Harnessing the wisdom of indigenous communities for marine conservation

By engaging directly with community members and embracing indigenous knowledge in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, a NatGeo project led by a Smithsonian scientist highlights the necessity of inclusive approaches to safeguard critical marine ecosystems and culture for future generations.

There’s a cold front in the Bocas del Toro archipelago when we arrive in mid-February. It should be peak summertime in Panama’s Caribbean. Instead, we are greeted by cloudy skies, light rain, and choppy seas. With our rain gear and life jackets on, we take off from the Smithsonian’s dock at the Bocas del Toro research station towards Popa island to meet with the Ngäbe indigenous communities living there. This visit is part of the NatGeo project “The Many Faces of Conservation: Impacts and meaning of Bastimentos Island National Marine Park on the Ngäbe in Panama” led by Ana Spalding, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Community Based Resilience Solutions Initiative and Staff Scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

In 1988, when Bastimentos Island National Marine Park was established in Bocas del Toro, the indigenous islanders living in its buffer zone were not consulted. As an environmental social scientist, Spalding is interested in listening to their side of the story, considering that the government of Panama has recently explored the possibility of expanding the park. The ecological knowledge of the Ngäbe — the largest indigenous group in Panama— is indispensable for informing policy decisions that may directly affect their ways of living and interacting with their environment in the future.

During a week in mid-February, Ana Spalding, Cinda Scott and Felipe Baker visited four island communities in the buffer zone of the Isla Bastimentos National Park in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, as part of a NatGeo project aiming to understand the relationship of its indigenous residents to the natural resources of the environment. Credit: Ana Endara, STRI

Her goal is to understand the community’s relationship to the natural resources of the Bocas del Toro archipelago, whether the creation of the National Park in the eighties had any positive or negative impacts on their livelihoods, and how they feel about a potential expansion. She also seeks to gather their perspectives on best ways to protect their marine resources.

Read the full story at stri.si.edu