Community Engagement in Bocas


Recently, we completed our spring semester community engagement projects at The SFS Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies (TIBS) in Bocas del Toro, Panama. For six Saturdays, students worked in small groups to complete projects alongside members of the broader Bocas community. This semester, our projects focused on sustainable ecotourism in the communities of Isla Popa Dos and Bahia Honda, marine education and swim lessons for twelve girls from the community of Boca del Drago, and two bird festivals held in Isla Popa Dos and Bocas Town.

Students reported the best parts of our community engagement projects were meeting and interacting with the people of the Bocas Archipelago and participating in projects that they requested. Community engagement is a vital part of our program and a critical skill for future scientists, policy makers and environmental change makers to learn and practice in the field. I think it is one of the things that makes SFS a unique study abroad experience.

Here is a bit more about the projects we worked on this semester.

In Popa Dos, we continued working with Meri Ngobe, a Ngäbe indigenous women’s cooperative, to improve their restaurant. Students painted, sanded and shined up the restaurant. Students interacted with community members like Jenito Wigler, a former lobster fisherman, who returned to Popa Dos and is becoming involved in community tourism again. Students also met Angel, who loves helping our SFS students when they come to Popa. If you are a TIBS alum reading this, you will remember the energetic Angel. He still loves to borrow phones and take lots of pictures for you to remember him and Popa!


TIBS student, Aidan Borkin, and Program Assistant, Alex Arcia, painiting in Popa Dos

This semester, SFS Professor Leon Mach suggested providing tourism consulting to an indigenous tour operator in the Bahia Honda quabrada community. Students met and worked alongside Justuliano Villagra to create business cards for him to use, developed an informational web page and created a sign so tour operators and visitors know they have arrived at the Bastimentos Bat Caves.


Justuliano Villagra with his business cards made by TIBS students

Other students continued offering swim lessons to the girls from Boca del Drago. It is common that girls and women in the area do not learn how to swim. By providing swim lessons, our students are not only providing life-saving skills to these young girls, but helping them to build confidence and appreciation for the ocean. One of their favorite days this semester was the final swim lesson, when students saw Deisi and Lusibet finally swimming independently and confidently in the water!

The final community engagement group organized and led two bird festivals in Bocas. They loved the Popa Dos festival where a few lucky students spotted toucans; they created bird masks with enthusiastic kids, and had an overall good time sharing knowledge about birds with them.

I am looking forward to our next semester group and seeing our community connections and projects continuing to grow and foster a stronger relationship between SFS TIBS and the rest of the Bocas community.


Bocas Town Bird Festival participants


Angel and Ian painting the restaurant in Popa Dos

→ Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies

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