Project Report:
Development of Economic Incentives and Environmental Markets to Promote Sustainable Land-Use Practices in the Tropics
- Investigates the causes of economic imbalances.
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.


This project will build upon SHI’s work in crop commercialization and the development of markets to create economic incentives for rural farmers to preserve tropical forests. SHI will identify potential buyers of farmers’ goods and services and build the capacity of its Panama affiliate to benefit from biodiversity offsets or other payments for ecosystem services. The emphasis on market development for organic produce will also reduce wasteful spending on chemical pesticides and create additional market-based incentives for farmers to protect globally significant ecosystems.

Martín Rojas family showing their new fuel-efficient stove.
Martín Rojas family showing their new fuel-efficient stove.


Communities: Paguá, San Juanito y Algarrobal
Extension Agent: Mariano Navarro

Participant families involved in the project are currently in phases 1 and 2 of SHI Five-Phase program. Though still in the early segments of the program, families have demonstrated extraordinary shifts in their way of thinking and acting. Families demonstrate a high level of proficiency in the techniques taught, and capacity to move forward in the five-phase program. All achievements are measured within the context of the organization’s five areas of impact: Agroforestry, Environment, Food Security, Livelihood, and Learning Capacity.


1. Disclosure of project

SHI-Panama extentionist, as well as other functionaries of SHI, continue to visit and provide technical assistance to the 20 selected farms, and execute the project. This project has had much disclosure on an internal level with SHI-Panama and subsequently we’ve been progressively introducing the biointensive techniques with other small-scale farmers in the two communities, as well as in other communities where SHI-Panama works. Presently the biointensive methodology is being taught and implemented in the community of San Pedro, Penonome; and El Entradero, Membrillo and Tranquilla, all in the municipality of Anton. Photos can be seen on SHI’s Flickr account or at the following album that shares images from the communities San Juanito, Paguá, and Algarrobal:

The biointensive methodology, has also be extrapolated and applied to farms in 10 communities located along the sub-watershed of the Rio Trinidad of the Panama Canal Watershed. Community members participated in a joint project focused on improving well being and climate change mitigation through the adoption of appropriate technologies. Project was co-financed with Fundacion NATURA. Photos can be found here:

2. Current Situation of Families and Land

Families that had been selected for the implementation of this project have varied in their overall performance, due mainly to the challenges of adopting new agricultural techniques, which typically is seen as a radical shift in mindset. Converting or shifting how a family cultivates after decades of being taught something different is costly and takes time; thus the broad differences in where some families are in the adoption process. Frequently, rural families hesitate to change their behaviors, especially for something that might imply more time and energy, versus the conventional agriculture that relies heavily on agrochemicals versus physical labor, attention to detail, etc. Lastly, one should acknowledge that farming families are exposed to a variety of circumstances and factors that affect their motivation, self esteem, and time committed.

In all farm plots, organic compost has been applied on three occasions in order to improve the overall content of the soils. Agricultural items being grown in gardens has varied to some degree, but majority of gardens have included a combination of the following:

Vegetable crops:
Tomato, sweet pepper, green beans, common bean, chives, mustard greens, cucumber, celery, pepper, tropical spinach and others. With all crops, participants have used techniques related to biointensive agriculture such as planting distance, crop association, and rotation.

Carbon crops:
Items most frequently cultivated for their carbon composition for use in compost, has been corn; however, now we are beginning to introduce amaranth as a carbon source, as well as nutritional supplement for humans and animals.

Caloric crops:
Those most grown include cassava, taro and cocoyam.

Open Pollinated Seeds
When possible, the project has attempted to use local seed varieties, and not hybrid nor genetically modified.

In actuality, not all of the farmers meet the 8 core principle of biointensive farming, but rather a minimum of five. Little by little families implement the principles, but like most things, some require more time than others

3. Meetings with Participants
During the period, field trainer Mariano Navarro has organized informal and formal meetings with all participants. During each meeting, a project evaluation is done in which participants describe individual and collective achievements, difficulties, and goals.

4. Training
In order to confront challenges, it is imperative that staff overseeing the project understand to the fullest extent possible, the concept of biointensive farming, how it differs from conventional gardens / agriculture, and anticipated outcomes. Currently all SHI-Panama staff are trained in the methodology, have participated in a number of workshops and events, and trained others. During this time, the organization has also developed an internal training program whereby all staff are required to research and subject matter related to organic agriculture and train their co-workers. Internal trainings occur on a monthly basis. Lastly, staff have participated in intensive training courses on both bioitensive agriculture (Chiriqui, Panama), and Biodynamic agriculture ( Costa Rica). Upon completing these courses, staff are required to replicate courses subject matter and train community members and other staff.

4. Soil Analysis

During the first week of September of this fiscal year, soil samples were retaken in ten of the twenty plots where soil samples were taken last fiscal year. A minimum of three samples were taken from each plot, labeled, and dried, and sent to the Agriculture Department at the University of Panama where a chemical analysis was done. When completed, we will be able to evaluate the differences / changes in organic matter, pH, micro and macronutrients, and understand how biointensive agriculture is affecting soil composition.

