Thursday, May 20, 2010

Real Gold in Panama

Searching for treasure but finding gold.

The treasure map lists three places for this bend in the river:

Last Name Lookout, Monkey Falls and Penis Point.

The scroll in the map tube has the next riddle: Arnold Schwarzenegger has a big one, Michael J. Fox has a short one, Cher doesn’t have one and the pope has one but he doesn’t use it anymore.
Which spot in this bend of the river do you look for the next riddle? Most people head to Penis Point – obvious right? You find the next map tube and to your disappointment are the words Wrong !!! That’s right… the best answer is Last Name… you should have headed to Last Name Lookout for the next map tube and riddle.

This is the premise for the Lost and Found Treasure Hunt… a three to six hour journey through the Fortuna Forest Reserve, across rivers and waterfalls, through giant strangler figs and a garden labyrinth that requires both the brains of Sherlock Holmes and the balls of Indiana Jones.

Our team of four, two guys and two girls started off ok, finishing the labyrinth in good time. But around hour three, when, we were told, the record holders had already finished the whole hunt we were deep in the Forest of the Elders unsure of where to go next. Our team of four split into two, saving time by going in two different directions to find the next map tube with the next riddle. My buddy Max and I were pretty damned sure we had the right answer and our fellow hunters Samantha and Adriana were equally certain… we would become rivals with only one pair partaking in the spoils of victory -- Boys against the girls.

Max and I hit our stride solving each riddle the first time and making good time. We were back an hour later at the main lodge and presented the treasure to the owners of The Lost and Found and were already half finished the bottle of Abuelo rum when the girls came back.

The girls came back an hour later just as the sun was beginning to set behind Volcan Baru. ‘We won,’ we told them. But they didn’t seem to care.

"We found gold at the river," Sam said. "Your treasure isn’t even real." Max told them that if they really found gold we would buy them the bottle of rum they would have won for the treasure hunt. Fine with me.

Sam opened her hands and showed us the gold… not real gold but actually a rare gold beetle. She dropped it in my hands and legs digging into my skin made it actually feel like gold. "Nice I told her," but not real gold… it was a trick. Real gold is worth money.

Not so said Spider Ray, a spider expert and sometimes volunteer at The Lost and Found jungle hostel. If you have the right permits these sell for more than $200 a piece. Alas, we had no permits, so I argued, without worth it is not gold and therefore we were not required to buy the girls a bottle of rum.

"Life is not a pursuit for gold all the time," Adriana got philosophical on me. "Real gold is there for those who open their eyes."

That is the way things go at The Lost and Found sometimes… I met birders at my time there that thought the Barenecked Umbrella Bird was gold. Ray thought the rare tarantula he found was gold. Me, I, can’t sit in the forest and wait for gold… I like the adventure. For me gold is the hunt, it’s the river I wouldn’t have crossed or the tree I wouldn’t have climbed if I weren’t on the hunt… even if in the end it is only rum I win… hell isn’t that what pirates spent their booty on anyway?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Trek Photos

If any town could be considered the capital of the Ngäbe Indians of Panama, it would be Kankintú, located up the Kricamola river in one of Panama’s most remote regions, where the mountains of the cordillera meet the vast swampy plane that stretches to the Caribbean. Despite its remote location and difficult access, Kankintu is almost a city, with generator supplied electricity, a huge high school, a hospital, and thriving businesses, including a hostel and restaurants. Everything is boated in from Chiriquí Grande, two hours away by sea. Kankintú, which I had never before seen, was the planned end point for our hike- instead of visiting by boat, we planned on hiking three days down from the highest point of the cordillera on Panama’s Pacific side until we reached this beacon of civilization, which to me had taken on almost mythical proportions because I had heard so much about this Indian metropolis but never seen it.

