On this blog we share a lot about the amazing activities one can do in Bocas del Toro and Boquete, such as eco-tours, Spanish lessons, surf lessons, volunteering and so on. What we don't talk enough about are the the challenges we face in our little paradise, and that YOU as a resident, student or traveler in Panama can help improve.
The focus of this article will be Bocas del Toro, as it is my current home (think global, act local), and because a lot of what is mentioned here has already been implemented in Boquete (there is a wonderful recycling initiative over there, REAL Boquete, that has been educating the youth about recycling and conservation for a good amount of years).
Our Waste Management Reality: Problems and Challenges we Face
If you've recently visited Bocas, you may have noticed while walking along the streets and some of our beaches, that our beautiful scenery can sometimes be spoiled by unattractive trash items: plastic Coca Cola or water bottles, plastic grocery bags, plastic, plastic and more plastic... every time I see this, I think Jeez, why aren’t people more responsible!? Why don't they care? But if you think about it, a lot has to do with lack of education. It's not necessarily that people don't care per se: it's just that they don't know better.
Arriving to a beautiful beach and finding it littered with trash is not the most welcoming sight
Combine the above with a genuine lack of pride for the land that saw you grow up and coastal laziness in general, and you have a problem. And please, I'm not saying that every person that was born in Bocas del Toro doesn't have the education to understand these issues, or that most Bocatoreños aren't proud about their Archipelago, just that it's not a holistic and educated sense of pride (if it were, there would be less litter... just as in the Azuero Peninsula, where people do have a better sense of heritage and do care about how clean their towns are). And sadly, as well, many tourists don’t respect the environment when they are on vacation as much as they would back at home. After all, they don’t live here, right? We get visitors not only from North America and Europe, but also from Central and South America, where environmental issues and waste management isn't something that people have had the time to really consider.
Did you know that the average U.S. citizen produces about 4.4 lbs of garbage per day (2 kg) and that in Mexico this can be up to 30% more? When you're on an island that receives tens of thousands of visitors every year, it rapidly becomes a difficult problem for us to manage all this "imported" waste besides our own.
And if you add to this a corrupt local goverment that just isn't capable of facing these challenges, and a central goverment in Panama City that really doesn't care about what's happening in this neck of the woods (as long as it doesn't affect them), then the situation turns into a desperate one. Just in the past few years, we as a community, have faced several trash crises and until now, only temporary solutions had been attained, after local citizens started to create more awareness about these challenges and funds through private donations were obtained to deal with these emergency situations. For more background about what's been going on with the waste management in the past months, check out this article here...
During the last trash crisis, which took place around 3 months ago, the local population got so mad that some started to leave their trash at the doors of the municipality building. Please note the vultures taring the bags with organics apart.
Hope, Opportunities, Heroes & Efforts
I've painted a pretty grim picture, haven't I? Believe me, the reality that we've experienced has been a lot worst. But then something incredible started to happen: a group of outstanding citizens literally took away from the local authorities, our islands' waste management, and without any funding at all from Panama's central goverment, they are doing a MUCH better job at collecting our trash. If it wasn't for this small but courageous group of heroic members of our community, I really couldn't imagine what would be the current situation of Bocas del Toro.
Believe it or not, this is just one of the piles of trash that the new local waste management group had to deal with. This was on the road to one of Bocas del Toro's most beatiful beaches, Starfish Beach
In addition to trash collection, another superb initiative has been that of Willpower Corp led by local resident Robert Bezeau. Basically, each week their truck is driven around town (mostly by volunteers, many times by local business owners) to collect recyclables (glass, aluminum, and plastics) to get them off the island to be sold and processed. From a personal experience I can say this makes a huge difference, as I know for a fact, that depending on the season, between Habla Ya and Tungara Hostel, from 3 to 20 bags of recyclables are generated per week. If it wasn't for this initiative all of this would end up in landfill (and it would just be more difficult, time consuming and expensive to collect it). Imagine the difference it would make if every hotel, restaurant, household and business in general in Bocas del Toro would make a real effort to separate their recyclables!
Casie Dean, local business owner, volunteering her time to drive the recycling truck
Besides this organized effort, there is another group of local ladies (known as BELLO) who has been working, amongst other things, on making our public spaces more esthetically pleasing and building a genuine sense of pride for our islands amongst those who live here (both local residents and expats). You can see what BELLO has recently been up to here.