Samples were taken from the following participant plots

Community of Paguá Community of San Juanito
01 Eligio Soto 06 Jacinto Martínez
02 Austina Soto 07 Santos Lorenzo
03 Víctor Martínez 08 Encarnación Martínez
04 Dimas Soto 09 José Dimas Guardado
05 Melva Soto 10 Isidro González

5. Training for Participant Families
In those communities directly involved in the project, SHI-Panama has done much in the way of training and capacity building for families. Participant families have taken part in a variety of formal and informal workshops related to biointensive agriculture and organic production. Also, families have participated in exchanges with other farmers and community members. In those exchanges they shared knowledge and experiences they had learned from SHI-Panama.

Due to the low fertility and pH of soils that was detected during the first soil analysis, and the difficulties in accessing the communities, SHI-Panama has been capacitating and training the farmers in the use and application of biotechnologies in agriculture, specifically EM – efficient microorganisms – a means to reactivate microbial flora in soils. Staff are educating families on the incorporation of worm casting in their gardens, or vermiculture, an excellent source of micronutrients and microorganisms. Participants have also been taught and are applying the basic principles of compost as taught by John Jeavons – the founding figure behind the biointensive movement.

6. Purchase of materials and inputs
In order to facilitate the work of the families, SHI-Panama has provided participants with materials necessary to fulfill their work and the workshops offered. SHI-Panama has purchased and distributed plastic tanks / barrels used for the production / storage of efficient micro-organisms and other biofertilizers, accessories for irrigation systems and other items.

Majority of costs were incurred in transportation – more specifically fuel and repair of the motorbike used by the field extentionist Mariano Navarro.

7. Primary problems encountered during the period
a. Delays in the repair of the SHI-Panama vehicle has been a hindrance to the transportation of materials. During the vehicles absence, SHI-Panama has depended on other local with access to vehicles for the movement of goods and materials.

b. Road conditions to the community of San Juanito have been a cause for concern at times (heavy rains typically make the road inaccessible by vehicle or motorbike).

c. The condition of a majority of the soils that we’re working with in both communities requires enormous attention and work in order to convert them to productive and healthy soils. Farmers cannot begin to consider producing on a large scale until they’ve amended their soils with sufficient micro & macronutrients to warrant them healthy and stable.

d. Transfer of knowledge and adoption of new techniques is frequently slower than anticipated. Though participants have demonstrated motivation and interest, the transition from one school of thought, to another, requires extensive attention, follow-up and hands on training.

8. Primary Achievements
a. Capacity building and training manuals have inspired participants and increased their level of interest. Many participants express greater levels of dedication as a result of the trainings the receive (sense of empowerment results in increases self confidence)

b. Some participants have surpassed expectations and as a result become model farmers in their community. For example, Ricardo Guardado, an older participant with very poor soils has allocated several hours a day to improving his soil. Little by little his yields have increased, thus permitting him to adequately feed his family and sell surplus to other community members.

c. Implementation of a collective work model and solidarity within the group of farmers. By creating a cohesive group of farmers, SHI and participants are able to harness the energy of the group and complete projects at a faster pace, and more importantly share experiences and knowledge.

Currently, we are in a stage to further promote the production of vegetables and other items (diversification) in order to improve family nutrition, but also create surplus for sale in local markets. As participants building their soils and revive them with micro-organisms, they will be able to plan more and improve yields so that they can sufficiently meet local and regional demands.

With this project, we are laying down the foundation for achieving the aforementioned goal; however, it is a process that requires time. Changes, tangible and intangible, are already occurring as farmers who previously relied on synthetic fertilizers and chemicals are abandoning them for more ecological practices like the use of homemade composts and living barriers. Participants are abandoning past practices like slash and burn for sustainable techniques that emphasize permanent agriculture, diversity and rotation. By abandoning such practices, they are able to have a direct effect on soils and conserve valuable humus and nutrients that are typically washes away with the first rains on a newly burned field. We are also observing a greater respect for biodiversity in the area, with the decline of hunting and poaching, as well as the protection of forest areas. The adoption and use of wood conserving stoves (DAMAK) has also contributed to the increase environmental awareness.

Most of the farmers involved in the project are also artisans and generate much of their revenue from the sale of handicrafts, which are booming with the growth of tourism in Panama. The recent approval of the Free Trade Agreement between Panama and the United States, will be an opportunity for farmers in Panama to explore new markets and expand demand for their goods. In partnership with FUNDES, an international organization dedicated to economic development, SHI-Panama will examine marketing opportunities and how participants might fill niche markets with their raw and value added goods and services.

Other notable partnerships have included Peace Corps Panama, and the Finca Perezoso (Sloth Farm / Lazy man’s farm). Regarding the latter, SHI Panama has collaborated with Finca Perezoso and taken numerous farmers to John Douglas’s farm to learn about the basic principles of permaculture and how it applies to agriculture in the tropics. Though in Spanish, several of the following videos feature SHI participants explaining their desire to create an ecosystem similar to the finca perezoso and its importance in preserving biodiversity.