The trek passes through a forgotten, ancient Panama, tracing the Kricamola River from its headwaters, where it leaves the mountains in tiny streams, to where it grows into a mighty river. It would be inaccurate to say that no one lives there- people do, and they have for hundreds of years. The trail passes through many small Indian villages, and in many areas the hills are stripped of trees and dedicated to subsistence agriculture. But the area is remote- here there are no roads- not even horses or mules can pass the treacherous and narrow trail that winds down from the cordillera, nor can they cross the foaming rivers that break the trail in numerous areas.
On Saturday, August 1st, I set out with four companions: my friends Jim and Ryu, Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Panama’s indigenous sector, and two of Ryu’s friends from the States, Matt and Tim. We went without a guide because Ryu had done the trip before and was confident he could remember the trail well enough that a guide would not be necessary. We brought lots of food- two loaves of bread, hard boiled eggs, tuna, cookies, granola, peanut butter and honey. I brought a bag of cereal. For sleeping I brought a sheet and a warm sweatshirt. My hiking clothes included comfortable, loose fitting pants I had tailored by the Ngäbe Indians. I had been told that jeans are the absolute last thing you want to wear on a long hike- they are heavy, they dry slowly, and they chafe horribly. This is true. You should never wear jeans on a long hike. For walking I brought my rubber boots in the expectation of walking through deep mud and fording streams. My companions went in hiking shoes. In hindsight, I can say that most of the streams we had to cross were deeper than the height of my boots, and most of the trail was very rocky and not so muddy. If I hadn’t already hardened my feet by traipsing around in boots for three years, a three day hike in rubber boots would have been very painful.
The first day we took a truck up to the end of the road, at the top of the mountain range. This was an adventure in itself- the road is barely passable with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and the truck was definitely being put to the test. We were fortunate that on the Pacific side of the country it had been relatively dry, and there was little mud. I find it incredible that the truck makes that trip once a day, weather permitting. The wear and tear must wear it out after just a year. The Pacific side of the country is much different than the Caribbean side, the side in Bocas. It is drier, and the hills have been stripped bare generations ago. At the heights we reached, one can see an endless stretch of brown and olive mountains, outlined in sharp, jagged ridges that descend down toward the Pacific. The air was crisp and even cold. The journey was very bumpy, and we were tossed endlessly around the truck bed- you can get calluses on your hands just from holding on. At one point, where the truck enters a narrow 100 foot passage carved in soft clay more than ten feet deep by previous trips, the truck got stuck. The driver and his assistant hopped out and dug us out with a pickaxe and a shovel. Ryu told us that during the wet season, the truck could spend up to an hour stuck in this ravine. And of course, the digging just makes it deeper and deeper. Fortunately, this time we only spent fifteen minutes getting out. We were encouraged by our luck with the weather, ignorant of massive thunderstorms that were rolling toward the Caribbean side of the cordillera, which we would have to face head on.
We departed on foot around 11:00 from the town of Río Hacha, the last point accessible by vehicle. The trail began wide and easy, and the cool, crisp air kept me from even breaking a sweat. The trail switched back and forth across the small creeks that form the headwaters of the Kricamola, but they were shallow and easy to ford. The trail was for the most part a slow descent. The weather began to turn and it began to drizzle. We passed through villages, cow pastures and corn fields. The indigenous houses we passed by in that area resembled teepees made constructed of bamboo and palm fronds. They are round, with dirt floors and walls only about four feet high made of bamboo or branches. The rest of the structure is made from a steeply sloping circular roof thatched from a species of palm tree. There are no windows or rooms, and the inside of the house is perpetually dark. A fire pit is built in the center, letting smoke escape from the very top. Despite this, the inside of the dwelling is often pretty smoky. As we drew closer to Kankintú, and deeper into the jungle, the housing style changed, giving way to rectangular wooden buildings constructed with uneven wooden boards over wooden posts sunk into the ground, topped with thatch roofs. The difference in style is due to the thick jungle that grows on the Caribbean side, forests long since cut down on Panama’s Pacific coast. We ate lunch in a remote store, which, despite its isolation, was surprisingly well stocked.
As we progressed, it began to drizzle, and the rain slowly increased. The rivers became faster and more difficult to ford, and the trail passed along narrow ledges, large boulders and slippery rock outcroppings. We were surrounded by high peaks, and the growing rivers formed deep valleys with very steep, rocky banks. The valleys are so rugged that the trail can’t stay on one side of the river and constantly crosses back and forth. I can only imagine how difficult a road would be here, considering how treacherous and narrow our footpath was. At one point, about four hours in, we came across cement stairs going up a huge boulder in our path- at the time I was quite impressed by fortitude of whoever had carried the cement clear out there to improve the trail. In one area we had to cross the river in a swing seat pulled across on a cable with a pulley. The operator charged us each a dollar.
