the political situation. They may or may not be interested in the reforestation project or part of it depending on the offer.  They might decide it’s not worth doing for practical reasons, such as too little money for the work involved, or the intent to use non-native species, or perhaps an upcoming environmental study of the impact of the projects as a whole might clearly show a very negative impact.  By law only individual projects had to have impact studies.

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