Something important to note is that SHI Panama is emphasizing the importance of replicating lessons learned in each community with other communities. Taking into consideration our experience with biointensive agriculture in Pagua and San Juanito, SHI Panama has been able to utilize its knowledge and experience and transmit it to other communities including San Pedro, Calle Larga, Rincon Claro, Tranquilla and others. Unlike Pagua and San Juanito, these communities have been able to implement some of the techniques much more quickly and with immediate results due to the apparent physical and chemical difference in soil.

10. Projections

Beginning in November, we will be evaluating gardens and the affect lime and organic fertilizers has had on soil health and quality, yields, and more. Once the results have been obtained and analyzed, we will begin to identify what crops will be ideal for the improved soils and initiate an intensive diversified planting phase that utilizes the basic principles of John Jeavons and biointensive agriculture.

Other activities that will occupy much of our time is the preparation of organic composts and fertilizers with local resources in order to ensure sustainability and low inputs. Each family will establish a vermiculture box for production of california reds and worm castings which will later be applied to home gardens, farm plots or incorporated in compost teas. Given the exceptionally poor soils in the area, participants and field trainer must pay close attention to this phase and the eventual improvement of humus and microrganisms. We plan to alternate planting with leguminous plant species or green manures like canavalia or mucuna which permit the fixation of nitrogen as well as further carbon intake.

Following the aforementioned activities, we will be working with the participants and establishing greenhouses which will facilitate in expanding the growing season, and controlling humidity. Once greenhouses are installed, farmers will be able to extend their growing seasons, and reduce the rate of fungal attacks on cash crops lime tomatoes and cucumbers.

During the “dry months” from January to April, participants will be focusing on Proactive and Transformational Leadership training. Subject matter includes:

• Identifying values, goals, objectives and priorities.
• Managing resources: time, information and money
• Forming and reforming effective groups
• Empowerment through Empathy and Motivation
• Involvement through communication and education
• Others

The communities of Paguá, San Juanito and Algarrobal are found in the region known as Llano Grande in the district of La Pintada, Coclé province of Panama. These three communities are very close to a protected area known as the Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park or El Copé National Park, which is about two hours away on foot. These communities are situated near the “Cordillera Central” (central mountain range) of Panama and because of this they have a very uneven topography. There are many hills and abrupt drop offs, and in the lower parts there are numerous waterways that we can categorize as rivers, streams and ravines. The most important rivers in the area are the Mula and the Paguá.

The population that lives in these communities is made up of farmers that derive their sustenance primarily from the agricultural and livestock activities. The second most common source of income is from the production of artisan goods, like the famed Panama Painted Hat (Sombrero Pintado). Other individuals, but to a much lesser extent sustain themselves via remittances from family members working outside the community, province or country.

The people of these communities live in conditions of poverty and extreme poverty, according to the classifications established by government organizations. Most inhabitants and are considered as having a rather low Human Development Index (HDI).

In continuation we present some statistical data from the three communities. To begin in Table number 1 we evaluate the housing conditions and their precarious situation with regard to basic services.

Table No. 1
Household Condition
Communities in the Program Characteristics of the Homes

Total With dirt floor Without potable water Without sanitary facilities Without electricity Cook with fire wood Cook with charcoal Without television Without radio Without telephone
Paguá 71 33 1 5 69 58 0 64 12 71
San Juanito 37 20 1 2 27 33 0 32 7 37
Algarrobal 15 7 0 0 15 12 0 14 3 15
Totals 123 60 2 7 111 103 0 110 22 123
Source: National Census Statistical Institute 2010

According to the information outlined above, 49% of the homes have dirt floors, 98% have access to potable water, 94% have sanitary facilities (latrine or flushable toilet), 90% have no electricity, 84% cook with firewood, 89% do not have television, 82% do not have radios, and none have landline telephones. In order to communicate in the communities some homes have cellular telephones that can receive service in some specific locations where there is a cellular signal. Regarding water service, the communities have common aqueducts that are gravity fed, but some people have their own individual aqueducts. In both types, water is treated with chlorine; however that is inconsistent and in some cases nonexistent, which means that even though the statistics report that the water is potable this is not the case. Another characteristic of the aqueducts is that the flow is considerably reduced during the dry season (January – March), and in general the Administrative Water Councils, which are community based organizations, have to impose limitations.

Table No. 2
Population Data
Communities in the Program Population
Total Male Female 18 yrs. and older 10 years and older
Total Less than 3rd grade education Employment Illiterate
Total Involved in agriculture Unemployed No. Employed
Paguá 313 164 149 192 253 50 95 48 2 156 33
San Juanito 182 97 85 99 131 12 62 33 1 68 5
Algarrobal 70 33 37 40 51 5 36 15 0 15 10
Totals 565 294 271 331 435 67 193 96 3 239 48
Source: National Census Statistical Institute 2010

Regarding the population date we can summarize that at the time of the national census of 2010 there were 565 inhabitants in the three communities, and the community of Paguá had the most with 313 persons, which corresponded to 55% of the total. The economically active portion of the total population was 326 persons, of whom 193 worked in various occupations, with 50% of those occupied in agriculture/livestock.