We soon began to see evidence of massive mudslides, great brown grooves cut out of the steep green hillsides. Only two weeks earlier, a torrent of rainfall in the region had caused terrible flashfloods along the river, and entire hillsides had fallen. We had come during a bad time for the inhabitants of the region, because so many had lost nearly all of their crops. The deforested hillsides simply couldn’t keep the soil together underneath so much rain. The trails was obliterated by feet of mud in many parts, but we kept going.
At 5:00, after walking for five hours, we arrived, wet and tired, at village called Tolothe, wedged between two steep, towering ridges. Only the very tops retained trees- nearly vertical slopes hundreds of feet above the village were planted with bananas. Tolothe was the first town we encountered with a concrete school, where we intended to spend the night. Even in these remote regions, the Panamanian government has asserted its authority with the constructions of cinder block school buildings, establishing a permanent infrastructure far from any roads. To build the schools, Indian laborers are paid $10 a day to haul cinder blocks and 100 pound bags of cement, on their backs, for hours down the same slippery trail we were hiking, bag by bag, cinder block by cinder block. And schools have been built miles further out than Tolothe. The strength and endurance of the Indians is still impossible for me to comprehend. The human body, even malnourished, is capable of amazing feats of strength. The Indians who live in these mountains are hard as rocks, pure muscle, and they live almost exclusively off of plantains, rice, peach palms and the rare morsel of lentils or even rarer still, chicken. By choice they live in a land so rugged that it is rare to find a spot of flat ground larger than a tabletop. The school in Tolothe had a solar panel array as well, but I discovered that this had been brought in by a helicopter.
In Panama, teachers are a lot like Peace Corps volunteers- they are often young, in their early twenties, and travel from the cities to live in the remote communities where they work. In the case of Tolothe, the teachers, all Latinos, three women and two men, have no choice but to spend almost all of their time in the village. Although all of them, even the one chubbier teacher we met who was trying to curl her hair with tin sardine cans and toilet paper rolls, can walk impressively fast, the trip out is just too much effort to make a weekend excursion worth the trouble. I was impressed by their dedication. They were more than happy to see us as well- visitors are very rare for them. We talked for a while, and they mentioned to us that the bridge north of Tolothe that crossed the river had been washed away two weeks earlier by a flashflood. Another makeshift bridge had been constructed, but it was “dangerous.” They agreed let us sleep in one of the classrooms, but first we took an icy shower and then joined them in watching a movie with Liv Tyler in it on their 16 inch TV, powered by the solar panels. It was ironic end to a strenuous day, watching an American movie far from any kind of civilization. We bought rice and lentils and ate dinner with a local family in their smoky hut. Tim and Matt had their first taste of boiled bananas, and the hot sauce I had brought came in handy. Then we returned to the school house, where I bedded down on a long wooden table, which is infinitely preferable to the cement floor. I was the only one who had not brought a sleeping bag, to cut down on weight. It was cold, and I slept in two pairs of pants and two pairs of socks with my sweatshirt on, using my t-shirts as a pillow. Only in the morning did we discover, to our dismay, that there were mattresses the entire time in a closet.
We set out at 8:00 in a chilly drizzle, just as the first students were arriving at their classrooms. The trail followed the rocky banks of the river to the north of Tolothe, and the going was slippery and treacherous- several times we had to climb over steep rock embankments, feeling for handholds. The farms fell away and were replaced by dense jungle. Finally we reached the bridge mentioned by the teachers. Here the wide river was pressed through a deep gorge twenty feet wide, formed by great vertical stone cliff faces. Twenty five feet below, the water was a boil of white foaming water, churning through the opening with an awesome roar. The bridge had been a suspension footbridge- during the flood, the river at this point had risen 25 feet! In the destroyed crossing’s place were three long tree trunks, lashed together with vines, and a flimsy bamboo railing that served more as a psychological reassurance than an actual support. Nonetheless, here we crossed, with great trepidation, one by one. And we all made it.
After the bridge, the trail headed up, away from the river to cross over the valley in which we found ourselves. It steeply went up and up and up, a calf destroying ascent. This was one of the most difficult and exhausting section of the hike. But the scenery was incredible- we were surrounded by jungle covered valleys and green mountains shrouded in clouds. Finally we reached a lookout point from which we could see, far far below but still a good deal above the river, the fabled village of Piedra Roja.
