Environmental Sustainability in Panama - Lindsay McPhail


Posted: June 14, 2012

One of the most inspiring messages from the trip was from one of the Embera women who explained that the community of Piriati lived day-by-day...
Lindsay laying a variety of seeds in one of the raised seed germinators.

Lindsay laying a variety of seeds in one of the raised seed germinators.

Global Brigades is a non-profit volunteer organization and is the largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization in the world. Founded in 2004, Global Brigades has enabled thousands of students to participate in nine service programs: Architecture, Business, Dental, Environmental, Law, Medical, Microfinance, Public Health and Water. During the spring of 2011, I had the chance to participate in Penn State’s Global Business Brigade to Kuna Yala, Panama. My experience inspired me to find other dedicated peers to help establish a Global Environmental Brigades chapter at Penn State. After nearly a year of recruiting members, fundraising, and planning, I led Penn State’s GEB chapter to Piriati Embera during the first week of 2012.
On January 2, 2012, I started my journey among 14 other Penn State students who have a passion for travel, volunteering, and the environment. Our arrival to the rural village of Piriati Embera was a relief after a long day of traveling. We were ready to begin our 8-day brigade with an indigenous Embera community. Our group also combined with four students from the University of Illinois and one student from the University of California San Diego. With 20 of us in all, we soon leaned that we would be breaking up into four groups of five and each group would be working with a family in the community to construct an integrated organic garden.
McPhailPanama3.pngThe objective of the Global Environmental Brigades volunteer trips is to provide students with the opportunity to work with community members in rural Panama and for students to gain experience in environmental management and education. We spent time with families to understand their environmental concerns and to discuss possible solutions for their concerns. We learned that the community had no waste system and much of their refuse was burned, tossed in the nearby river, or left on the ground. Each group performed a “waste audit” where we learned what type of trash was being discarded in each household and how it was being thrown away. After the waste audit, we discussed possible waste alternatives such as reusing some products and composting organic waste.
We also learned that the community could benefit from properly constructed greenhouses. Due to the very wet climate in Piriati, past government subsidized gardens and greenhouses led to mold growth since they were constructed too low to the ground. Our group helped to construct four greenhouses. The greenhouse, or “integrated organic garden” consisted of a root vegetable lot, a nursery and raised seed germinator, a square garden, a compost pile, and an earthworm farm. The root vegetable lot housed vegetables such as carrots, yam, and yucca. The nursery and seed germinator allowed for seeds to grow in a climate where light, temperature, and humidity were to be controlled. The square garden required no tilling, no fertilizer, and fewer seeds. Vegetables that were to be grown in this garden included tomatoes, basil, and beans. The two composting units were made up of local organic ingredients including food scraps, chicken feces, leaves, chopped banana tree logs, and rice stalks. The locations of the greenhouses were strategically placed in areas that were not prone to flooding. McPhailPanama2.pngMany of the beds were raised or elevated so that the moist environment would not lead to mold growth on the vegetables. The roof of the greenhouse was made out of a plastic material that allowed for rainwater to seep through and nourish the vegetables below. The unique roof material also helped to control the moistness of the greenhouse climate.
Throughout the week we spent time with the community by working on the greenhouses and learning about their culture. We learned a few of their traditional dances and discussed their passion and connection to the environment. One of the most inspiring messages from the trip was from one of the Embera women who explained that the community of Piriati lived day-by-day. The way of life of the Piriati community members really resonated in me. Although it is necessary to plan for one’s future and for future generations, I think our culture often overlooks living in the present. After living with and interacting with the Embera people for eight days, I felt appreciative of every blessing in my life and I felt motivated to make changes in my life so that I can live more simply and respectful of my surrounding natural environment. My experience in Panama also helped me to be more confident with my Spanish skills, to collaborate with others on a group project, and to be aware that there are learning opportunities for all actors involved in volunteer work.
The opportunity that I had to lead Penn State’s Global Environmental Brigade in Panama was an experience I will always remember. I will always be grateful for the support from the College of Agricultural Sciences, my friends, and my family, which enabled me to participate in my 2012 trip to Piriati Embera, Panama.