Out of the classroom and into the rainforest

The Panama Field Studies Semester offers McGill undergraduates a unique opportunity to experience the complexity of environmental issues up-close

by Hannah Hoag, MSc’99

Beth Turner’s fridge holds beer, cheese, milk, tomatoes, cucumbers – and more than 1,700 bugs. The bugs are macro-invertebrates, small spineless aquatic organisms that Turner collected from streams in Panama for a research project looking at the effects of deforestation on the health of the streams. Turner scooped up the specimens this past winter and dropped them into glass vials of ethanol, which she packed into cardboard boxes and stored in the fridge she shared with four other students.

In her living room, she built a lab consisting of dissecting microscopes and a 1.7-kilogram guide to aquatic insects of North America, and taught herself how to identify the family to which each creature belongs. “My favourite is Collembola. We hardly ever see it, and I think they’re kind of cute,” says Turner, a fourth-year biology student. “This one’s kind of interesting,” she says, pulling a vial from a box. “Look at his lower lip, it’s a big floppy thing.”

Turner was one of 25 McGill students and three University of Panama students enrolled in the 2014 Panama Field Studies Semester (PFSS). The program immerses students in the biology, ecology, and culture of Panama for four months during the winter semester. To those familiar with Montreal winters, it may sound idyllic. But the pace is intense.

The students take upper-level courses in biology, agriculture, environmental science, history and geography taught by professors from McGill, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), the University of Panama and the Universidad Católica Santa María La Antigua. They criss-cross the country, learning about tropical environmental and livelihood issues from indigenous groups, farmers, and villagers. They also intern with research institutions and NGOs on local projects, sometimes spending hours commuting by bus to their sites. What little downtime they have is spent doing laundry, grocery shopping and writing papers for each class.

Biology professor Catherine Potvin is wearing body paint that the Emberá people make from the juice of the jagua fruit.
(Photo: Sean Mattson)

“They are learning at all levels of their cells,” says Catherine Potvin, a plant biologist specializing in tropical forest ecology and conservation in the Department of Biology. She is also McGill’s Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forests. Potvin created the PFSS 15 years ago. The program is a joint venture between McGill and the STRI. Potvin wanted to establish a field program in tropical ecology where students could learn first-hand how to do culturally relevant research. “I realized that we were absolutely not preparing our students for working in developing areas or tropical countries,” says Potvin. “I felt that it was only by bringing people into Panama that we could train them adequately.”

But Potvin has an even deeper motivation. For 21 years, she has studied land-use change, biodiversity conservation, and climate change mitigation in Panama. She has partnered with indigenous groups in the country to learn from them, in order to find ways to blend traditional livelihoods and cultural values into globally relevant conservation goals. “We are all sharing this planet. If we want to maintain this beautiful blue planet, we in the north need to understand how the people in the south are working in the biosphere, and that’s impossible to teach from a classroom in Montreal,” she says. “We can’t resolve these big environmental issues alone.”

Other places, other perspectives

Héctor Barrios is a professor of entomology at the University of Panama and a regular member of the PFSS teaching corps. He believes that anyone from a developed country with serious aspirations about pursuing environmental work should gain some understanding for how people in other parts of the world deal with these issues. The McGill students who take part in the PFSS develop that sort of sensitivity, says Barrios, “and this is a key quality for anyone who hopes to work successfully in other countries or regions.”

University of Panama professor Héctor Barrios regularly teaches McGill students in the Panama Field Study Semester. (Photo: Alex Tran)

For Sabrina Dabby, a third-year student majoring in international development, the semester in Panama made the issues she studied in McGill classrooms much more tangible. “We learn a lot about the problems faced by those living in the Third World, but it’s hard to conceptualize unless you see it and see who you’re dealing with,” she says. “Climate change does affect them, their crops, their lack of financing.”

Dabby interned with a non-profit NGO called Caminando Panama (Walking Panama) that is mapping the country’s hiking trails. “Their focus is getting the community involved. They’re creating co-ops and opportunities for people within the villages to sell things – it’s positive ecotourism,” she says. Dabby has mapped 70 kilometres of trails around a dormant volcano in El Valle de Anton, a town in the province of Coclé. The trails go through cloud forests and rolling hills, and past high cliffs. She has been speaking to people in the nearby communities about their desire for tourists. “It has been a resounding 'yes,'” she says.

The students’ favourite field trip takes them to the island village of Ukupseni in La Comarca de Guna Yala, an autonomous indigenous territory on the Caribbean coast near Colombia. About 2,000 Guna live on the island in homes of cane walls and thatched roofs. The students tie up their hammocks alongside those of their host families for four nights. Talking with their hosts, they learn about the Guna way of life, and the community’s views on poverty, culture and the environment.

Waste is a major theme. On the island, garbage is thrown into the ocean. The tactic keeps living areas clean, but the refuse collects among the mangroves. “At first students are disgusted and dismayed, but then it strikes a chord: the students are completely dependent on a garbage truck to come by their doors at home,” says Potvin. “Their reactions go from blame to something deeper.”