Piedra Roja means “Red Rock,” but from our vantage point I could not make out the red rock for which the town is famous. Indeed, it didn’t seem like much more than a cleared out spit of flat land with thatch huts, built on stilts in the Bocas style, and a long concrete school building. Piedra Roja is famous among Indians in Bocas del Toro as one of the original villages that gave birth to their people. In anycase, it is the halfway mark of the trail- walking at the pace we were making, it would be a day and a half either to Río Hacha or Kankintú.
We bypassed Piedra Roja to the west and made the very steep descent back to the river. After filling our water bottles at a bubbling brook, we entered the river valley once more, but this time the river had slowed somewhat and entered a narrow but flat plain. The walking became easy, neither hilly nor muddy but a pleasant straight sand course. For the first time we saw rice fields, a crop impossible to grow at the higher altitudes where we had begun. Some of the rice was planted on the mountainsides, other varieties were planted in flat muddy paddies. It was long and vibrantly green, very close to be ready to harvest. The Indians had made scarecrows throughout the paddies by hanging brightly colored indigenous dresses on posts. The sun came out for the first time since we had begun, and, walking among palms, banana trees and rice paddies, hemmed in by high green mountains with a beautiful river before us, I felt like we could have been in Vietnam or Thailand. We reached a smaller river joining the larger one, and here we encountered another cable crossing. The young teenager who operated it tried to rip us off however, so we simply forded the river on foot and discovered that at its deepest it was not more than waist deep. We stopped and made tuna sandwiches on the far bank, a pleasant sand bar, and swam for a while in a calmer section of the river. We probably spent 40 minutes resting here, basking in the sun. Then the sun disappeared and it began to rain again, and we saddled up and hit the trail.
The trail was straight and easy for several kilometers, until we reached the cable crossing of Quebrada Negra. This time we would have no option but to cross on the cable- the far bank was a hundred feet away, crossing another mighty river that at this junction joined forces with the Kricamola. The junction itself formed a large and inviting languid pool of water, surrounded by massive yellow boulders. If we had more time, it would have been a great spot to stop for a swim, but as it were, we still had many miles between us and Punta Piña, our destination for the day.
We waited half an hour for a man to arrive from the village to send the cable car – a small metal square made of rebar - across to our side. There we mounted one by one- I went second. After I was seated and my companions pushed me off, the seat rapidly accelerated until it reached the middle of the cable and their it stopped, thirty feet above the water. From here the operator had to pull me in with a rope.
This last section of the hike was very difficult. Soon we left the river bank and forged upwards once more, away from the river. It wasn’t as steep as before, but it just kept going on and on, and at the end of the day, we were already pretty exhausted. We expected the community to spring up before us at any turn, but instead we encountered just more hills. Ryu, who had hiked this way before, couldn’t remember exactly how far we had to go. We crossed a creek many times, and then went up some more. The ground became muddy and it began to rain again. We began to trudge, demoralized, and night was quickly following when finally we crested yet another hill and arrived at the community. Punta Piña in the twilight was a somewhat sad looking group of huts arranged around a marshy pasture, with a muddy creek running right through it. We had walked from eight to six, 81/2 hours if you count out rests.
This time we sought refuge with an Indian family in their wooden hut, paying them for lodging and for a dinner of rice, boiled bananas and sardines. We chatted with the men and told them of our journey, warming around the fire while the women and children mostly avoided conversation. We slept soon after eating, on an elevated wooden platform made from the bark of a palm tree. In lands where there is no electricity, people sleep early, and as tired as we were, we were glad for it.
It poured down all night. When we awoke at first light, ready for the last day of walking, the little muddy creek separating the house where we stayed from the other half of the community had turned into a raging torrent. I found that my legs were somewhat stiff, but not really sore. We waited until 8:30, after the rain had subsided some and the creek had gone down a little, before attempting to cross. Shortly afterward it began to pour again, and Ryu mentioned for the first time that we would have to actually cross the Kricamola, and with this rain, the thought was worrying. But since we could hardly turn back, we forged on ahead.
The walking was easier that day. There were some steep uphill climbs, but most of it was down hill, not up, back toward the river Kricamola. The last descent was incredible- if the second day was hard on the calves, this day was hard on the knees. On the trail we met some travelers who had departed from Kankintú. One man was walking barefoot, which amazed me- the trail is alternately covered in sharp rocks or slippery mud, and he had been walking without any shoes or boots for many hours. Most of the Indians we had encountered, even the children, wore boots. We were overtaken by another party of Indians, a family heading to Kankintú. One of the women was carrying her small daughter in a chakara, a woven bag carried with the strap around the forehead. This became more remarkable to me when we came to the first river crossing, a boulder strewn rush of rapids and rushing water. They must have crossed it with the child in tow. It was difficult for us to cross, not because of its depth, but because of the strength of the current. At a little more than knee deep, I could hardly stand. We had arrived in a small village called Caracol, just a few houses. Scarcely after crossing the first creek, we had to cross another of even greater intensity. But we made it and headed on.
