It is rare for academics to get a chance to put their ideas into practice. One of the best parts about working with SFS is getting the opportunity to moderate community engagement projects that align with our academic interests. Two Directed Research projects that I led since joining the SFS Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies (TIBS) in Bocas del Toro, Panama focused on the experiences Indigenous communities have with developing tourism services. Indigenous community members have been promised that tourism would bring new opportunities for decades, but even those who have begun small enterprises with the help of outside organizations, like the World Bank, struggle for market shares.
My last Directed Research (DR) group showed great compassion for the Indigenous tourism operators we visited during my class and sought to specifically examine the challenges they face. After discovering that most tour agencies do not offer indigenous tours, we decided to interview both Indigenous tourism guides and the hotel operators that have had a history of bringing guest to Indigenous communities to find out more about the disconnect. My students summarized their findings for a popular audience in the video attached here.
As part of the School for Field Studies’ initiatives to help the local communities, Holly Hummel, our Community Coordinator and Cultural Liaison, arranges different community engagement projects for our students to participate in on Saturday mornings. My group had the unique experience of helping Justiliano Viagra boost visitation to his bat cave tours in Bahia Honda. As we have learned from our research, in order to do this, we first consulted with Justiliano to find out what he felt his needs were and how we could help him. As I learned from Give and Surf, a volunteer tourism operator here in Bocas, as a group, we tried to under promise and over deliver. We also tried to be realistic about the time we had to dedicate to community engagement and sought out to help Justiliano the best ways that we could.
Photos courtesy of Anna Chahuneau
As requested, we placed signage at the hard to find entrance to the community, indicating where to exit the creek to begin the hike into the Bastimentos Island Marine Protected Area and into the bat cave. We also helped design and make business cards for Justiliano so he could visit hotels and have a professional card to pass on his number to organize bat cave tours. We also established a TripAdvisor page for his clients to leave reviews so others can find him. In our research, lack of effective communication was seen as a huge challenge to indigenous tourism and I am happy to learn that our efforts have helped with this. This experience was incredibly rewarding because it was a direct opportunity to support a community member who does so much to teach me and my students about life in Bocas.
I am excited to embark this semester with a new group of students to help a young man named Luis Santos who is hoping to start a jungle trek to his family property on Isla Colon near Playa Bluff. He sees this small business as a way to both increase income for his family and also to demonstrate a respectful use of the forest as part of an effort towards protecting it from development interests. Luis has done the hard work to create the trail and learn the names of all the species of trees, birds, insects, and animals that can be found. He also is prepared to explain how the Ngöbe use different plants that one encounters on his trail for things like building materials, medicines, and for sustenance. Our project’s goal is to help him create a business plan, and to find ways to network with local hotels and connect with new clients. A challenge that will be difficult and ongoing, but we are excited to do our best with the time we have.