PROGRAM DESCRIPTIONThe School for Field Studies semester program Tropical Island Biodiversity and Conservation 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. As part of our work in Panama, SFS strives to help islanders maintain balance and harmony between people and nature in this fragile ecosystem.
The curriculum and research program focus on defining key island systems, both natural and human, and how they interface. Key indicators for the status of the habitats, species, and local economies will be developed based on local perceptions and knowledge, accepted research protocols, and local relevance. Through field observations and research, students identify and understand the pressures, both direct and indirect, on the environment and social systems. Students evaluate the responses by local actors and policy-makers aimed at mitigating pressures and restoring balance in the environment.
Our first year of research in Bocas has revealed patterns and processes at the nexus of biodiversity, conservation, and human livelihoods that merit ongoing study. Research on lionfish in the diversity of underwater habitats has revealed a different pattern of invasion than is found in other parts of the Caribbean. Communities of coral, fish, and invertebrates await our assessment and study. Work in the forest environments highlight ecological processes and patterns of biodiversity.
Bocas del Toro is home to several social groups, 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 distinct relationship to the environment. The small indigenous communities located adjacent to our Center allows for a rich immersion in traditional culture; students can interact with locals to gain an understanding of their livelihood strategies and experience the intimate relationship that these communities have with the natural 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 Bocas. Finally, the vast commercial banana plantations on the mainland provide myriad opportunities to examine how natural systems and human systems are able to mutually exist—but not necessarily without conflict—in a 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 and other marine habitats
- Shallow water excursions to the delicate intertidal surf zones where giant starfish and spiny sea urchins abound
- Explore dominant stands of old-growth rainforests; viewing giant orchids, colorful macaws, monkeys, and numerous arrow frogs
- Monitoring of beach erosion and palm stand loss due to rising sea levels
- Lecture from Panamanian and international researchers and government environmental officials
- Tour large banana plantations on the mainland to understand the impact of the commercial agricultural industry on the local economy and fragile coastal environment
- Visit indigenous villages and observe the livelihoods of traditional farmers, fishers, and forest gatherers
Visit eco-lodges and resort hotels to understand how development imparts pressures on fragile marine and terrestrial habitats and ecosystems
SAMPLE DIRECTED RESEARCH TOPICS
- 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: coral reef, seagrass, mangrove, and humid forest, and strategies for monitoring changes over time
- Status and distribution of the invasive lionfish into southern Caribbean waters and its 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: receding beaches, destruction of mangroves, siltation of reefs, and pollution- caused degradation due to increased tourism and development
- Livelihood strategies of residents: fisheries, ecotourism, agriculture, ranching, and forestry, and decision-making processes of families that extract natural products for subsistence and income generation
- Perceptions of environment and environmental services by local people and tourists
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
- Tutoring or mentoring indigenous school children in English language skills or other academic subjects
- Meeting with indigenous leaders and elders of the Ngöbe 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 and participating in short home stays
- Attending community festivals and sporting competitions
SFS’s research 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 climate largely resembles that of the Hawaiian Islands, with an average air temperature in the low 80s, which matches the temperature of the surrounding water. Isla Solarte experiences approximately 100 inches of rain per year, mostly at night with occasional short showers seen during the day, which accounts for the island’s lush, green vegetation throughout the year.Although the research station feels like it is situated in remote wilderness, the small town of Bocas del Toro is only a short boat ride away. Solarte’s main building is a beautiful two-story wooden building with a classroom, porch, dining room and dorm rooms. Facilities include a spacious classroom that also serves as a lab, six student dorm rooms with ceiling fans, air conditioning, and private bathrooms, and a covered deck with a view of the water. A host of forest wildlife can be seen on the station grounds, including two and three-toed sloths and howler monkeys, which add to the chorus of sound in the trees.