rocks and water in forest
News Blog

ForestGEO Team Collaborates with Emberá Community at BCI

The motto of the Neotropical Ecology Lab at McGill University is “Science for Empowerment.”  Professor Catherine Potvin leads the Lab, and for more than two decades has been collaborating with and learning from Panama’s Indigenous communities.  The ForestGEO Panama Team of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute supported the Lab's most recent work in the Darién region of Panama by offering training in field methods at Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama to members of the Emberá community to help realize the community's goal of preserving old growth forest by initiating a long-term forest monitoring plot. We speak with members of the Neotropical Lab, to learn more.

WHO’S WHO in this Interview?

Mathieu Guillemette is a PhD student in the Neotropical Lab.  He participated in the training at BCI in November/December and will travel to Darién in January to help establish the first 5 ha of the permanent forest plot. 

Catherine Potvin is the leader of the Neotropical Lab.  She participated in the trainings at BCI, assisted with site selection in Darién, and will be part of the team that helps with plot establishment in January.

Brais Marchena is an intern at the Neotropical Lab. He was part of the group that visited potential sites in the most recent expedition.

E. Camilo Alejo Monroy is a PhD student in the Neotropical Lab.  He visited the field site for one week in December 2021.

How did the collaboration between the Neotropical Ecology Lab and the Emberá community begin?

CP: I first visited the river Balsa community (where we work currently) way back in 1996, since this is the home of one of my past M.Sc. students. In 2014, our research group surveyed the forests of many Emberá territories across Darién. The Balsa river forests stood out for the stature of the trees and the amount of above ground carbon. Another expedition in 2019 explored the forests almost all the way to the border of Colombia to uncover a large extent of intact moist tropical forest harbouring gigantic trees and key endangered species.

MG: After meeting with community leaders and chiefs, the communities and Dr. Potvin decided that developing a long-term forest observatory could benefit both the Emberá people of Balsa and scientists. They called it Bacuru Droa, which means “Old-Growth Forest” in Emberá. The project has two objectives: (1) to establish a community-driven old-growth forest observatory in full partnership with the Emberá People of the Balsa river as a way to better understand Darien’s rich biodiversity, and (2) support sustainable livelihoods for the Emberá population.

How was the ForestGEO Panama Team involved in the project?

MG: As the project was moving forward, we reached out to our collaborators of ForestGEO in Panama (i.e. Stuart Davies, Helene Muller-Landau, Rolando Pérez, Salomón Aguilar, David Mitre, and Pablo Ramos) to hear their opinion on different plot designs.  We also wanted professional training from the ForestGEO Panama Team to standardize the Bacuru Droa plots with ForestGEO methods. A group of Emberá technicians traveled to Panama City and received training on plot surveying methods, tree measurements techniques, tree dendrometers installation, and tree species identification and collection (to create an herbarium) from ForestGEO’s team between November 24th and December 3rd 2021.  

What are some striking elements of the Balsa forest?

MG: The forests of the Choco-Darien biological region are the largest area of intact forests outside of the Amazon in tropical America and, yet, they are largely understudied. The Balsa forest is characterized by an impressive amount of large tropical trees (i.e., trees with a dbh >50 cm). Our early analysis of satellite imagery has identified over 800 potential giant trees in the periphery of Manene, the main village, and 67 of these trees were measured on the ground; each had a dbh >100 cm. That is another characteristic of Balsa’s forest; in addition to many large trees, some trees are just gigantic. 

CP: Not only are the forests themselves impressive, they still harbour a very rich natural fauna. Using camera traps in a traditional design, the Emberá biodiversity technicians captured images Panama’s rarest species (giant anteaters, tapirs, jaguars, pumas and white-lipped peccaries) with 30% fewer trapping nights than would be needed with the use of scientific arrays.  The presence of this fauna is crucial for the long term maintenance of the forests.

CA: Along with the tremendous biodiversity in the Balsa watershed, I feel impressed by the limited influence of traditional agricultural activities in the past 20 years.  Agriculture is generally practiced no closer than within 1 km of the Balsa river, allowing the forest to remain largely intact.

What factors motivated various members of the Emberá community to participate in the field training and the plot’s establishment?

MG: I witnessed two different motivations.  The younger technicians saw a great learning opportunity. On multiple occasions, a few of them came to me and said, “I’d like to learn more; why or how do you do this?” One also mentioned that their access to school or advanced studies is limited, but with the Bacuru Droa project, he would have the chance to learn new skills.  The older technicians seemed to be motivated to learn more about their land and the forest according to what the science could tell them, alongside their traditional knowledge. On different occasions, they mentioned to the younger technicians the opportunity that a permanent forest observatory would offer them to do their own independent research and preserve part of their culture with data and results.  

