From National Geographic to Instagram

One day, you might put your feet on this beach, and take in the same stunning view. One day, but not any time soon. Because pristine views come with strings attached. In contrast to Disney movies, pure nature isn’t very friendly. It is an indifferent force, feeding you as much as it is trying to destroy you. And my job is to neutralize those destructive forces so that perhaps only a few years from now, you get to stay in a beautiful eco-resort in a remote region of Panama.

Columbus called it ‘the mosquito gulf’ when he arrived here on his fourth voyage. And with that, he ruined the opportunities for realtors and marketing directors for centuries to come. It is true, the Caribbean coast of Panama is not your typical Caribbean beach setting. While it is just outside of the hurricane belt, nevertheless waves smash on the coast unrestrained by islands, and annual rainfall is high, clouding the water. Unlike the Pacific side of Panama, there is hardly a wet/dry season cycle, and even in pre-colombian times, Panama’s northern coast was sparsely populated.

If you were to arrive on this beautiful beach the way Columbus and me arrive on our commute, you’ll find that right behind the beach lies a mosquito infested swamp. The mud, roots, dense vegetation, suffocating heat, biting horse flies, midges, mosquitos and if you don’t watch out, deadly vipers, make this place rather unpleasant. Furthermore, you could catch malaria, dengue, chikungunya, zika, leishmaniasis and other nasty ailments which also don’t sell well to tourists and 16th century explorers.

So what on earth am I doing here? Well, not too long ago, the Netherlands was a mosquito-infested swamp too, rife with diseases such as malaria. But if you drain a swamp you get the best farmland in the world, fertile with abundant water, and pests can be controlled. So once again, I’m leading a crew to drain a swamp, and once again, because of the remote location, we rely on muscle power alone, at least for now. Only this time, on a much larger scale, with a multifaceted goal in mind: setting up a coconut plantation and making the land ready for tourism.

Maybe that does not sound very ecological to you, after all, we are cutting down some trees and changing an existing ecosystem. But zoom out for a minute and try to see the whole picture. Up until two years ago, it was a two days’ hike to get to this coast, or a very rough ride with a heavily modified terrain vehicle. The biggest employer in the area were the Colombian courier companies, who appreciated its isolation. Locals could make easy money to buy outboards, generators, fridges and TV’s, only fishing and cultivating crops to satisfy their own needs. Indirectly, the cartels are nature conservationists.
With the construction of a road, that has all changed: police moved in, Colombian courier companies shifted their routes, and politicians who have been quietly buying big parcels of land are now quickly clearing that land to make way for cattle ranges. Soon there will be little jungle left in the immediate vicinity of the new road, and not long after, secondary roads will be cut and the process repeats further and further. The tourism sector is the only employer that can provide an alternative by giving an economic incentive to preserve nature.

Only very few tourist appreciate the bright colours of the local horse flies as they bite right through your shirt…

The most important thing to know before draining a swamp is whether it is above sea-level or not. I took the job sight unseen so when I arrived I had no clue. Had it been an old closed-off branch of a nearby river, with the level of the land at or below that of the sea, draining it would be cost prohibitive and impossible without the use of heavy equipment. Fortunately it turned out to be a rain-fed swamp, where excess vegetation on a near-flat surface simply prevents water from draining out. This makes draining it a fairly straight forward exercise: simply expand the natural drainage canals and make a grid of canals to lower the level to the desired height.

The natural drainage channel, clogged with vegetation, driftwood and garbage. Very local garbage, by the way.
Clearing a piece of driftwood, probably elephant-ear tree
Draining commences…
And first coconuts can be planted!
Tourist-friendly landscape emerges

Do I like my new assignment? Most definitely. Although by now I can no longer fool anyone with instagram worthy images, so here are some pro’s and con’s:

My commute starts on Monday with a two hour ride through the Santa Fe national park with breathtaking views. Then from the coast it’s a 20-minute boat ride to get to the site with crew and supplies.

The boat picks us up on Friday, hence we stay on location during the week. Accommodation is basic: there is no running water, no electricity save for some solar-powered lights, and no phone or internet. There is a rancho that is half-eaten by termites, and for myself, the luxury of the managers’ tent. Toilet is anywhere you like. Mosquito’s may bite your behind but watching the crabs pull apart your fresh manure does add a nice touch to it. Shower can be either salt water (the sea) or fresh water, a fifteen minute walk to a nearby river. It goes without saying that part of my job is to build better housing with basic amenities.

When I have to make a phone call during the week I walk to the nearest village, which takes about an hour and a half over beautiful beaches and through a nasty swamp. Because of the heat I usually wear shorts, which means my legs get cut by what the locals aptly call ‘cutting grass’, which in turn attracts the sand-flies to have a go at my blood. Still, I find it preferable to getting a headache from the heat.

Swim naked if you like, there is no one there
Tracks of a sea turtle probably looking for plastic straws
River crossing
Big cat tracks, possibly an ocelot
Cliche fallen log bridge through swamp. No crocodiles though. Swatted two flies while taking this shot, hence a little blurry

While it is definitely not the garden of Eden it seems at first glance, being able to play Minecraft in real life makes all up for it. More pictures to follow in the coming months, including baby pictures!

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