By Suah Cheong
LOCATED ON PANAMA’S PACIFIC COAST, the Azuero Peninsula has been populated by humans for more than 12,000 years. For much of its history, it has served as home to a plethora of diverse wildlife species. But, unfortunately, after decades of cattle ranching, all that remains of a once-lush tropical dry forest are small scattered patches. The deforestation here has also put wildlife species, like the Azuero spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi azuerensis), under threat. Only found in this particular region, the Azuero spider monkey has made it onto the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of critically endangered subspecies.
In support of efforts to protect the Azuero spider monkey and restore its dwindling habitat, American Forests is partnering with The Azuero Earth Project (AEP) — a “living laboratory” that combines science and fieldwork with community outreach to reforest and promote sustainability in the area.
In collaboration with local landowners, AEP is reforesting a biological corridor more than 75 miles in length, within an area of nearly 25,000 hectares made up of nearly 400 privately owned properties.
“The biological corridor program came from this idea that the Azuero Peninsula is heavily deforested,” says AEP Co-Founder and Director Ruth Metzel. “Roughly 7 percent of the peninsula is now covered in forest, compared to what was once the majority.”
Using an initial survey that indicated where remaining populations of the Azuero spider monkey existed, AEP performed a GIS analysis to determine the ideal locations to reforest based on ecological and social characteristics, thus creating a corridor that focused the group’s efforts on certain areas of the peninsula.
“By connecting strategic gaps in forest cover along streams, we allow spider monkeys to roam further,” Metzel says, “which enables them to have greater access to food sources and habitat.”
At the same time, AEP’s efforts are improving water quality, reducing erosion for local farmers, protecting watersheds and contributing to Panama’s national reforestation initiative, the Alliance for One Million Hectares. Since they became members of the alliance last year, they have strived to become a model for other organizations that aim to conduct riparian reforestation, promote sustainability and restore watersheds.
Over the years, AEP’s capabilities and impacts have grown tremendously. Their initial plan was simply to put more trees in the ground, but their partnership with American Forests has equipped them with the ability to track survival rates in their plots and consequently grasp a more solid understanding of their work.
But reforestation is just one component of the AEP model.
AEP’s reforestation activities are rooted in years of collaboration with rural Azuero communities. Since 2010, they have partnered with teachers, who also act as community leaders, to educate the students who will become future Azuero landowners and their parents on the importance of protecting the Azuero spider monkey and its dry forest home. Once people take an interest in protecting local species, they become active partners in AEP’s planting programs.
Metzel says that these community members’ passion for trees serves as a constant inspiration. She hopes that more people across the globe mirror their commitment to protecting and restoring forests.
“There’s this misconception that we should do good for the environment for the environment’s sake, but really, there’s a huge human element to this,” says Metzel. “Each one of us, as citizens, spiritual beings, parents and as sons and daughters, needs to be thinking about what our responsibilities are.”
Suah Cheong was American Forests’ spring 2017 communications intern and is a rising junior at American University, studying communications and psychology.