Upon telling other travelers on the trail of our plans to reach Kankintú before nightfall, we were informed a couple of times that our plans would have to wait, because there was no crossing the Kricamola River that day because it was too high. We began to grow concerned, but we kept up the same pace. For the most part, the going was easy, with gentle ups and downs. When at noon we finally reached the river crossing at Koronte, we found that the rumors were true. To cross the river one has to pay a boatman who poles travelers across, one by one, in a dugout wood canoe. However, with the river running high and fast, he insisted it was too dangerous. On our side of the river waited the family that had passed us earlier. On the other side, several families patiently waited under tall trees to cross while others fished with nets, hoping to catch fish brought down by the flood waters.
Fortunately, it has stopped raining, so we waited in a little shack and ate lunch. Most of Koronte was on the opposite side of the river, so at the very least we wanted to be able to reach the school if night began to fall. We waited for three hours when the boatman agreed to pole us across, in exchange for $2 a person. A little steep, but I’m sure he would not have even attempted to cross if we were not there (the locals pay much less). It was a risky endeavor- we entered the boat up the river, and as we poled across, the current quickly took the small boat and dragged it downriver. The pilot had to pole quickly and skillfully to cross the 75 feet of water and get his canoe to the other side before it got smashed in the rapids downstream. The river was at least 10 feet deep. Then, after depositing one of us, he poled back up the bank, picked up a passenger from the other side, and repeated the procedure tirelessly until we were all across.
It was now 3:00 PM. We were informed that it would take at least five hours to reach Kankintu, if we walked fast. A walk in the dark seemed unavoidable. Still, I had to work on Thursday, and the only boats leave Kankintu at 6:00 AM- we had to get there. So we quickened our pace, crossed another Indiana Jones bridge, a hanging bridge with a lot of the floor boards missing, and continued. The hike was not as tough as before, but our pace was grueling because we wanted to take advantage of as much daylight as possible. We began to see a lot more traffic on the path as well, a good sign we were drawing near to our destination.
The trail was for the most part flat and sandy, hugging the banks of the Kricamola. At this point, the river was majestic, wide and strong, at least as wide as the Potomac. We passed through two more towns before night fell and we unpacked our flashlights. We were on the final stretch.
But then our luck changed for the worst. As soon as night fell, around 7:00, it began to pour. Curtains of rain fell, punctuated by booming thunderclaps and lightning bolts so close that the entire sky turned dayglo and we could see everything. The rain made all the creeks flowing into the river become rushing waterfalls, and each crossing became more difficult, compounded by the darkness. Sometimes we had to stop to search for the trail because the water flows were changing the landscape. We began to walk slower in order to keep together. The rain kept coming down. I felt like we were in a jungle movie about the special forces. We crossed some hills and forest, went back to the banks and cow pastures, and then back into the jungle. Some of the crossings became scary. One creek was so swift and wide we crossed by linking our arms together, forming a human chain. My feet, which so far had resisted three days of walking in rubber boots, now began to hurt, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that my boots were constantly full of water. We walked and walked, but Kankintu didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Finally, we reached a river 25 feet wide. It didn’t seem too swift, but it looked deep. Our flashlights did not illuminate far enough to see the other side, but a strike of lightning revealed the trail ahead of us. We stared at it with dismay. Jim, a swimmer in college, volunteered to test the depth, leaving his pack at the bank. He started across and . . . the water was only waist deep! We were greatly relieved. We had to cross the same river again about 300m up the trail, our last major river crossing.
At 9:00 PM, a sidewalk appeared in the jungle and we knew we had arrived. We walked, very tired and very wet but very happy, into Kankintú, a city of lights and sidewalks and densely built, modern looking houses. A city where you can buy a cold soda and there are restaurants, where the highschool has two floors with arches and columns. We found a hostel, where we ate a hot meal and spent the night. The adventure, the most rugged and amazing trek I have undertaken in Panama, was over.
Nico Armstrong has lived in Panama for four years and is currently a tour guide at the Lost and Found Eco-Hostel in the mountains of Chiriquí. The Kricamola jungle tour is the most extensive tour that he leads. For further information, contact him at or check out the Lost and Found jungle hostel website at