In order to determine the causes of the economic instabilities in the communities we utilized a methodology that encouraged the participation of the members of the communities. Towards this end we held meetings, took surveys and conducted interviews with program participants and community members who were willing to collaborate with the study. We also reviewed the recorded findings of other projects that have been carried out in the area. As a result of our findings, we decided to group the causes of economic instabilities in two large groups that pertain to internal or external factors. The following is the findings from our research.

1. Aspects dependent on internal factors
In this section we discuss those factors pertaining to the natural conditions of the area and the economic activities that the population has carried out during the region’s history.
a. Aspects of the natural conditions
Due to the uneven topography that characterizes the area where the three communities are located, and the tropical conditions, the topsoil has suffered drastically due to erosion, that has been further aggravated by nonsustainable agricultural and cattle raising practices. Also, the low fertility of the soil is related to the conditions of the bedrock, and the formative origins of the soils that left them with few macro and micronutrients. The natural conditions of the soil has been a determinative factor in lowering the productivity of agricultural and livestock raising activities to the point that the population has been obligated to seek out other types of complementary employment and formulate alternative strategies for economic survival.

b. System of agricultural production
The agricultural model that has been used in these communities since ancestral times is the one known as “slash and burn” or swidden agriculture, which destroys the forested areas and all of the topsoil’s natural cover, thus exposing it to the effects of the climate such as rain, wind and solar radiation, among others. These climate effects cause serious damage that negatively modifies the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the soil. In the last decades many traditional farmers have incorporated into their production many practices of conventional agriculture, such as the use of synthetic agrochemicals including fertilizers and herbicides. Farmers sought after agrochemicals as a means to increase production; however, it created a vicious cycle of soil degradation, dependency, and economic depletion. Additionally, many waterways soon become contaminated by the use of these chemicals and have since affected local biodiversity.

Another problem with the traditional method of agriculture is its migratory nature in which a farmer cultivates an area, usually for two years until the nutrients are completely depleted, and then moves on. The farmer constantly seeks virgin soils, thus his or her need to clear and burn more forest in order to cultivate their subsistence crops. The repetition of this practice over the course of years has had a negative effect on the fertility of the soils and the general characteristics of the ecosystem (desertification).

c. System of livestock production
The practice of raising cattle is considered to be the productive activity that has had the worst impact in Panama from an environmental perspective. This is because the activity uses large tracts of land for the feeding of each animal, and for that reason its growth has been the reason for the destruction of thousands of hectares of forests. Pastures have been established on soils that are primarily suited to forest conditions. In the three communities where this project is carried out, this is the predominant method of cattle ranching and in general occupies the land that is more flat, which could well be used for other types of agricultural pursuits. More often than not the cattle pastures have direct access to the natural sources of water that under normal circumstances could be used for crop irrigation. In the annual “cleaning” of the pastures that takes place during the dry season (January to April), they use burning to cleanse the pastures so that they will regenerate when the rainy season returns from May to December. Some cattle ranchers who have more resources make use of herbicides during the rainy season to prepare the land for sowing pasture crops, which are most commonly genetically modified seed types.

In the majority of the areas that are exploited for cattle ranching the landowners have done away with the forest cover and the land begins to suffer from overgrazing. Cattle repeatedly traverse the land, leading to the soil’s compaction that further reduces its fertility. This takes place to such an extent that it requires an extraordinary amount of work to rehabilitate the soil and be able to use the land for any other kind of agriculture.

Many small farmers were excited by the growth of cattle raising that occurred in Panama in the last decades, and they transformed what lands they had, which were generally forests, into pastures in order to raise a few head or rent their lands to other cattle raisers. By doing so it is certain that they earned some income, but in the long run they destroyed the most valuable resource that they had, which was the soil. The destruction of the forested areas in some areas brought with it the consequence of water shortages, because many natural springs dried up and many more reduced their flow. By having destroyed the forested areas the communities no longer have many resources, which before were abundant and of high quality; this has brought the consequence of accelerated impoverishment in the rural population.

Many small farmers who moved into raising cattle, for various reasons, have had to sell their lands to the large cattle ranchers, to such an extent that the communities are left surrounded by pastures and they have had to secure other lands in areas far from their homes for planting.

d. Culture of extracting resources
The people of the three communities have had a long tradition of artisan production using materials obtained from local forested areas. However, every day the scarcity of the primary materials increases because the majority of them are considered as “non-wood forest products.” Among the artisan items that are produced are the hats made from plant fibers from various plants such as La Bellota (sometimes called “toquilla palm”- Carludovica palmata), which provides the main fibers. La Chonta (sometimes called “mocora palm” or “black palm”- Astrocaryum stanleyanum), provides the fibers with a black tint, la Pita (“Pita Plant”- Aechmea magdalenae) provides fibers from which thread is made and el Chisná (sometimes called “cricket vine”-Arrabidaea chica) provides a very special tint. There does not exist a custom of cultivating these plants in greater quantities close to the homes, and for that reason long distances have to be traveled to harvest them or they have to be bought from other people who harvest them for sale. The cost of this to the artisan increases the cost of production.

