All day long it is possible to hear motorboats out on the water, marsh birds and forest birds calling out and cattle calling and grazing. At night the sounds of crickets and frogs are audible, and it seems as though nothing is willing to give me the silence I have found comfortable while snorkeling the coral reefs of Bocas del Toro in Panama. I sit in a plastic chair (because the more comfortable hammock is presently occupied) and look out at a cattle pasture and part-time swamp towards the boat dock where we arrived from. This space will become a mangrove ecosystem in fifty years, according to resident biologist and Executive Director of the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC) Pete Lahanas, but I digress. I want to discuss engineering and construction work on this biology station built by ITEC. The information gathered was acquired by interviewing Pete Lahanas and from the ITEC webpage, itec-edu.org.
The total property that is described as Bocas del Toro station today is a 70-75 hectare space along the coast. About half of this space is secondary and old growth tropical wet forest. It is situated on the north end of Isla Colón near the Village of Drago, which is made up of 95% indigenous peoples.
The current station consists of a dormitory for students, a dining hall and a laboratory with two classrooms on the second floor and a library. Total construction for these three buildings took one year approximately and funds were raised through donations. Costs were reduced by making deals for cheap lumber from the U.S. and shipping them with Chiquita cargo containers. When you walk into the rooms wiring and plumbing are visible, walls are of basic construction. All water on the station is collected from rain water and stored into four 5000 gallon tanks. Pressure is created by a concrete water tower and there is no heating system for the showers. Heating is not necessary, however. Meals are prepared by locals from the village, usually relatives of the manager, Enrique Dixon Brown, and were very satisfying after days swimming out on the reefs. Electricity is obtained by a gasoline generator that is only run early in the morning for breakfast and the afternoon and evening for class activities until about 10:00pm. However, gasoline is expensive and must be imported from the mainland, and Pete hopes that they will be able to install solar power cells in the future. This station is now 16 years old and its upkeep is driven by student courses like ours and donations.
It was a very welcoming station and it brought up ideas on what standards of living and sustainability meant to me. Remember we are talking the tropics, so hot water isn’t really necessary and I could always heat water in the kitchen. This station could achieve a state where the only thing that was required to physically bring was food and gas for cooking and the occasional construction upkeep. It is nice to see a place always striving to achieve the ideals it desires: promoting education and conservation.
Now comes the tricky part, continuing to live and act with respect for nature and minimizing my environmental impact, while inspiring lives who would not think to change the actions in the days of their lives in order to minimize environmental footprints. I suppose I am most impressed that the station on Isla Colón practices low impact on an island where a ferry must bring supplies to the population twice a day.
Yet many do not live on a small island. Many of us have great opportunities on the mainland, in great cities, in the country side, having wealth and influence on city and government laws and actions. The greatest challenge to sustainability for people, industrial agriculture, and governments is the effort it takes to be sustainable. The real goal should be to think of sustainability not as requiring effort, but being simply being a part of the culture, be it the social, religious, or business culture.
University of Northern Colorado