BM: Similar to Mathieu's response, I often heard how valuable it was for them to learn something new. Most have that desire but have never had the opportunity.  From conversations with technicians, community members, and local leaders, I also gathered that working with scientists provides them with resources in their fight to gain legal rights over their land.

What elements did the group consider as it worked to select a permanent field site?

CP: The first consideration is the community choice. They know we want to work on old-growth forests, and they need to be willing to create de facto a reserve around the site to protect its intactedness!

MG: We considered multiple locations, relying upon traditional knowledge of the land coupled with remote sensing. The site needed to be accessible from the village of Manene by foot (i.e., maximum 2-hour walk), located on more or less flat terrain, and to be in a location where no human intervention has happened nor is planned to happen. We think we found a site along the Coasi river that met all the requirements!

From a science perspective, why was flat terrain important to site selection?

MG: We are especially interested in the flat, intact tropical forests along the river for 2 reasons: (1) This is the forest most at risk of being cut, and it is urgent to study while we still have it (it is currently the largest intact forest patch of Central America).  (2) We want to study the impact of climate change on intact tropical forests and advance our knowledge of carbon dynamics for these forests, which is mostly driven by the large tree community. We know from our remote sensing analysis that the flat terrain along the Coasi river hosts large trees, is accessible, has no human disturbance; and it is easier to work on flat terrain.

How did the team structure the training in field methods when the Emberá technicians came to BCI?  

MG: Two of the technicians who participated in the training had already worked with our lab in the past and were somewhat familiar with forest plots and tree measurements. Each concept was introduced by a lecture and discussed with the technicians. Often, following the end of lecture, the two technicians with background experience would start speaking in the Emberá language, maybe with a mix of Spanish, to translate the concepts and explain them in their own words.  It seems like it was a summary of the lecture to ensure that everyone understood.  Each lesson was followed by hands-on exercises in the field, generally lasting a few hours, or even a few days. It was important that everyone was trained to do everything and that everyone had the chance to get familiar with the new information. Generally, we concluded each step with a debrief meeting and another round of practice.

What was one thing that surprised you during your trip to Darién?

CA: From a cultural perspective, the Emberá of the Balsa river maintain a vibrant culture that preserves their language and a cosmovision that intertwines them with the forest. As a local leader told me: “the forest protects me, and I protect the forest”. This vibrant culture has definitely had a protective influence on the state of the forests. After participatory mapping workshops, field visits, and remote sensing, it seems that most livelihood activities are concentrated along the main rivers, including high carbon agriculture (i.e shifting agriculture), while the rest of the forested land is valued for low impact subsistence activities (e.g. game, timber and non-timber forest products) and cultural features such as sacred lands and species.

Next steps?

MG: On January 3rd, I will travel to the Emberá Traditional Territory of the Balsa river with Dr. Potvin and other scientists to join the Emberá technicians and establish the first 5 ha of the permanent forest plot. This 3-week-long exercise will help everyone to consolidate their skills and we are confident that by the time we leave the Emberá technicians will be 100% independent and will establish another 5 ha before the end of the dry season.

[Editor's note: For an update on the team's progress on the plot after the original publication of this post, please enjoy this Twitter thread.]


Image caption below.
A traditional Emberá home in one of the villages of the Balsa river tucked in pristine forest.  Photo credit:  Michelle Dan.
Technicians stand in a tropical forest, their focus on a man in a red shirt.
Salomón Aguilar from the ForestGEO Panama Team explaining to the Emberá technicians how to measure a plot in the field using a theodolite.
Photo credit: David Mitre.
Many people stand atop an enormous log over a body of water.
One of the giant trees of the Balsa river, a Ceiba pentandra C14 dated at 200+ years old, uncovered by the 2019 expedition.  The tree measured 71 m and was large enough for the technical crew of 19 people to stand on it. Photo credit: George R. Angehr.
Two people stand at the front of an outdoor classroom.
Alexis Ortega, the lead Emberá technician, reiterating one of the concepts taught during the training with Dr. Potvin alongside him.
Photo credit: Mathieu Guillemette.
People stand huddled around a tree.
Pablo Ramos from the ForestGEO Panama Team explaining to the Emberá technicians how to install a dendrometer on a tree.
Photo credit: Mathieu Guillemette.
People stand on either side of long tables with herbarium resources on them.
Rolando Pérez and David Mitre, from the ForestGEO Panama Team, giving a first lesson to the Emberá technicians on how to press plant specimens. 
Photo credit: Catherine Potvin.