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Little Fish and Dam

What did the little fish say when he banged his head against the wall? “Dam!”

For the past four years I have been that little fish.

At the urging of Panama’s tourism authority (ATP) and the former provincial director of Panama’s environmental authority (ANAM) my business partner and I built The Lost and Found, a hike in only eco lodge ten kilometers from a massive hydroelectric dam built by Hydro Quebec. Some call the dam Panama’s second architectural wonder. A feature in a Panamanian paper described the dam as having enormous turbines housed in soccer field sized chambers deep underground. Tunnels large enough to park a chain of jetliners burrow through mountains to new water sources. Or so they say. The papers were not permitted to photograph for security reasons.

This same paper says you can arrange tours so I have made repeated trips to their offices in the nearest city, David. But the maple leaf flags from my home country on the executives SUV’s were not as welcoming as the executives themselves. There were never any tours available when I asked. But this was not the rejection that nearly bankrupted me.

My builder, responsible for obtaining all our permits, assured me that he had everything he needed to build. Then our builder quit with the project unfinished, the provincial director of ANAM that urged us to build was fired, our environmental impact assessment was rejected, ANAM fined us and we were told our project was shut.

“Damn Dam”

It turned out the director of the Fortuna dam wrote a letter of objection to what is essentially the minister of the environment, the director of ANAM. We visited her -- she smiled politely, told us she loved the eco-friendliness of the project but that we first needed to convince the Canadian director of the dam.

