This is part 1 of an 8-part story sequence featuring Joaquín Reyes and his family. For two years, Sustainable Harvest International Field Trainer Mariano Navarro has worked with the Reyes, who are just about to enter the third phase of our program. To learn more about our phases and methodology, click here. Otherwise, read on!
Birds are chirping, crickets are singing, the sun is on full blast, and the path up to Joaquín's farm is steep. We try to keep up with Joaquín and his oldest son, Eliaquim, as best we can, but to be honest we’re a little out of breath. We want to stay close to Joaquín to hear what he’s saying. Wisdom falls out of his mouth like a waterfall. Lucky for us, and for you, Joaquín is patient.
WHERE IN THE WORLD ARE WE?
Right now, we’re on a hillside, in Piedras Gordas, Panama, catching our breath. Piedras Gordas is tucked up on a hillside, surrounded by mountains 440 meters above sea level. You can see it on a map here or, on our Programs page.
The closest town is Penonomé, about 25 miles from where we stand now. Piedras Gordas translates to “Fat Rocks” and indeed, fat rocks are strewn about the landscape. The area is topographically fascinating, with unusual peaks and outcroppings. Looking out from the hillside where we’ve stopped to catch our breath, we see a lot of green. But the green’s not all equal.
Even from afar, one can see that some of it is lush vegetation, virtually untouched, but the rest is…well, bald. The bald patches are where deforestation and unsustainable farming practices have stripped the land of the trees and plants that keep the ecosystem stable. A forest doesn’t cut itself down, however.
Joaquín notices our eyes lingering on the deforested hills.
“I wish I could buy those hills,” he says, “Then I could stop people from tearing the forests down.”
At 57, Joaquín is the patriarch of his family. He’s got a wife, six children, and eight grandchildren, many of whom live with them in their small home. Sure, Joaquín may be frustrated by the decisions people make to destroy forests rather than living in harmony with them, but he also understands what fuels them: a dangerous mix of demand for land, precarious economic states, and a dash of fatalism. While slash-and-burn farming has been used traditionally for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, with increasing populations and pressure on natural resources it's no longer sustainable.
You’ve probably seen photographs of the Panama Canal—shiny, fancy, and uber-developed. The Panama Canal represents development. It represents the global shipping trade. It represents patriotism. Around Panama City and the canal, there are people from all over the world buying goods and building skyscrapers and brand new infrastructure. Iron and concrete conquests seem unstoppable.
Here in Piedras Gordas, the shine of Panama City doesn't quite reach. By law, the national minimum wage is $624 (USD) a month, but the monthly household income in Piedras Gordas and other rural Panamanian communities is $343 (USD) a month—roughly half of what they should be getting at the lowest minimum wage by law. Panama has the second most unequal income distribution in Latin America—there are great disparities between urban areas and rural areas.
In addition, the roads in Piedras Gordas are worn and less traveled. There are no big fancy restaurants or huge containerships passing through. Employment options are limited and communities are more insular.
The sounds of life are different, too. Down in the valley, a rooster’s crowing. Dogs are barking. And, we’ve caught our breath, so we should probably keep moving. From the top, there will be even more to see.
We walk on. Suddenly, we see an enormous spider hanging from Joaquín's hat. We don’t know the spider species around here and are unsure if Joaquín's noticed it (and, if it’s poisonous), so we tell him.
“Don Joaquín, there’s a huge spider hanging off of you!"
Joaquín turns around to look at us. He casually observes the many-hued spider dangling from his straw hat and says, “Oh, her? She’s one of my collaborators,” without skipping a beat.
Unlike many subsistence farmers in Piedras Gordas and elsewhere, Joaquín not only understands that his actions are part of a delicate system, he’s decided to change the way he treats the environment. Sure, most of his peers may still practice slash-and-burn farming and rely on synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers in order to farm, but not Joaquín. He knows that he plays a crucial part in maintaining the balance of the ecosystems that sustains him and his family. He also knows that the best way to teach is by being a good example.
WHAT’S THE PAYOFF?
To change your ways is to take a risk. Taking risks can be scary when you’re a subsistence farmer. Our program invites farmers like Joaquín to consider new ways of farming. What’s the payoff? Well, there are the short-term benefits, like the security of knowing that the food you produce won’t make your family sick anymore. That tending to it won’t poison anyone with synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizer—a common fate in Panama and worldwide. That regardless of how much financial capital one has, you’ll always have enough to eat.
The long-term benefits of our program require patience and long-term vision.
“The biggest challenge,” Joaquín says, “hasn’t been nematodes, caterpillars, or moths, but my neighbors, who ask, ‘Why are you doing all these soil conservation techniques?’”
To the uninitiated, the extra time it takes to build A-frames to build contours or put in barriers of dead material to prevent erosion might not be worth it. But Joaquín is patient, remember? That’s why we’re following him today. We have a feeling he’s going to lead us somewhere good.
Much of the effort he’s putting in now won’t have much effect until later. Joaquín’s clear that what he’s doing is for his grandchildren. It’s for generations that we don’t even know about yet. He considers himself a citizen of the earth and he believes that we all owe it to the earth to treat it right.
This sentiment is part of the reason we’re here spending time with Joaquín and his family. We want to find out what makes his family different.
Finally, we reach his farm, from which there is a beautiful view (which we’ll tell you more about in a coming story). Eliaquim is the only other family member on the hill with us today. Back at their house many feet below us, Joaquín's wife, Urita is preparing dinner, kittens winding around her ankles as she grinds the corn meal. Jonathan’s doing his homework. Encarnación is studying. José is swaying back and forth in a hammock. A litter of puppies is asleep under the wood-conserving stove we helped them to build last year.
For the next month and a half, we’ll be sharing a series of stories from Piedras Gordas—all of them centering around the Reyes family. You’ll hear stories about the effects of climate change and what the Reyes are doing to mitigate and adapt. You’ll learn what Joaquín and his wife, Urita, love about each other and the values they hope to instill in their children. You’ll find out what Encarnación, Joaquín's youngest daughter aspires to. You’ll hear about the drought that has been plaguing Piedras Gordas for the past year. You’ll find out what Eliaquim's daughter was whispering in his ear during our interview.
We’re excited to share these stories with you and hope you’ll stick with us as we unveil them in installments over the next month. There will be 8 stories in total—this is just the first. Stay tuned!