Because of the general belief that existed for many years that the natural resources were inexhaustible, the inhabitants of these communities have gone about exhausting the supply of the plants that they use regularly to produce artisan items. By selling these items the artisans were able to earn some cash income. We should also mention the native animals that are harvested for food and the local plants that are used for medicinal purposes have been similarly affected. It is through the efforts of various projects that the general consciousness of the population is increasing with regard to this problem to the point that concrete changes are taking place to reverse the impacts.

e. System of commercialization
The means to market and commercialize the agricultural and artisanal products of the region is severely impacted by numerous factors that also lead to the economic plight of community members. In the space and time that a product travels between the producer and the consumer there are many intermediaries, each of whom successively raises the end price and also diminishes the portion of the final price available to be paid to the original producer. In many cases the producers receive cash advances from the middlemen that results in a relationship of dependence. This system of commercialization does not permit the small producer to obtain a fair price in proportion to his or her work and constitutes one of the major causes for the waning economic state of small-scale farmers.

f. Culture of underdevelopment
It is known that living one’s entire life, or even several years under condition of poverty created a culture of helplessness, but also acceptance of the condition. This acceptance and sense of vulnerability is transmitted from one generation to the next by way of proverbial saying, “Poor we were born, poor we are, and pore we will always be”. Unfortunately breaking this paradigm is challenging and creates an emotional aspect of poverty that many institutions fail to address, and worse off makes the target population further resistant to change, even if that change implies improved well being.

2. Aspects dependent on external factors
In this section we include aspects of the national and global surroundings that can be considered causes of the economic instability in the communities.

a. Isolation and abandonment
The district of La Pintada, where the three communities are located, is considered among the 13 most impoverished municipalities of the country. Within the province of Coclé only the district of Olá surpasses it, which statistically is one of the poorest areas in the province of Coclé and in all of the Republic of Panama.

Just like other rural communities of the country, those of Paguá, San Juanito and Algarrobal are communities that even though they are not too far removed from the Pan American Highway (which is the main corridor where the highest level of development is concentrated), they have continually been excluded from government programs and projects. They suffer from poor road conditions that otherwise might facilitate access, transportation, and trade. The communities also lack technical assistance for their agricultural, livestock and artisanal production; financing; and basic services of acceptable quality, i.e. health, education, potable water, etc.

The model of development promoted by governments does not facilitate the true development of rural communities since rural development is not a political priority. There is no ministry that is completely charged with the issue. Moreover, there is no historical network among the various initiatives that are carried out and in general they are done in an improvised way. The projects function as band-aids or temporary medication that relieves the suffering or pain of the actual problem versus addressing the root causes.

To summarize, the more impoverished districts of the country have lacked the presence of government institutions, but also the commitment to resolving the root causes of the identified problems.

In the case of Panama the programs related to the politics of social protection are not directed to the most in need, nevertheless, even when they are, they are not effective in reducing poverty. For example, the country provides a variety of subsidies for electricity, water, gas for cooking, and gasoline, which represents two thirds of the budget for social assistance (BM 2007). The previously stated is a reflection of the inequalities in the prioritization of the social budget, in the sense that social services and actions for social protection that originate with the State have their greatest impact in the social sectors that have the highest level of access to them, but they are not necessarily those that are most marginalized and socially excluded. In the search for alternatives for the reorganization of the social budget, the goal is not to reduce the amount of funding, but to use the resources in a more efficient, rational and equitable manner, designed according to priorities that allow for the execution of programs and projects that respond to the needs and conditions of the sectors with the most poverty. This implies that the actions of social character that public institutions carry out should be capable of attending and confronting, among the various sectors, the particulars and characteristics of the most impoverished sectors.

The reduced capacity of the State to intervene and the operation of social politics in the improvement of the living conditions of the most vulnerable groups have contributed to the increased level of poverty despite the magnitude of Panamanian social budget. The political actions of the State with regard to social issues, more so than budget problems, seem to impede the delivery of concrete solutions to offer services and protection to the most marginalized and vulnerable groups. This is a failure on the part of the State to fulfill its duty to overcome its lack of organization and reduce the insecurities that provoke insecurities in different people in different ways in accordance with their vulnerabilities (CEPAL 2006).

b. Execution of low impact projects
The communities report that they have received projects that have been provided by the government or by NGOs, but the majority of these have been short term, and unavailable to a significant number of communities. Other projects tend to promote paternalism or dependency. Also there has been a high level of welfare utilized in the methods of execution of the projects.

In the three communities there have been in recent years, projects promoted by the Ministry of Agricultural Development, Foundation NATURA and others promoting conventional agricultural and livestock production. The projects have included the use of genetically improved seeds, synthetic agrochemicals and the raising of small-scale livestock with hormone-based foods. Very few have put emphasis on not burning, using hybrid seeds, organic production methods and techniques for conserving the soils.