“Bullshit” said the then director of Panama’s tourism authority, Ruben Blades. The government of Panama is the only authority that accepts or rejects environmental impact statements he told us. He was willing to go to bat for us but (in his words) we had better not be dicking him around. So before we asked for his help we decided to do another, much more thorough ($$$), environmental impact assessment.

For the new study I decided to visit the same environmental engineer that the dam used for their projects. I told him that I thought maybe the dam was worried about the impact we might have on the environment. My plan was to hire him to first make recommendations to limit our impact and then to do our study that we would submit both to ANAM and the dam. He thought it was a great idea but first he wanted to meet with the director of the dam (a friend of his) then he would take our project. A week later the meeting in his office was much more formal. He would not take our project. He said the director of the dam was furious with us but would not say why. He advised us to give up.

We chose another environmental engineer from a list of recommended engineers on the ANAM website. We decided if our second study was rejected we would take Ruben Blades offer of help.

Before Ruben Blades was the minister of the environment he was a famous salsa singer and actor. After his offer for help I began to check out his movies and noticed a trend… early exits. Whereas Arnie lasts the entire first Predator movie, Ruben dies fast in Predator 2. Like his films, by the time we would need a favor from Ruben he had already exited politics. (Arnie is still the Gubenator)

Our second environmental study sat collecting dust through national elections in which Dr. Blades government was replaced. Then our second study was rejected again supposedly because our environmental engineer had not turned in requested adjustments to our study within the fifteen days allowed. Apparently they can take over a year and half to make decisions but when they ask for amendments and adjustments we have to comply within 15 days. But, it turns out, our adjustments were turned in on time and we had proof. How did they loose our paper work? Why was our study sitting there without decisions being made?

We pulled that rejection out of the fire.

“Damn Damn Dam!”

I began to feel like the little fish constantly banging my head against a brick dam.

The dam company is powerful. It generates something between thirty and forty percent of Panama’s electricity. Forty Eight percent of the dam is actually owned by the Panamanian government. They make multiple millions of dollars a year. This did not encourage me.

The Lost and Found sits on an old coffee and citrus farm – an island of titled land inside the Fortuna Forest Reserve. “Titled” is the key word. The process of titling land is remarkably efficient and transparent for a Central American country. A legal surveyor maps the land, neighbors sign off and it is all logged and publicized on the internet along with land values before and after the sale. Our land was titled in the sixties before the creation of the Fortuna Forest Reserve. The vast majority of others in the reserve do not have the same rights as we do.

I wrote an email to the director of the dam asking him if he would like to work together toward the mutual goals of protecting the environment and educating the community. He wrote back saying that everyone in the reserve were considered tolerated squatters with little rights. He asked us to leave. He clearly ignored the fact that we held titled land. The only reason he gave for his objection – he did not want to set a precedent of development. But with one of the rare pieces of titled land in the reserve, this is not logical.

Makes me wonder that when Hydro Quebec proposed the building of the dam if the displaced people knew they would be one day considered “tolerated squatters”. Locals tell me that the dam company itself wrote the law that created the reserve.

The friends I have made in the local community are frustrated by a dam they see as taking a lot and giving little. Before the dam was created every business owner received a brown, wooden sign with yellow print from the dam’s PR team. This is the same color, font and style as signs in national parks so it was not surprising that locals were excited that they now lived in a park. And the businesses that received these new signs did well. Initially they were full with the workers that built the dam. Then they were empty. And now the donated signs are rotting on the side of the road in front of closed restaurants.

It seems to be a pattern outlined in a tell-all by John Perkins titled “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. The book tells story after story of multinationals that exaggerate economic benefits and bribe governments to build a project with most of the expertise foreign and the capitol flowing out of the developing nation.

Two things changed the currents for us: the new president of the republic and the local community.

