Practice Makes Perfect

The Kuna technicians are determined to become experts at collecting data using their Android tablets. But, there is only one way to do this – by spending many hours in the field and in front of the computer. Here is a look at what went one during my first two visits to the comarca:

Visit 1:

During my first visit to the comarca, Lady and I left Panama early Sunday morning, and spent a long day working with the group in their office, demonstrating the various applications that they would be using and giving a crash course on how to design surveys for the application ODKcollect.

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The next day we took the workshop outside to get some practical experience using the tablets for data collection.

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The technicians practicing using ODKcollect

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Visit 2:

A few weeks later I returned to the comarca, this time to do some more practice and to provide support for their first round of data collection.

With the first group, we collected data in order to create a map of the community Akua Yala:

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First, the technicians marked the border of the community

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Views of the boat dock, part of the community, and lake Bayano that we passed while walking the perimeter of the community

Next they took waypoints to mark the location of various points of interest with the community, such as the school, the soccer field, and the congress house:
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With the second group, we walked a part of the perimeter of the comarca and recorded the location of invasions that had taken place along the border of the comarca:

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The team filling in an ODKcollect form about the first invasion we encountered

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Walking along the Panamerican highway, and the border of the comarca

Two other invasions we recorded:

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A mother sloth and her baby we spotted in a tree on the side of the highway

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After our field trips the team of technicians spent time working on the computer learning how to move their data from the tablets to to their computers, how to make spreadsheets of their data, and how to visualize their data in Google Earth.

Citizen Scientists: Monitoring their land and people

Last week I started work in the third location and with the third group of people that I will be working with: the Kunas from the comarca Madungandi.   Kuna is a indigenous people in Panama, thought to be the best well known of all of Panamas indigenous groups.  They occupy four comarcas (In Panama, an indigenous territory is called a comarca) three of which are called Kuna Yala, Madungandi, and Wargandi, shown as red, pink and yellow, respectively, in the map below:

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Map of Indigenous territories (comarcas) in Panama. The Kunas occupy three comarcas – Kuna Yala, Madungandi, and Wargundi.

Kunas are well known for their unique culture and artesanal crafts (especially molas – the beautiful handmade shirts worn by Kuna women), their strong political structure and political organization, and their success at conserving the tropical forests located within their comarcas.

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Kuna women and Dr. Catherine Potvin in Kuna Yala wearing the traditional outfits of Kuna women. Their shirts, known as molas, are hand made and are an important way in which Kuna women carry on and share their culture and express their creativity. Photo credit: Will Miller

Before I tell how my time in the comarca went, here is a brief description of the goals of this group of citizen scientists:

Madungandi has organized a group of technicians to take care of technology-oriented tasks that the comarca will be faced with. This groups of technicians is organized and enthusiastic, and once Dr. Potvin approached them with the opportunity to learn to use tablets to collect data, they immediately began thinking up a list of data sets that they currently lack but are important for managing their land the needs of their people.

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The technicians from the comarca Madungandi

Here are just a few examples of what they hope to accomplish with the tablets:

1. Map of the location of each community within the comarca. At the moment, the comarca lacks a map of the location of each of its communities. There are around 14 communities in the comarca, some with rather easy access from the Panamerican highway, while others are extremely remote, requiring a boat ride across Lake Bayano followed by a variable number of days walking. In addition to recording the geographic location of each community, the technicians are going to collect some basic yet important information about the demographics and social services available in each community using the program ODKcollect.

2. Map of the Location of flood-risk zones. In 2010 an intense flood of Lake Bayano damaged homes and destroyed crops in several communities within the comarca. They would like to record the areas that were flooded and the extent of the damage, in order to better prepare themselves for future extreme climate events.

3. Map of flooded sacred sites. In 1976, the Bayano river was dammed, creating an immense reservoir now know as lake Bayano. The flooding of lake bayano resulted in a loss of territory for the Kunas of Madungandi, including several communities and their sacred sites. The technicians would now like to create a map of these under-water sacred sites and record descriptions of what each site once was.

