Our group in Panama

Our group in Panama

The Latin American Experience: History and Conservation Biology of Panama is an interdisciplinary course that combines on campus lecture and discussion based learning with off campus community immersion and service learning. The goal of the course is to expose students to multifaceted issues in a real world context through the integration of curricular activities, civic engagement, community involvement, and service learning experiences.

Chad E. Montgomery, Department of Biology (chadmont@truman.edu) and Marc Becker, Department of History (marc@truman.edu) are offering this class.

The course began with four weeks of on-campus lectures, discussion, and project development to gain background knowledge related to the history of Panama, including information related to the unique geography of the country, the diverse cultures and languages of the country, the often tumultuous political and economic history. In addition, we will examine information related to environmental issues, especially considering trade-offs influencing conservation of biodiversity, subsistence and commercial agriculture, and extraction of natural resources.

For the following eight weeks, students will travel to Omar Torrijos National Park (OTNP) in west-central Panama where they will continue their education about Panama and the issues affecting the people of Panama through community interaction and immersion.

For the final weeks of the semester, students will return to campus to discuss and contemplate what they have experienced and to reflect on how those experiences may shape their beliefs and points of view. Students will use information and impressions gained from their experiences to complete a collaborative document for dissemination to the people, NGOs, and local governments associated with OTNP.

Interactions with local communities, their respective governments, and local NGOs in relation to establishment of natural protected areas and the impact of outside influences on traditional communities provides opportunities for various areas of study including, but not limited to:

Conservation Biology—As these areas are established as protected areas, an understanding of the trade-offs between resource use by the local people and conservation of biodiversity is essential.
Government Policy—The protected areas are primarily established as a top down decision, but the relationships of these decisions to the institution of the protected areas often follows different guidelines.
Languages—In addition to taking place in a country where Spanish is the official language many of the indigenous groups in the areas have their own languages that are being overshadowed by Spanish and even English
Cultural Studies—In addition to interacting with diverse local communities, we will be interacting with an even more diverse group of cultures including Ngobe and possibly Kuna.
Agriculture—Often the local inhabitants are subsistence farmers, growing enough to live on and possibly a little to sell.
Geography—The topography of the various regions is incredible, being situated on the Continental Divide with vast Atlantic and Pacific slopes and elevations ranging from 400 m to 1400 m in elevation.
Environmental Studies—Land use practices, including commercial mining, are causing debates and conflicts related to the conservation of natural resources.
Health—These communities do not have access to health facilities or money to pay for the health services.

Parque Nacional Omar TrField Experience

Omar Torrijos National Park in west central Panama was established surrounding the general area in which the plane of General Omar Torrijos crashed, near the town of El Cope. Omar Torrijos was not an elected official, although as the dictator of Panama he was responsible for the successful negotiation for the return of the Panama Canal to Panama. The boundaries of the 25,275 hectare park were literally drawn on a map and the Panama natural resource authority (Autoridad Nacional de Ambiente; ANAM) began managing the area. There are currently eight traditional communities within the park maintaining a lifestyle without electricity and limited road access. The residents of these communities rely primarily on subsistence farming, although recently the young men of these communities have started working for the Petaquilla Mines just outside of the park. The mines are multi-day hikes from many of the interior villages, but the influence of the mines and larger communities is starting to filter into these historically isolated villages.

During the initial implementation of the park rules and regulations enforcement of was hit or miss, and often those rules that were enforced directly affected the well being of the local residents. At the time the interior communities were forced to give up hunting and limit the conversion of forest to agricultural fields. Interior residents were not consulted on the development of the park, and were therefore not supportive of the new rules and regulations. However, over time the local residents have started taking pride in the park and all it has to offer, despite the added difficulties to their daily lives.

Recently an NGO (La MICA) was established to provide needed resources for the local communities and to establish a scientific research station in the park to help ANAM to understand what they have undertaken to protect (see letter). The NGO is in the building stages for the research station, which could offer another service learning project. Also La MICA works closely with people from the surrounding villages, as well as the local ANAM office.

Course Credit: The course constitutes an entire semester, 15 credit hours. Students will enroll in:

  • either BIO 100 Introductory Biology (4 hours) or HIST 140 Latin America During the National Period (3 hours)
  • JINS 338 Race and Ethnicity in Latin American (3 hours)
  • ENVS 300 Special Topics: Latin American Experience (4 hours)
  • a special topics course in the student’s major that includes a writing enhanced component (5-6 hours)

Sample programs may look like:

HIST Major
BIO 100 Biology (4)
JINS 338: Race and Ethnicity in Latin American (3 hours)
ENVS 300: Service Learning (3)
HIST Elective Course (6 in HIST 365 – Seminar in Non-Western History, with possibilities for 3 hrs in HIST 366 – Seminar in European History or HIST 367 – Seminar in U.S. History)

BIOL Major
HIST 140 Latin America During the National Period (3)
Race and Ethnicity in Latin American (3 hours)
ENVS 300: Service Learning (4)
BIOL Elective Course (WE) (5)

The special topics credit in the student’s major is an effort to facilitate diverse students taking part in the course while accumulating elective credit hours in their major plan of study. In order for students to gain the special topics credit in majors outside of biology or history, we will incorporate faculty from the particular programs who would be willing to supervise the students in their respective special topics endeavors.

Service Learning and Civic Engagement: The service learning component of the course, which will be housed in ENVS 300, will incorporate multiple projects related to La MICA, ANAM, as well as within the communities. Students will be responsible for choosing projects within a framework of potential projects established by professors prior to arrival in Panama. Students, with support from the faculty, will be involved in discussions with the local people to prioritize projects and determine what the goals of the projects are, as well as implementation of the projects on the ground. Potential projects may include, but are not limited to, road and trail maintenance (considering the only means for access to many of the communities is by dirt trail); construction of community buildings, houses, or components of the La MICA research station; assistance with development of agricultural fields; base line biological surveys of the park; oral history interviews with local inhabitants; or writing a history of changing attitudes toward conservation in local communities (please see attached letter from La MICA).

Spanish Proficiency: There will be no requirement for Spanish language proficiency, although a working knowledge of Spanish would be beneficial. In Panama, both elementary and secondary education involves English as a second language. Therefore, Truman students will assist Panamanian students in community classrooms as English instructors and tutors. In addition, outside of the classroom, Panamanian students will interact with the Truman students in the community to assist with interpreting and encourage an interplay that will benefit both the Panamanian students as well as the Truman students, not only with language, but in other areas of cultural exchange.

Course cost: In addition to the 15 credit hours of tuition, there will be an added study abroad cost to cover flights, room and board, and in country travel. The estimated cost will be about $2500 per student.