The National Environmental Authority (ANAM) and Foundation NATURA have carried out reforestation projects, but emphasized mostly of exotic species such as pine (Pinus caribaea) and acacia (Acacia mangium), which do not have ties to the animals of the region and their use is not familiar to the people. Both organizations have also promoted small-scale projects to protect threatened species like the iguana. In the project, rural families are asked raise and care for iguanas but unfortunately this places additional burden on the families due to the responsibilities and lack of income generating aspects.

c. Inadequate education
At present there exists a large effort from all sectors of the country to reach an agreement that would lead to education reform. All actors involved are convinced of the same fact, that the present system does not adequately meet the country’s needs. The present model does not meet the country’s needs as a whole, much less in the rural areas. It does not promote production or innovation, and in the rural areas it does not promote the love of working the land. This educational model is designed for the purposes of the service economy, and it puts at risk the country’s food sovereignty. It is necessary to reform the educational system, in order to have a more prosperous country in which the opportunities that are present can be taken advantage of most efficiently.

d. Global climate change
We cannot exclude from the causes of the economic instabilities the factors that are directly related to climate change. The communities are, and have been for many years experiencing variations in the climatic cycles in which the seasons of the year are much more irregular than the “traditional” wet and dry season. At this time, these seasons do not occur with the regularity that they did in the past: the rainy season from May to December and the dry season from January to April. For the seasons to occur late or early, which now happens frequently, makes it difficult for the small farmers to plan ahead, especially with regard to sowing crops. Many times this causes the loss of crops when the seasons do not start when expected, or when there are rains during the dry season or periods of drought during the rainy season. Another phenomenon that often happens is the intensity at one time of precipitation that results in landslides, flooding, erosion and other natural disasters. The farmers we interviewed confirm, “The sun is no longer the way it was before.” With this they mean to say that when they are exposed to the sun in the countryside, the solar radiation is more intense than previously. Another phrase that explains the same phenomenon is “the sun burns.”

IV. Efforts to Overcome Economic Inequality

1. National Efforts
The problem of economic inequality that exists in Panama is a cause for concern for international aid organizations who, in general, place a certain amount of pressure on government bodies to attend to these issues, as well as to create strategies and carry out programs aimed at overcoming such imbalances. Certain financial institutions, such as the World Bank (WB), the Inter-American Development Bank and others contribute funds towards financing such programs. Many NGOs as well undertake projects, which contribute to achieving these objectives.

Communities involved in these particular projects receive support from government programs but, for reasons explained in earlier sections, achievements generally have not been as good as hoped. However, since SHI’s programs have been running, a significant impact has in fact been noted, due to the thorough work approach and how this program takes advantage of the conditions and opportunities created by other organizations to improve the quality of life of the assisted families. We have classified these efforts being carried out into two different levels, outlined as follows: Since the last decade, the various Panamanian governments, advised by international financial organizations and various participating aid organizations, have initiated a series of programs focused on reducing poverty levels in Panama; this relates to the achievement of Millennium objectives promoted by the United Nations. Between the years 2004-2009, the Panamanian government developed a program of conditioned transfers, known as the Opportunity Network, which was born in the framework of the National Strategy for the Alleviation and Reduction of Poverty (MEF 2005, as per its acronym in Spanish). This Panamanian Opportunity Network allowed social policies to be re-focused towards under-developed areas and populations, where basic necessities were unsatisfactory. In other words, social policy was linked from this time on with the rest of public policies directed towards areas of unmet basic needs, with the objective of providing them with the infrastructure and services for improving the population’s human development levels. (MIDES 2007, as per its acronym in Spanish).

The condition transfers program falls within the framework of emerging actions indicated in the government program. In this program, proposals are put forward which are later re-taken up in the development strategy by way of the document “Strategic Vision for Economic Development and Employment: Towards the Year 2009”, which recognizes that the economy needs to generate growth and employment in order to improve income distribution (MEF 2005, as per its acronym in Spanish). It also recognizes that the most important problem in Panamanian society is lack of equality when it comes to the benefits of progress, so therefore public policies should be directed towards social solidarity, capacity-building, access to opportunities and minimum social rights. (PNUD 2006, as per its acronym in Spanish).

The Network’s specific objectives include: delivering conditional monetary transfers to households in extreme poverty; providing health and education services to children and young people up to 18 years of age; promoting the development of skills amongst the adults of the assisted households, and work alongside the families to reduce social exclusion and vulnerability. The Network focuses on social investment in infrastructure for the various administrative / provincial areas (‘corregimientos’) and areas of greatest poverty, such as the indigenous reservations (‘comarcas’).

This conditional transfer program is being applied in the communities of Paguá, San Juanito and Algarrobal. The program, however, does not cover all of the families in these communities (some of those who participate in SHI’s program receive this type of assistance on behalf of the national government). In addition, the organizations responsible for this program feel partially supported by SHI, owing to the fact that they do not carry out continuous follow-up of their beneficiaries, whereas SHI has a greater permanence in the communities.