4. Monitoring Invasion. Not long ago, the Eastern part of the province of Panama was nearly completely forested, with the exception of the communities formed by the indigenous inhabitants of the area. However, in the 1970s the Azuero Peninsula was running out of room for new cattle ranches, and land was becoming over worked and degraded. Campesino farmers (subsistence farmers) from the Azuero Peninsula were then relocated and given land in Eastern Panama, creating a new agricultural frontier. As the campesino population became established and grew the territories of the indigenous inhabitants of the region came under pressure from invasion by the campesinos. Campesinos began to deforest and establish pasture, crops, and communities within the borders of the Madungandi comarca. Today, the leaders of the comarca wish to document where these invasions have taken place and monitor the progress of invasions into the future using the tablets.

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Map of deforestation within and around the comarca Madungandi. The yellow line represents the border of the comarca. The coloured patches represent deforestation occurring between 2001-2012. The white line running horizontal across the map represents the Panamerican highway. Deforestation can be seen within the border of the comarca near the highway. Could this be sites of invasion? Map created by Carlos Gordón

Connecting Forests in the Azuero Peninsula

I spent an exciting 11 days during the month of June in the province of Los Santos, in a part of Panama called the Azuero Peninsula.

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Map pf Panama, with marker indicating the location of the Azuero Peninsula. Map created using Google Maps

This is a part of Panama with a very long history of human inhabitance. After Panama City, the Azuero Peninsula was the first part of Panama to be settled by the Spanish. Before the arrival of the spanish, the Azuero Peninsula was inhabited by indigenous groups – likely since the time that Panama first became inhabited by humans at all. The long history of human inhabitance and the mix of inhabitants in the area throughout history has resulted in a heavily human-impacted environment. For centuries the Azuero Peninsula has been deforested, converting the land from dry tropical forests (now the most endangered type of tropical forest) to cattle ranches. Perhaps unexpectedly, this transformation also resulted in a unique and beautiful landscape OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So, what was I doing here? I was starting work in the area, in collaboration with an NGO called the Azuero Earth Project (AEP).

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The Azuero Earth Project house/office, in Pedasi, Panama

This NGO’s goal is to create a biological corridor through part of the Azuero Peninsula. They hope to accomplish this goal in order to expand the habitat of endangered and endemic species that rely on the rare tropical dry forests of the area, in particular the Azuero Spider Monkey – an endangered subspecies of the spider monkey endemic to the Azuero Peninsula. Learn more about the Azuero Earth Project here: http://www.azueroearthproject.org

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Map of the Azuero Peninsula and the biological corridor AEP hopes to create

So what did the collaboration involve? Well, first  I brought them some tablets, so that they can put them to use and offer their use to the landowners along the proposed path of the biological corridor. Next, I moved into a rural community called Oria Arriba to search for remnant forest patches and their landowners. Oria Arriba is small and beautiful community situated along the shore of the Oria River, the river along which AEP hopes to create their biological corridor. The area has been almost completely deforested, except for a few forest patches which remain. My objective was to record the location of these forest patches, mark down some characteristics of these forest patches, and when possible find the land owners and discuss with them their forests. AEP wants this data in order to better plan how the biological corridor can be realized, by connecting these pre-existing forests with new forests in the future.

Here is how my 8 days in Oria Arriba went:

Day 1: Visit to the school in Oria Arriba with the AEP crew. AEP is planning a tree planting activity with the students in Oria Arriba, and visited the school this day to scope out the area where the tree planting will take place.

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Staff from the Azuero Earth Project checking out the area for the plantation

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Carlos trying out the tablet to measure the area available for planting

Day 2: On my second day I moved into my new home in Oria Arriba with my hosts Ilda and Ardurfo. Then I went up-river with my guide Guillermo to record the location of one of the few forest patches that remain in the area.

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My guide, Guillermo

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Me on horseback, heading to the forest

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On the way to the forest

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Guillermo entering the stream we walked along

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The stream marks the border between two landowner’s property. On the right side of the stream the land owner has chosen to leave the land forested, while on the left side the land has been deforested to create a pasture

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Here we can see where one land owner’s property ends and another’s begins. The pasture belongs to one person while the forest belongs to another

Day 3:  On my third day here Ryan and Carlos from the Azuero Earth Project returned to Oria Arriba to work on a plantation that is being planned, and will add to a still existing forest patch near the community. I went with them and the community members who are creating the plantation to check it out and record the location of the forest patches that already exist near the plantation site.

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The intact forest patch we visited this day can be seen in the background of this photo. The plantation site is located at the top of those hills, and will connect the forest visible here to forest that exists on the far side of the hill.

