University of Virginia Environmental Thought and Practice Majors Travel to Panama As Part of New Panama Initiative

April 1, 2008 — For nine University of Virginia Environmental Thought and Practice students, spring break this semester did not include a break from their studies. Instead, it provided an opportunity to further explore their major by observing sustainable development efforts under way in Panama.

The fourth-year students made the trip as a complement to their "Environmental Decisions" course and as part of the University's Panama Initiative, which began this semester. The initiative is an academic partnership to promote teaching and research collaboration between U.Va. and the Panamanian organization City of Knowledge. It represents a joint effort by the faculty in the Department of Environmental Sciences, the Environmental Thought and Practice program and the School of Medicine.

• AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Vivian Thomson narrates images from the Panama Initiative.

U.Va. Panama Initiative Director Vivian Thomson, who is also the director of the Environmental Thought and Practice program and a professor in the environmental sciences and politics departments, accompanied the students on the trip, along with U.Va. environmental sciences professor Janet Herman.

"The students who went on this trip are about to graduate," Thomson said. "They have spent a lot of their career here learning how to think about environmental problems from an interdisciplinary perspective. I felt there was no more appropriate opportunity to think of a problem from an interdisciplinary standpoint then to go down and think about sustainable development in Panama."

On the group's first day in Panama, they traveled in dugout canoes up the Chagres River to the indigenous village of Embera Drua in Chagres National Park. The community, home to those whom Thomson called "the poorest of the poor" of Panama, lives off resources found in the rain forest.

The visit highlighted the deep economic inequity of Panama, where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared with around 12 percent in the U.S., and 5 percent enjoys great wealth. The country, however, is also rich in natural resources and home to a world-class canal, creating the potential for great development and economic growth. While in Panama, the students learned about efforts to make that development environmentally friendly.

"We saw enormous capacity for improvement in the well-being of all the nation's stakeholders, human or otherwise, through the adoption of sound sustainable development policies at every level of society," said Reem Alamiri, a student on the trip.

The students also toured a tree plantation located on a former U.S. military base and airstrip. The visit took an unexpected turn when the group assisted in the capture of poachers hunting deer on the preserve.

"There was a confrontation between the officials we were with and the poachers," Thomson said. "We took a picture of the license plate of the poachers, which enabled the authorities to catch them."

The group's itinerary also included meeting with representatives of the National Institute for Agriculture, the National Environmental Authority and the regional director of the World Bank. Additionally, the students visited the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal, met with public health researchers in Panama City and traveled to a Smithsonian research and education center on Galeta Island.

According to the students, a high point of the week was their trip to Barro Colorado Island. Created when the surrounding area was flooded during construction of the Panama Canal, the artificial island is now home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The students spent three hours trekking through the island's tropical forest, where they encountered holler monkeys and carpenter ants.

"Barro Colorado Island was a completely foreign experience," student Caroline Normile said. "I had never been immersed in the rain forest."

While she enjoyed learning about sustainable development in Panama, student Jen Fier said she also appreciated the chance to travel with her fellow Environmental Thought and Practice majors.

"It was just so much fun to spend spring break with a group of people who are passionate about the same topics that I am," Fier said.  "We got to visit a beach for a few hours one afternoon, and ended up discussing the geological composition of the black and white sands and what the stratifications on the sand banks could reveal about the wave patterns — and no one felt too nerdy! In general, it was a fantastic opportunity to get to bond with people in our small interdisciplinary major and learn a lot."

Thomson said she hoped the trip would inspire the students to think on a worldwide level, as "increasingly in the 21st century students have to learn how to think of themselves as part of a global community."

For fourth-year Jean Kim, the trip provided an opportunity to both learn about international development and explore ways she can apply her education after she graduates.

"Being in Panama on this structured trip, let me see potential careers or areas where I could take my ETP major," Kim said. "I've thought more about pursuing the public health and environmental justice areas."

Also as part of the Panama Initiative, representatives of the City of Knowledge visited the University in February and Panamanian medical researcher Ricardo Correa spent part of the semester at the U.Va. Medical School, working with Dr. Richard Guerrant, director of the Center for Global Health, and biology professor Michael Timko, learning techniques to further his research on the link between intestinal diseases and malnutrition. Future plans include a study done by U.Va. environmental scientists on the environmental impact of Panamanian mangroves.

— By Catherine Conkle