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My Experience as a Pro Eco Azuero Volunteer

By: Avery Yang

As a high school student from southern California, I wasn’t sure what to expect when my uncle and I decided to volunteer with Pro Eco Azuero during my spring break. Environmental conservation has been my passion from a very young age, but until April, my experience was limited to small, local restoration efforts. When I got this opportunity, I was more than enthusiastic to contribute to their remarkable project. Even then, I had no idea how much perseverance, planning, and dedication each hectare of restored land requires.

Contrary to my original misconception, Panamá isn’t all a lush rainforest. Pedasí is part of a larger province called Los Santos that experiences particularly devastating droughts during the annual dry season. Despite the humid climate, the land itself is arid. Sandra explained this to us during a visit to a potential restoration site funded by a private landowner. The first-hand experience of seeing these restoration sights is unlike any website description. I was shocked at the miles of dry, cracked, and weed-invaded land. While taking soil samples, we learned about the countless stages of work that would need to occur to restore the biodiversity and resilience of the land. On top of planting a new forest, they would have to clear all the weeds, establish a local supply chain of native plants, and maintain the work years later. To me, the task seemed impossibly long and hard. But despite the many obstacles, Sandra seemed determined to step up to the challenge. After witnessing the enormity of this challenge, my admiration for the Pro Eco Azuero team and the field in general is infinitely greater.

We spent most of our time at the main Pro Eco Azuero headquarters. It was a small space, but completely packed with plants, seeds, pots, and soil. The tree nursery itself was a large piece of black mesh fastened to upright logs. Even though the daily temperature averaged the 90s, the headquarters always felt cool by the shade of surrounding trees. Every day, we left smelling like rich soil. Being in the nursery and working with the plants brought the entire operation into reality for me. As an outsider, I had assumed that large-scale restoration would require the use of some high-tech method that would make the process easier. However, this was not the case. Every tree planted by Pro Eco Azuero is grown from hand-collected seeds at the headquarters or at a local nursery in the community. We got the experience of driving around Pedasí searching for the seeds of Guayacan trees and other helpful plant species. Despite our language barrier, our supervisor, Jairo, made our experience physically and educationally valuable. He taught us how to collect seeds from pods, transfer sprouts, make an organic fertilizer called Boccacci, and so much more. For the most part, we learned by doing. For hours each day, we would sit around a table using scissors to cut open the tough skins of seed pods. Some days our hands got covered in sweet, sticky sap while other days they left with bruises and dried blood. No matter the difficulty, it always felt novel and worthwhile to me.

My uncle and I stayed at a hostel called Casa Lajagua, about a two-minute walk from the nursery. Each day, we arrived at around 8:00 in the morning and would volunteer until around 2:00 in the afternoon. Most days, the work was laborious. I would return to the hostel feeling spectacularly dusty and fatigued. Nevertheless, my uncle and I both agree that every minute with Jairo, Sandra, and the other volunteers was well spent. Though it was not the miraculous process I had originally envisioned, it was even more inspirational to see the Pro Eco Azuero team prevail over the relentless obstacles and unfavorable odds.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to volunteer –if only for a short time– with this organization. Pro Eco Azuero is rewriting the conversation around land use and preservation. The resounding impacts they have made on Pedasí and the greater field of ecological restoration are inspirational. As someone who hopes to have a future career in environmental science, I am very grateful for this opportunity to enrich my knowledge of this area. Meeting with people such as Sandra and Jairo gives me hope for a safer, greener future. I appreciate them not only for giving me insight into the nuances of their work but also for taking on the challenge of improving the resilience of our planet. Despite the dust and mosquito bites, thoughts of this trip only bring back fond memories that encourage me to continue on this path. I am sure there is much my uncle and I did not get to see or learn, but even the sample we got was enough to gain insight into their remarkable endeavor.

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