Currently, a group of aid agencies - including Food and Agriculture Organization, World Tourism Organization, United Nations Organization for Industrial Development, United Nations Development Program and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development - are developing a program known as: the Combined Program Network of Business Opportunities for Poor Families, which has among its objectives the reduction of extreme poverty and hunger, promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, and guaranteeing environmental sustainability. The project supports the creation of new, sustainable micro-businesses, with emphasis on the tourism sector, livestock and non-livestock, all with the aim of generating new sources of income and reduce poverty levels, especially in rural and indigenous areas. This program is being developed in more economically vulnerable communities, including the communities within the area of Llano Grande where SHI is currently working.

2. SHI Panama Strategy
The development strategy being promoted by SHI’s Panama program, with the support of the Walker Foundation in the last two years, has demonstrated in the importance of addressing environmental issues at the same time as working to reduce the poverty index. During the first phase of work, SHI Panama devoted itself to introducing a method of organic production adapted to the landscape conditions of the families, in intended to improve the physical and chemical properties of highly degraded soils. The systems also make very efficient use of water, which is a scarcity at certain times of the year for many of the communities. The idea behind first introducing such techniques before addressing economic concerns is to create a healthy and livable environment where families have immediate access to consistent and healthy foods (food sovereignty).

It is important to mention that this agricultural project was launched on the basis of a chemical analysis of the soils that was undertaken, which enabled us to find out the soil properties, and thus allow us to apply well as applying organic material, in a constant manner, to keep raising, little by little, soil fertility, at the same time as they are producing. The results of these analyses have helped us get a better knowledge of the general conditions of the area and to be able to work in a more effective manner.

V. Development efforts by SHI-Panama
The projects undertaken by SHI-Panama with the support of Walker Foundation are organized according to the following categories:

1. Increasing marketing potential via appropriate technology
One of the main challenges for many SHI participants being able to market their produce locally and regionally is coping with the volatility of the climate. Lacking proper protection and technology, farmers’ crops are susceptible to the variations and disruption in climate being caused by climate change. Lack of proper protection for crops has led to lower yields, fungal disease (excessive rain), and water logged soils. As a means to reduce these issues, SHI-Panama has been installing small-scale greenhouses that offer the farmer the opportunity to grow, with some ease, the crops they need to generate a livable income. The greenhouses offer farmers the flexibility to grow at different periods, in particular during the rainy season when typically heavy rains damages crops, spreads fungus, and depletes organic matter via erosion.

Another aspect of increasing participants’ marketing potential is escalating the fertility of soils. As a result of soil tests, SHI-Panama field staff has a greater understanding of the local soil’s limitations – low pH, micro and macro nutrient deficiencies, and low organic matter content. Considering the soil’s debilities, the program established a plan to increase fertility through a variety of techniques including incorporation of green manures Mucuna spp., and Cajanus cajan. Moreover the program has initiated a vermiculture component that utilizes the Californian red worm (Eisenia foetida), construction of composters, collection and use of bat guano, and mulching.

During this stage, some micro-irrigation systems were constructed in order to improve a farmer’s ability to irrigate his or her fields during the dry season.

2. Crop diversification, commercialization and market development

The program has emphasized the importance of crop diversification, owing to the fact that majority of these communities grow a limited number of basic grains, vegetables, and fruit. Traditional items most frequently grown by participants are: plantains (Musa paradisica), bananas (Musa sapientum), cassava (Manihot esculenta), maize (Zea mays), rice (Oryza sativa), common beans (Phaselus vulgaris), purple (or winged) yam (Dioscorea alata), blue taro (Xanthosoma violaceum), and some fruit trees, such as sweet orange (Citrus sinensis), lemon (Citrus imón), mango (Mangifera indica), pineapple (Ananas sativus), and papaya (Carica papaya).

Working with Walker Foundation, SHI-Panama has been working to strengthen current traditional production (increasing yields, techniques, and quality), and introducing the cultivation of new crops such as: tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum), cayenne peppers (Capcicum annuum), green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris var. Vulgaris), carrots (Daucus carota), celery (Apium graveolens), eggplant (Solanum melongena), lettuce (Lactuca sativa), cucumber (Cucumis sativus), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), and more.
At the initiation, only small quantities of these new crops were being cultivated as SHI-Panama wanted to slowly familiarize participants to the crop and cultivation techniques. As participants have grown more acclimated to the new crops, the organization has promoted expanding the area being grown in order to begin meeting local and regional demands for the crops. Up until now, all production obtained from the land has been consumed within the communities, and in some cases sold to neighboring communities. In addition, the program is working towards renewing its agreement with the company Culantro Rojo (‘Red Coriander’), who specialize in the direct sale of organic products in Panama City.

3. Data collection
The work of SHI-Panama in the community began with collecting baseline information about each of the assisted families. We are in the process of geographically referencing each farm, using GPS. In addition, we have begun a process of weekly follow-up and assessment, using a format facilitated by SHI, collecting information, which is later compared with data from baseline studies. Thus, we are able to note qualitative and quantitative changes with regard to the families in the program over time. All of this information, for each of the communities, will later be filed in the organization’s database, which is currently being developed with the assistance of the firm Cropster.