Seedlings that will soon be in the plantation and part of our hike up to the site:

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Marking where the seedlings will be planted:

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The line along which future-trees will be planted

 

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After a hard day’s work

Day 4: On my fourth day in the community Guillermo took me to another forest patch, downstream this time. I used my tablet to record the location and some information about the forest provided by Guillermo.

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On our way to the forest

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Day 5: On the fifth day I visited an agro-eco fair in a nearby community, where AEP had a table set-up and I hoped to show people the tablets and learn more about the area. I ended up talking with members of a local NGO called APASPE. Their goal is to encourage the use of silvopastoral techniques for ranching (briefly, this mean incorporating trees into your pastures), in order to preserve soil and water and improve conditions for cattle.  They were interested in possibly using the tablets, so me and my supervisor Dr. Catherine Potvin met with them on Day 6,  to show them a bit of what could be done with the tablets. The plan now is to do a workshop with them and some of their members near the end of July!

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Demonstrating the tablet to Mr. Nicolas Solis, the president of APASPE

 

Day 7: Today I went up-stream again with one of the land owners of the forest in that area, José. He explained to me that that patch of forest was divided up among three land owners, and showed me where the borders of each landowners property was. He also explained to me that this forest was kept as a reserve for animals which people of the community can hunt and as a source of wood for building and other uses.

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Joseé preparing our horses

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The start of the forest patch

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Walking along the edge of the forest

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Inside the forest, walking along Melonera Stream

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The other end of the forest – and a beautiful blue sky

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Our walk back to where we had parked our horses was long and hot, but the views were spectacular

Day 8: On my last day in Oria Arriba, I took a trip to the last forest patch yet to be georeferenced. After waiting a few hours for the rain to pass, Guillermo and I headed out on foot to locate this patch of forest.

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This stream runs along the border of the forest. On the left, forest extends over a 33 hectare area. On the right side, a small riparian zone separates the stream from pasture.

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Can I Call This Field Work?

So, what do I actually do when I am ‘in the field’? Well, it certainly is not what someone might expect from a biology project. There is no collecting of samples, no taking of measurements,  and no observing of organisms (on my part, at least). Instead, what I have been doing so far is what I will refer to as capacity building. 

Capacity building is when people (any people, anywhere) are provided with knowledge and/or trained, thus gaining the capacity to solve an issue or accomplish a goal. In the case of my project, citizens need to learn how to use the Android tablets, how to use the application ODKcollect to record data, and how to take measurements or make observations that are pertinent to their goal.

With the students in Eastern Panama, capacity building was done over a series of three workshops:

Workshop 1: Tablet basics and an introduction to GPS

This workshop took place over one morning, back in the middle of May at the home of one of the students

Workshop 2: ODK collect and field protocol

This workshop took place over 2 days at the end of May – one day of theory and a second day in the field, practicing

Briefly, this is how our day in the field went:

First off, getting to our field site wasn’t easy. The road was muddy and steep!


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Finally, we ended up walking, a lot.

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But then, we reached this place:

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A beautiful waterfall, and where the drinking water for the town is collected.

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So after a few photos by the waterfall…photos by waterfall.001

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It was time to get to practicing

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Recording data – using tablets and on paper

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And after a hard day’s work, getting back was not any easier than getting there!

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After this first day in the field, we had made some important realizations:

  1.  The current method took a very long time – could we modify it to speed up the data collecting process?
  2. For the sake of practicing, choosing closer field sites rather than farther ones was a good idea.
  3. Working in such a big group, all at once, led to some inefficiencies – it was hard for everyone to practice at the same time and ensure everyone was using the proper method, especially when it was necessary for groups to be spread out over a few hundred meters.
  4. More practice was still needed.

So, this brings us to our third workshop:

Workshop 3: Mastering the methodology

This workshop took place over 2 days at the beginning of June. Each day I went into the field with 4 students, we put the finishing touches on the method, and everyone got lots of practice performing it.

This time, we chose a nearby field site – it only required a little bit of walking to get there!

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We went out in smaller groups

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and in the end decided that groups of two data collectors were the most effective for carrying out the method.

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So now they are ready! Later this week the students will be heading out into the field to collect their data – check back to find out how it goes, and what the next steps for their project will be!

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Citizen scientists: Monitoring Deforestation

Here is a quick explanation of the work being done by the first group I have been working with: the students from the University of Panama.

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The students outside of their school after having received their tablets.

