As intern at EcoCircuitos I have developed a strong interest in helping the local communities in Panama and to find ways to support these communities through tourism, which EcoCircuitos has been doing since it was founded. Therefore I was very glad to get the chance to visit a fairly remote community to look into the possibility to organize a volunteer tourism program.
The pastoral Center of Santa Fé de Darien provides community outreach and support to 28 communities in the area. The population consists of mostly rural settlements of Creole, Mestizo and Indigenous people who each have distinct cultures. The center aims to teach people a more harmonious way of life, to coexist peacefully with each other and the environment. The buildings of the complex are sustainably run with solar power and rainwater, and provide space for the communities to meet, or have workshops.
Additionally they have an organic farm, a piece of rainforest land, and support a women’s initiative which grows medicinal herbs and processes these into various lotions, soaps and teas.
As I arrive it is already quite late, there is a specialist in beekeeping that needs to be talked to, things to be set up, and the sun sets early, so I decide to wait for the next day to start exploring the place. And that day starts early, people are up at six, and by seven we are having breakfast. This is about the time that rural reality manifests itself: An injured piglet is brought down from the farm and somehow I end up assisting in its emergency surgery, which the farm workers perform on the porch by the kitchen door. Not quite how I had expected to start the day, but there I am, minding the little animal while the people from the center are off looking for milk bottles and antibiotics. Every once in a while somebody comes by, to visit, to work, to find someone to talk to… As an obvious foreigner I get to answer a lot of questions, no, I am not with the Peace Corps, yes, I am from very far away, from Germany (that is in Europe), I am just visiting, I work in the city… Everybody seems quite happy to see a visitor, to get to know a bit about where I come from. It is an attitude that I keep encountering during my time in Darien, it makes me feel very welcome here.
Finally, piglet being taken care of, I am surprised that it is still early, just about 9.30 in the morning, and we have ample time to explore the farm before lunch. The farm is completely organic, several goats and cows produce milk, which gets made into cheese, chickens roam the grounds, and a fish pond is experiencing a small crisis in the form of a newly resident caiman. Then, of course, there is the pig with its piglets (minus the one in intensive care in the house) and a variety of vegetables and fruits. We pick some cucumbers for lunch, look at cocoa plants and coffee trees and check up on the compost, and all too soon it is time to eat. Lunch is a simple, but delicious Panamanian staple: Chicken, rice and beans, accompanied by the fresh cucumbers and some avocado from the tree behind the house.
During the afternoon I explore another project of the Center: the medicinal plant farming and processing initiative. Here, a group of local women grow different herbs and shrubs with medical properties, process them into salves, soaps and teas and then sell them. It is a great example of a way to live sustainably and do make a living without destruction of the rainforest in an area where slash-and-burn agriculture and logging are the main sources of income.
It is a very peaceful place. The sisters of the mission teach cooperation, respect and conscious interaction with nature by example, without preaching. It is a place of reflection, a place to learn how to live in harmony with both nature and its human population. Everybody who has that interest is welcome here, independent of their color, culture or religion.