A traditional dance performance in the island village of Ukupseni, which regularly hosts McGill students from the Panama Field Studies Semester. (Photo: Alex Tran)

While there, the students participate in a long-term monitoring program of the sea grass, mangroves, and coral reefs of another island in the community. Snorkeling above a coral reef, the students relay the species they spot to a note taker in a nearby dugout canoe: lettuce, brain, and fire corals, sponges, and anemones. The corals are in poor shape and there are few fish. The Guna have mined the corals for landfill to add space for the island’s growing population and they’ve depleted the fisheries, including the herbivorous fish that consume algae and help keep the corals healthy. Under Potvin’s direction and in consultation with the Guna, the students collect algae-eating sea urchins from a healthy reef and transplant them on one in worse condition, to spur the corals’ recovery.

Potvin says the Panamanians appreciate their student visitors. She has brought students to Ukupseni for 14 out of 15 years – one year, plane troubles cancelled the trip. “The community was completely concerned. They were looking forward to it because they take pride in sharing who they are and their values, and that people want to learn from them,” says Potvin. The students leave behind resources for the public to use too: At the Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panamá (a sort of Mont Royal Park in Panama City), for instance, students from previous years have created guides to the park’s frogs and bird calls.

For a PFSS course she teaches on sustained tropical agriculture, Caroline Begg, BSc(Agr)’79, PhD’95, a faculty lecturer in the Department of Plant Science in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Studies, took the students to small farms, indigenous communities, and commercial food companies. They visited campesino (subsistence) farmers who work on small family-run farms, roughly five hectares in size. In some areas, there are conflicts between the campesinos and indigenous groups over land-use and ownership. The students also learn that some campesinos rely on remittances from relatives who have left the farm for labourer jobs in Panama City.

A commercial cattle ranch the group visited was bustling, trying to keep up with an increasing demand for milk and beef. “The students are developing an appreciation for food production and how complex it is,” says Begg. “Where do you preserve the meat? How do you keep your pasture going in the dry season?” After each field visit, the group has a roundtable discussion to share their impressions of the experience.

The program challenges attitudes about environmentalism and conservation, and the role that northern scientists play. Many students arrive in Panama with the belief that tropical forests and the animals within them must be left absolutely untouched to solve the biodiversity crisis and mitigate climate change, says Begg. “Then they realize that it’s not that simple, that you have indigenous populations that have been using the forests and hunting for generations on a sustainable scale.”

This year, Potvin introduced a mining component to the program. The students began monitoring two similar communities, one close to a Canadian-owned copper mine and another out of the way of mining development, to see how mining alters water quality, landscape and socioeconomic conditions.

“It’s almost like a finishing school for students. It’s the ultimate capstone set of courses that finalize their education at McGill,” says Begg.

“Good bang for your buck”

It’s a hot afternoon in March in Ciudad del Saber (City of Knowledge), a former U.S. Army headquarters located opposite the Panama Canal’s Miraflores locks and now the home to an array of academic organizations, NGOs and technology companies. When they’re not on the road or doing their internships, the students live here in basic one-story row houses with palm trees on their dry scrubby lawns. They rest in hammocks and sit on the back patios writing papers and discussing their experience.

“The recurring theme here is: How can people live off the land without destroying it? And who are we to tell them what to do?” says Fredric Hoffmann, a third-year student majoring in geography and international development.

This massive tree in Ciudad del Saber provides a comfortable resting spot for the Panama Field Studies Semester students who live close by. (Photo: Alex Tran)

“These are lessons showing us how all these problems and solutions are rooted in your associations with people,” says Will Miller, a fourth year student in the McGill School of Environment. “In any biodiversity or conservation science, you can’t just present the science to policy makers and say ‘OK, this is what we should do.’”

“My takeaway is: What is the role of a scientist?” says Beth Turner. “You do scientific research as rigorously as you can and present possible solutions to people and let them decide.”

“You get damn good bang for your buck with the program,” says Miller. “We get a lot of experiences packed into a short period of time.”


A tropical approach to grad school

Alex Tran eavesdrops on electric fish. During the winter, when the fish breed, the master’s student in the Department of Biology wades and swims in Panama’s rivers with a submerged electrode that detects the signals, converts them to an audible sound, and plays them over a speaker. “It’s like treasure hunting,” he says. He records the buzzes from one population of fish to the next to understand how the signals are diverging, and why. “We think that predators, like catfish, are causing them to change the signals they use to communicate.”

Tran is doing his master’s degree through the McGill-STRI Neotropical Environment Option (NEO), which gives graduate students the opportunity to focus their research on neotropical and Latin American environmental issues. Tran completed the Panama Field Studies Semester in 2011, but didn’t know then that he would return to Panama for his graduate work. He says the PFSS program gave him an advantage over students from other schools because basic Spanish is required for PFSS applicants, and he uses it to interact with Panamanians. “We don’t just come here as researchers, take samples, and leave with our data,” he says.

“Having the opportunity to work at both McGill and STRI is a big plus,” says Tran. “You could come down on your own without NEO, but the long-term relationship between McGill and STRI has created a network and valuable relationships among researchers.”

Hannah Hoag is a science journalist based in Toronto. She has a master’s degree in biology from McGill and has written for New Scientist, Discover, Wired, Canadian Geographic and the Globe and Mail.

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