4. Technical assistance and training
Mariano Navarro, SHI-Panama’s assigned field trainer has continued to offer technical assistance to the families in the program that are participating directly in this project - a total of 35 in all: 12 in Paguá, 18 in San Juanito: 5 in Algarrobal. Of these, only 20 are participating in the project: 10 from San Juanito; 10 from Paguá. However, the remaining 15 are being attended to with equal dedication.

Technical assistance has focused on teaching the families to apply sustainable organic farming techniques, to promote a change in their traditional production methods, which are not environmentally friendly. Techniques most shared include soil conservation, use of contour rows, terracing, living and dead barriers, introduction of bio-intensive methods, use of efficient microorganisms, vermiculture, green manures, and establishment of irrigation systems. Various kinds of training methods and activities, such as talks, seminars, workshops, peer-to-peer teachings, demonstration, and educational tours to others farms have been employed to teach these techniques.

Topics developed have been aimed at creating awareness amongst participant families about the importance of food sovereignty, nutrition, environmental conservation and more. With regards to the latter, environmental damage caused by the practice of burning and use of synthetic agro-chemicals has been a primary focus with the group (hazards of agro-chemicals, alternatives, etc.). There has also been emphasis on the topic of environmental services that the forest offers to the communities and the economic incentives for forest conservation, payments for environmental services, compensation for bio-diversity and other markets stemming from the environment. We have to explain such topics in great depth, considering these are new concepts for the communities, as well as the country as Panama has yet to develop a market based approach to ecosystem services (unlike neighboring Costa Rica and Colombia).

5. Soil Analysis
See external report (attached)


The SHI-Panama program is constantly seeking opportunities to explore and develop market solutions to the agro ecological problems faced in Panama, as well as income. SHI’s unique program offers ample opportunity to explore this area of work and apply it in a sustainable means that embody philosophies of environmental stewardship and equitable development.

The families assisted by SHI-Panama are diversifying their production and have quickly been able to create surpluses, which are placed on the local market. Conversely, as most of the community participants are undertaking activities very similar to each other, the local market gets saturated so, therefore, they next need to look further afield to market opportunities at the regional level, as well as diversify production. Given that the production that the organization promotes is organic in character, we have tried to look for certain niche markets, thereby offering better opportunities and prices for these types of products. This is the reason for setting up a business model with the company Culantro Rojo (‘Red Coriander’), which has its central office in Panama City. For the past year or more the organization has been working with them, though recently the agreement was temporarily suspended due to transportation issues. Nevertheless, SHI-Panama is building contacts with other transport services, so that it may continue shipments and, thereby, continue supporting the families who have demonstrated the greatest development in terms of production and diversification.

The market for organic produce in Panama has been growing considerably over the last few years and is comparable in growth to tourism, which, in recent years, has been very significant. Via market research activities, the organization has been able to prove that great-unmet demand for organic products exists amongst the restaurants, supermarkets and other kinds of businesses operating in the capital city.

Unfortunately a major problem confronting program participants, and which is common to other organizations promoting organic farming, is that they are working on many different aspects at the same time. Participants need to be trained on various sustainable agricultural practices and, at the same time, resolve the problem associated with water supply, crop protection, and quality control. The process is long and tedious and frequently requires constant attention on the part of the institution, and the dedication and perseverance of participants. As a result, results are slow, and sometimes not seen for several months, if not a year.


This grant will directly benefit rural stakeholders in Panama by connecting them with local, national and international market opportunities, and by building their capacity to compete in these markets. The local habitats that will be preserved by these rural stakeholders are of global significance, and the outcomes of this grant may serve as a global model for rural communities and the economic imbalances that impact their development.

Amount Approved
$27,000.00 on 6/2/2011 (Check sent: 7/5/2011)

Starting native tree nursery
Starting a nursery area with native species (Canalú) to preserve and not to harm the forests. San Juanito community of La Pintada, Cocle, Panama. Photo: Mariano Navarro G.

Martín Rojas family showing their new fuel-efficient stove.
FY12 Q1 Report (Doc)
Traditional inefficient wood-burning stove, Panama Canal Watershed
Fuel-efficient stove, Kitchen of Producer's Organization Panama canal watershed
Starting native tree nursery

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Florence Reed
Founder and President, Sustainable Harvest International
Sarah Clemens
Development Director, Sustainable Harvest International

Posted 3/31/2011 12:52 PM
Updated   1/31/2013 12:24 PM

  • Nonprofit

Traditional inefficient wood-burning stove, Panama Canal Watershed
Traditional, open-fire cooking on hearth inside home, Panama Canal Watershed

Fuel-efficient stove, Kitchen of Producer's Organization Panama canal watershed
Fuel-efficient stove, introduced by SHI, that reduces wood consumption and deforestation. Kitchen of Producer's Organization, Panama canal watershed.

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