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A New Watershed Preserve in Panama

In this final installment of our Changing Lives, Transforming Landscapes series, we’re taking you to El Cocal, Panama. This incredible community of farmers is following up its partnership with us by turning the nearby area into an official watershed preserve. We couldn’t be more proud of El Cocal!

The view of Panama's Coclé region from the top of El Vigía Hill, where residents are organizing to turn the land into an official protected watershed. - Photo by Diomedes Arrocha

The village of El Cocal in Panama’s Coclé region sits at the foot of El Vigía Hill. At just about 1,000 feet above sea level, El Vigía is rich in forest cover and waterways. The land is privately owned by individuals, many of whom are residents of El Cocal.

El Cocal, Panama

This has been a very successful community for Sustainable Harvest International since our partnership began. With more natural resources than many of the communities we work with, and plenty of motivation and ambition, the village moved through our five-phase program quickly.

Field Trainer Diomedes Arrocho and Field Coordinator Edilberto Trujillo worked closely with twelve families in El Cocal, providing training on the benefits of natural pesticides and fertilizers over synthetic agrichemicals. They also offered workshops and support on small business strategies.

Diomedes and Trujillo collaborated with the families to truly understand how reforestation and biodiverse growing systems could ensure small-scale agriculture was helping, not hurting, this breathtakingly beautiful region of Panama.

As El Cocal prepared to graduate from our program in 2015, farmers met with Diomedes and Trujillo to discuss their long-term concerns for their community.

The greatest challenge, farmers said, would be reliable access to water. When the dry season arrives in Panama, farmers are often without water from January to May. While the community has an aqueduct, access to public water is restricted. Drinking water is readily available, but farmers would have a hard time watering gardens through the dry season without a plan in place.

And it’s not just the dry season families are worried about. Drought hits unexpectedly, and more so as climate change causes more erratic weather patterns. The extended dry spells followed by heavy rain result in run-off and erosion that can degrade land and leave the local streams and other water sources dry.

So, what’s a sustainably minded, forward-thinking community of small-scale farmers to do?

In El Cocal, farmers like Modesto Perez were thinking big. If the community could designate the privately owned land on El Vigía Hill as a protected watershed preserve, they could secure the health of the community’s primary water sources. A healthy forest canopy and soil rich in organic matter would protect the region from rainwater run-off and erosion.

Small Business Coordinator Dayra Julio tries her hand at the manual pump three families in El Cocal use to irrigate their rice crops. The pump, supported by Sustainable Harvest International, draws water from a nearby stream. - Photo by Diomedes Arrocha

Modesto Perez persuaded his neighbors to help protect their watershed. - Photo by Diomedes Arrocho

Modesto owns a portion of the land on El Vigía, but he isn’t the only one. His first step was to introduce residents of El Cocal—especially neighbors who did not partner with Sustainable Harvest International—to the importance of protecting their watershed.

He needed to persuade his neighbors that the health of their region depends on water, and that water is directly related to El Vigía Hill. Explaining that healthy soils and forests have a huge impact on local farms (and their water sources!) was going to make for some extremely complicated small talk.

But Modesto wasn’t thwarted. He started speaking with his neighbors. He was nervous about causing controversy, but he knew that everyone wanted what was best for their farms and the community. They just sometimes had different ideas about what “best” looked like. Modesto was convincing and patient with his neighbors, and as of today, five landowners have joined his cause. 

This fall, the landowners met with officials at the Ministry of the Environment. Established just three years ago, it's the first office in Panama dedicated solely to environmental issues.

During that meeting, a plan was hatched for moving forward with the preserve. As part of that plan:

  • The community will need to be inspected by local Ministry officials.
  • Community organizing will continue until all landowners co-sign a letter supporting the preserve.
  • An Engineer from the Ministry’s Department of Watershed Management will visit the region to assist in reforestation in areas where more vegetation is necessary.

The view of El Vigia Hill from the village of El Cocal. - Photo by Diomedes Arrocho

Here at Sustainable Harvest International, we’re ecstatic about the El Cocal community’s watershed preservation initiative.

While it’s always wonderful to see communities we partner with achieving success within the program, it’s especially wonderful to see a graduated community taking control of its own sustainable future. We’re especially excited to see:

  • Families who partnered with us become leaders in the community, helping other families to truly understand (and be empowered by) the ecosystem they exist within;
  • The principles of our program provide solutions beyond the scope of our work;
  • El Cocal in control! While our field staff provide support and consultation, the community is driving this effort on its own; and
  • The community collaborating with existing local programs and systems like the Ministry of the Environment.

Citizens of El Cocal are truly farming with the understanding that forest and watershed health are essential to a sustainable existence. We think that’s something to celebrate.


Donations to the Annual Fund help us ensure all communities receive the same level of planning and support that has helped El Cocal to be so successful in its first post-graduate year! Please consider making your gift today, so our field staff can continue to support farmers as they protect our planet’s forests.