President Ricardo Martinelli was elected with around sixty percent of the popular vote. He was serious about closing down projects negligent with their taxes. At a project site where tax dodgers were dropping boulders into the Bay of Panama to make more land for a marina he erected a big fence and put up a sign, “Property of the Government of Panama”. Panama needed the money, he announced at a press conference, for better schools and improved health care. His popularity now hovers around the nineties.

He also got serious with the hydro dams. The contracts signed by previous administrations, he said, were biased towards the dams and whose profits were being paid for by Panamanians paying too much for electricity. He couldn’t revisit the contracts but he could tax the dams before they sold power to the grid, either by water usage or per kilowatt of power they generated. Now Panamanians power bills are lower. At least we know the current president and ANAM is not in the pocket of the dams.

I don’t know if the dams were involved in bribery. I cannot pretend to understand the inner workings of the higher echelons of the Panamanian government. But I have seen how locals have responded to the Fortuna dam. Shortly after the election of Ricardo Martinelli I was invited by a local coffee farmer to what I understood from my limited Spanish to be a coffee judging competition in a local village. When I arrived I was surprised to see hundreds of people. I was there at the invitation of the organic coffee farmer who wanted to show the villagers that even if the big Panamanian coffee producers don’t pay more for organic coffee, tourists will. The event slowly turned into a show of support for a town that despite being in the reserve and not far from electricity lines taking power to Costa Rica, they were still without electricity. Seemed I was not the only fish in the reservoir.

When our first environmental impact assessment was rejected after objection from the Fortuna dam I moved to the city to work on our budget overruns. My business partner opened low key mostly for events with the Peace Corps – anything just to feed himself while we waited for approval of our second study. He was at the one roadside restaurant in town and shared organic fruit wine made by the organic farmer, Don Cune. Cune is a character, part drinking buddy and wise grandfather, part crazy inventor. Everyone really does call him crazy and his farm is commonly referred to as Finca de los Locos. He is crazy, first for not using pesticides when he hasn’t yet found a market for his (amazing) organic coffee and second, for all the strange inventions to trap insects around his farm.

A school of fish swimming against the stream banging heads against the dam

Don Cune has become the perfect example of the perfect strategic alliance. Cune does not have title to his farm like The Lost and Found does. He has no sons. His grandson he hopes will continue farming. If he does not, according to laws of land possession for squatters, whoever uses the land owns it. But Cune is also worried his grandson will not continue the legacy of organic farming. The tours Cune runs with The Lost and Found are what make his farm viable. He hopes his granddaughter will continue the tours and his progeny work together long after he passes. His granddaughter has not missed a single English lesson run by our volunteers.

Pronat, a government organization facilitating the titling of land sent representatives to the provinces to encourage locals to consider titling. But when they came to the Fortuna Forest Reserve the agenda was different. It seemed the entire community turned up to learn how they could get titled like The Lost and Found. The community was disappointed to learn they would never get title. In an emotional moment for me, Don Cune stood up and asked that The Lost and Found not be harassed. With our title we were the ones the community looked to to bring tourism.

At present we have three full time workers. I like to note that this is three times as many full time local positions as the dam provides. This is easy for us to say when they have hired only one local person full time. We teach English to our employees that earn more from tours and as we grow, we hire more. I sometimes give rides to locals and just the other day a stranger told me how he makes extra money when Cune uses his horses for our horseback riding tours. Maybe we can get the ball rolling. Cune can make his farm profitable through tourism and more farmers will go organic.

Maybe some of the empty coffee shops will fill again with tourists like they did once with dam workers. Success is the ultimate revenge it is said. If it is the little fish from Canada instead the dam that brings tourism it will be the ultimate way to flip the bird to the multinationals that once asked us to leave.

It may be frustrating to be a little fish banging against a hard wall. But as a foreigner, invited into a school of fish, that learn to swim, jump and eventually cross the wall is a great feeling. The greatest rewards come with the greatest challenges.

On Thursday May 8th, 2010, I went to the offices of ANAM in David and signed the resolution accepting our second environmental impact assessment.