The School for Field Studies semester program Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies in Bocas del Toro, Panama, provides students with an exciting opportunity to conduct research and explore the rural Caribbean and the isthmus of Panama.The goal of this program is to assess the state of the archipelago’s fragile natural habitats, define the main environmental issues, and understand the community goals in natural resource management.
Panama is the great connector between two continents, a corridor that links the natural riches of Central America to South America. Few places on Earth can claim the density of species and ecosystem richness of this isthmus. The Bocas del Toro archipelago, located on the Caribbean side of the country, is a complex and biologically diverse area composed of islands, mangrove forests, coral reefs, and seagrass meadows. The islands themselves are covered with a diversity of terrestrial ecosystems—from tropical lowland rainforest to freshwater marshes—that are important habitats for an abundance of birds, monkeys, sloths, butterflies, and the distinctive poison-dart frog. Many of the islands’ beaches are important nesting grounds for threatened marine turtles. Commonly referred to as the “Galápagos of the Caribbean,” the island systems of Bocas del Toro contain a remarkable wealth of natural resources.
Bocas del Toro is at a critical juncture. Due to a boom in tourism and poorly managed resort development in the past two decades, mangroves and coastal ecosystems are rapidly being converted into tourist infrastructure, resulting in a loss of biodiversity. Local population growth, unchecked extraction of resources, water management issues, pollution, and the encroaching recreational practices of humans have put strains on the natural places of the archipelago, many of which form the basis of tourism to the region. Sustainable natural resource harvesting, conservation, and monitoring are critical in order to maintain the economic, societal, and ecological stability of the region.
The degradation of the islands’ marine ecosystems and commercial overfishing in the region have also compromised the livelihoods of the indigenous groups who live in the archipelago. The burgeoning service economy of the area attracts locals to join a corps of low-scale wage earners. While this income is important, indigenous people are losing traditional knowledge of the land and sea. Losing this meaningful connection with the environment may compromise the stewardship of habitat and natural resources.
The goal of this program is to assess the state of the archipelago’s fragile natural habitats and understand the community’s goals in natural resource management. We are assessing which activities are harmful to the flora and fauna, and which support species and habitat conservation, and ultimately, local livelihoods. In addition, as the planet copes with disruptive weather events and changing climatic influences, we are investigating how the local environment and residents of the archipelago are adapting.
Bocas del Toro is home to biologically diverse marine and terrestrial ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangrove cays, white sand beaches, and tropical rainforests; however, the unplanned development of these areas and unmanaged resource use by residents and tourists alike has put increasing pressures on the ecosystems and threatened the human communities that depend on them.
The curriculum of the program focuses on defining key island systems, both natural and human, and how they interface. Our research in Bocas del Toro has already revealed patterns and processes at the nexus of biodiversity, conservation, and human livelihoods that merit ongoing study. Through field observations and research, students identify and understand the pressures, both direct and indirect, on the environment and social systems.
Students also evaluate the responses by local actors and policy-makers aimed at mitigating pressures and restoring balance in the environment. Studies with local residents about their livelihood strategies, approaches to farming, and use of natural resources help us to assess the sustainability of land and resource use in the region. While Bocas del Toro is home to an eclectic mix of people—including Latinos, Afro-Antilleans, indigenous people, and expatriates—each group occupies a niche in the social and economic systems of the islands, and each has a distinctive way of relating to the environment. The archipelago offers myriad opportunities to examine how natural systems and human systems are able to mutually exist—but not necessarily without conflict—in this small island region of the rural Caribbean.
Through coursework and research, students gain an understanding of the interdependence of livelihood strategies of island residents, population structure of key species, and habitat arrangements and conditions, and then apply sustainability priniciples to define potential management strategies. Lectures from Panamanian and international researchers and government environmental officials help students to understand the social, economic, and policy context for environmental management.
During the semester, students focus on defining and examining the state of the islands’ species, habitats, and human communities through natural science and social science lenses. We start the research program by identifying key indicators for the condition of the ecosystems and communities.
