Landscape architecture student shares spring break experience in Panama

Landscape architecture student Stephen Zimmerer, a sophomore in the Schreyer Honors College, spent his spring break in Panama City with Penn State's Global Brigades chapter constructing greenhouses alongside the indigenous Piriati Embera community. He shared his experience in this article.

For this year’s spring break I sought an opportunity that would offer me unfamiliar experiences, a new perspective on design and the environment, and some eagerly anticipated warm weather. I applied to travel to the Darién Province of Eastern Panama with Global Environmental Brigades, a branch of Penn State’s Global Brigades chapter, to construct greenhouses alongside the indigenous Piriati Embera Community.

Operating as a nonprofit organization, Global Brigades is organized so that volunteers educate themselves on the ecological principles and implementation logistics of an environmental project before departure. I traveled with a group of 14 from Penn State and four from University of Virginia; we met a team of seven Panamanian technicians in Panama City.

The Piriati Embera community was displaced 50 years ago when the government dammed their lands. Currently, they are at a juncture where schools instruct in English and Spanish but the native Embera dialect is spoken at home. Everyone eats individually wrapped candies and drinks bottled water, but there is no collective trash system to remove waste. Due to its contiguous proximity to Columbia — the international boundary is vaguely defined by dense jungle — the Darién Province is intentionally isolated from the rest of Panama, suffering a haphazard system of poorly paved roads. Issues of rural poverty and isolation are not unique to Darién; the entirety of Panama is caught in a startling disparity between rural and urban.

Transportation via the canal and a strong tourism industry make Panama City a globalized metropolis, comprising roughly half of the nation’s population. Outside, however, deforestation and unsustainable methods of slash-and-burn agriculture have degraded the value of the countryside and failed to build a stable rural economy.

Permaculture describes an approach to agriculture in which plants are scattered throughout plots in heterogeneous arrangements, imitating how these food-bearing plants might grow in the wild. It represents a sustainable shift away from slash and burn agriculture, in which woodlands are viewed as undesirable arrangements and are deforested to create space for homogenous agricultural plots. Beyond enabling community members to grow nutrient-rich supplements to their starch-based diets, the green houses illustrate the principles of permaculture at a miniature scale.

Volunteers spent the first two days interviewing and meeting with local families so as to make the greenhouse project a dialogue by which both sides could more completely understand agriculture, deforestation and development. Once we understood the relationships with trash, agriculture and economy within the community, we designed a series of workshops on sustainable waste management, greenhouse maintenance and compost synthesis. While volunteers were not required to speak Spanish, my strong familiarity with the language led me to a number of enjoyable, revelatory conversations with community members and Panamanians.

Our group was able to do occasional sight seeing, including a tour of Panama City’s casco viejo and a trip to the Panama Canal — but the week was really built around work within the community. When we weren’t having conversations with members we were breaking up soil and digging holes and hammering nails; we were up by 6:30 each morning, and coming home to a bed full of ants and a gravity-flush toilet didn’t comprise five-star accommodations.

That said, I had a truly phenomenal experience with GEB, and I hope to do a similar trip next year in which I can enhance my understanding of another culture and my perspective on the topics I am studying in school. I met 13 fantastic people from PSU and thoroughly enjoyed the friendships that I made with them as well as our cohorts from UVA and the Panamanian staff. The people of the Piriati Embera community were incredibly kind souls with rich senses of culture and identity. I return very grateful to my University and department for providing funding for the trip and highly anticipate participating in a similar experience next year.

Last Updated April 25, 2014