My first 3 weeks of the project were spent working with the group of students from the University of Panama, who are based out of a town in Eastern Panama. Their concern is with their water – which is collected from the headwaters of a nearby river and delivered to the houses of those living in the town through an aquaduct system.

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Map of Panama marking where the project is being done. Created with Google Maps.

The problem? 

Sometimes there isn’t enough water. In the dry season, there are periods of time when the aquaducts run dry.

The cause of this issue is deforestation in the region. Maintaining sufficient forest cover within a watershed is essential to conserving water during the dry season. When the upper watershed is deforested, this increases the risk of rivers running dry, and of people being without water.

Therefore, this dedicated group of students from the University of Panama decided they wanted to monitor forest cover in the watershed. To do this they would like to use remote sensing data from the Global Forest Watch (http://www.globalforestwatch.org), which is frequently updated with where forest is being gained and lost and where forest cover exists. However, an important question to ask is how reliable is such a map for the country of Panama? How reliable is the data at the relatively small scale of a single water shed?  Answering these questions is now our goal.

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A map made by Carlos Gordon showing deforestation by year in the region that we are studying. Two rivers that are of particular interest to the students are highlighted in bright blue. This map was made using the data we plan to verify with our ground-truthed data.

The method

1. Collect data on the ground and create maps of the forest cover along 3 important effluents leading to an important river in Panama (one of a few rivers which fills lago Bayano – a reservoir created to provide electricity to Panama City). We can then compare our forest cover maps to those of the Global Forest Watch.

2. Identify locations which, according to the Global Forest Watch, have recently been deforested. Go to these locations and conclude whether or not they have in fact been deforested.

Based on these two analyses we hope to determine how reliable the Global Forest Watch will be for monitoring changes in forest cover in the region.

Data Collection

This data will be collected using a method that seems rather simple in theory, but, in reality, will be full of challenges – requiring hard work and perseverance. There is not anything easy about walking to the headwaters of a river. These areas are remote – often there is no road to take you there, and the roads that do exist are steep and muddy. Furthermore, it is the rainy season. That means heavy rains, thunderstorms, copious amounts of mud, and fast flowing waters.

Luckily, this group of students are some of the most energetic and determined people I have ever met. If anyone has what it takes to get this job done, it is them.

For the first part of the project, the class will split up into three groups of four – one group to take on each of the effluents. Along each effluent, two students will work on either side of the river, carefully moving along the river and recording the land cover over an area 50m wide on either side of the river. Data will be collected by filling in an ODKcollect form designed for their project (learn more about ODK here: http://www.opendatakit.org) stored in their Nexus 7 tablets.

For the second part of the project, well, that methodology is still to come – one step at a time people!

 

Welcome to mapping panama!

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Those same hills and clouds and one of many steep and muddy slopes that I mention below.

Welcome to my first ever blog post on my first ever blog! My goal for this blog is to document my experiences, the people I work and interact with, and the places I live and see, over the next 2 and a half months I will be in Panama.

Blogging was never something I was very interested in doing. It never seemed to be worth the time and effort to me, and I could not think of something about my life that other people would be interested in reading about or looking at pictures of. However, I recently stubbled into what I think is an extremely interesting and unique opportunity. I have been afforded the opportunity to run a research project in Panama, working with concerned Panamanians to collect georeferenced data about the tropical forests in their regions. The data will be used by these dedicated groups to monitor aspects of their forest resources which are of particular importance to them. In addition, this data will used by us to verify the data used by the Global Forest Watch, to determine if their awesome Global Forest Watch interactive map can be a reliable tool for monitoring forests in Panama (check it out at: http://www.globalforestwatch.org). For more information on the project, its goals, and my role in all of this, check out  The Project page!

So, why a blog?

Well, yesterday I was in the field with one of the groups I will be working with over the next three months (more on them to come!). We were pushing a ‘chiva’ (a four-wheel drive truck that can go where no vehicle should be able to go) up a ridiculously steep and muddy slope, laughing and cheering, while clouds rolled over the tropical forest and pasture covered hills, when I realized that this might be the coolest experience I will ever have, ever. I then decided that it was only fair to do such an experience justice, with proper documentation of it.

So, here I am adding another thing to the list of things I never thought I would do, but am doing since I have been in Panama: Blogging. I am hoping this will be an enjoyable experience, for anyone who reads it and for me, and that we can all learn something new from it!

Enjoy!