We will use a suite of field research methods to assess the conditions. These include the following, among others:
- Household questionnaires
- Key informant interviews
- Mapping natural habitat and social networks
- Biodiversity surveys on land and in the water
- Sampling populations of key species for demographics and structure
The goal of the research program is for SFS students and faculty to describe the environmental and social conditions on the island, identify problems, and examine the responses by society aimed at mitigating pressures and restoring balance in the environment.
FIELD RESEARCH, LECTURES, AND EXERCISES
- Snorkel for field research and species identification on coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other marine habitats
- Take shallow water excursions to the fragile intertidal surf zones where giant starfish and spiny sea urchins abound
- Explore lowland wet rainforests, viewing a diversity of butterflies, birds, monkeys, and numerous poison dart frogs
- Visit and participate in sea turtle conservation projects, patrolling nesting beaches and working with local sea turtle researchers
- Tour large banana plantations on the mainland to understand the impact of commercial agriculture on the local economy and coastal environment
- Visit indigenous villages and learn about the livelihoods of traditional farmers, fishers, and forest gatherers
- Observe dolphin behavior and assess the impact of tourist interaction on resident dolphin populations
- Visit eco-lodges and resort hotels to understand how different types of land development put varied pressures on fragile marine habitats and ecosystems
- Participate in public forums on community-based tourism projects
- Develop field research skills including marine and terrestrial organism behavioral observations, biodiversity assessment, survey design and interviewing techniques, environmental impact and protected-areas assessment, scientific writing and oral presentation, GIS or remote sensing, habitat assessment and mapping species distributions
SAMPLE DIRECTED RESEARCH PROJECTS
- Status of key species, including corals, lobsters, and reef fish, and the importance of these species to the livelihoods of local fishers
- Condition of marine and terrestrial habitats, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, and humid forest, and strategies for monitoring changes over time
- Levels of butterfly diversity as an indicator of forest and environmental disturbances
- Status and distribution of invasive lionfish in southern Caribbean waters and the effect on native fish population dynamics
- The viability of amphibian species to thrive in fragile ecosystems affected by anthropogenic factors such as habitat loss, land cover changes, and a warming climate
- Habitat changes at the terrestrial-marine interface including receding beaches, destruction of mangroves, siltation of reefs, and pollution-caused degradation due to increased tourism and development
- Livelihood strategies of residents, such as fisheries, ecotourism, agriculture, ranching, and forestry; and decision-making processes of families that extract natural products for subsistence and income generation
Conservation, resource use, forest preservation, and marine species monitoring are extremely important to local farmers and fishers, resource managers, and concerned community groups. With the results of our research, we offer advice to local decision-makers and create links between our staff and the stakeholders involved in tropical island system conservation and management.
SFS students get involved in community volunteer projects and social activities such as:
- Participating in service trips to help local conservation groups and communities, such as monitoring sea turtle nesting and baby sea turtle emergence (seasonal), as well as beautification or recycling efforts
- Meeting with members of the indigenous Ngöbe community to learn more about their culture and efforts to promote their role in land management and sustainable natural resource use
- Hosting community lectures or demonstrations
- Attending community festivals and sporting competitions
- Tutoring or mentoring indigenous school children in English language skills and environmental education
SFS’s field station in Bocas del Toro is located on Isla Solarte, a small island that is one mile to the east of Bocas del Toro town. Isla Solarte is approximately three miles long and less than a half mile across at its widest point. The island has a sandy beach with waves on the east and a sheltered area to the west that is home to expansive mangrove, seagrass, and reef habitats. Isla Solarte is also home to a small community of local Ngobe villagers, who make their living fishing the waters around the island.The Center’s open-air classroom overlooks the jungle and ocean. With trails that wind through lush forests and coastal mangroves to snorkeling spots filled with tropical fishes, Solarte is a rich learning landscape allowing for total immersion right outside of the Center steps.