Yorlenis, Karrol and Maiky, three local residents that spearheaded the work at our now beautiful park
Food for Thought & Long Term Solutions
A couple of easy laws to enforce (with fines) could be implemented but the local authorities lack will, vision and just don't care (that is the only conclusion I can come up with). Why isn't it possible to ban plastic bags at the grocery stores? Why can't we ban selling small plastic bottles for soft drinks and water under a certain size? Why don't we enforce each and every hotel to implement rain water collection systems (I mean, we're in the rain forest, aren't we?) and offer potable drinking water to their customers and guests instead of selling them water in plastic bottles? Why can't we implement effective recycling bins at the major grocery stores and enforce each grocery store to be responsible for managing them? And the list could go on an on about some little changes that we could make that would make a HUGE difference.
Now, in an ideal world, the taxes collected in a community (well, at least some of them), should be reinvested in that community. Here in Bocas del Toro specifically, the 10% hotel tax charged to every tourist for every night they sleep here, the 7% sales tax everyone pays for goods and services they purchase (demand your "factura fiscal" - receipt, everywhere you go), the taxes local business and individuals pay on their earnings, and the huge amount of monthly taxes business and employees pay for social security, health that is). Well, if you've been living here you will notice that literally NOTHING has happened in terms of infrastructure development since the last change of goverment (about 5 years that is, no exaggeration here) and we haven't seen any investments in healthcare or tourism facilities either. Our sad reality is that we're a region that is very neglected within Panama.
This is the hospital of Panama's most renown beach destination and it's in a really sad state... the only specialist on the entire island is a pediatrician. The nearest real hospital is in Changuinola, a 30 minute boat drive and 30 minute taxi ride away. We really don't understand how this is even possible.
Here in Bocas, we could definitively use some funds from the goverment to purchase an eco-friendly garbage incinerator and generate clean electricity to power the island AND stop using landfills. Is that ever going to happen? Unfortunately not in the short term. We still have the same third world hospital with lack of medicines and no specialists, our schools are falling apart and almost all of the improvements are always made by private persons or entities.
Being Bocas del Toro the most recognized beach destination in Panama one wonders why does this happen? Well, it's very simple in fact: the Central goverment and Panama's big money have no financial interests in these islands whatsoever. Bocas is famous for its stunning natural beauty and has grown as a worldwide renown tourist destination despite of Panama's goverment. If you ask me, in some way it's better that things are this way, as our islands remain untouched from the corporate greed that has been exploiting and damaging Panama's Pacific coastline (think big chain resorts and hotels with no regard for our culture, local communities and environment)... but it comes at the cost of having third world services in terms of healthcare and education (amongst other things).
What can we do as Residents and what can you do as a Tourist?
OK, enough ranting. It's time to start changing mentalities and habits. How? Each of us has to do our bit by recycling, producing less waste, and encouraging our visitors to do so. In most cases, it’s just about fighting laziness, because you cannot blame it on education with North American or European travelers (one would think).
How can YOU help change this trend? Start by changing YOUR OWN habits.
1) Start with where you live or the place you're staying at
Try to do your bit at your hostel, hotel or host family´s house. Separate aluminum cans, glass and plastic, and make sure they are clean (just rinse them off) before you put them in their respective container. Our host families will probably not have the habit of recycling and separating their waste, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it (or show them how to do it). Habla Ya students can bring their own recycling to the school, and we’ll dispose of it. At the school itself, all you have to do is aim for the right item at the right container. If you're staying at a hotel, demand that things are done in this way, or even better, help them implement a recycling system. Sounds easy, but taking into account the laziness factor, it can prove to be difficult for some to overcome (and you do have to make it easy for people to understand where to put each item, otherwise it doesn't work). But we don’t lose hope, we know we can do it! At the end of the day, even if you set this up at your business in a user friendly way, there will always be someone who doesn't get it and some extra work from someone in your staff will be required to correctly separate all the recyclables... but hey, this is YOUR HOME, so it's totally worth it!
Implementing a system to separate trash isn't that difficult and then the recycling truck can come and pick up your recyclables once a week AND under the new system, in which trash collection for businesses is charged on a per bag bases this actually means SAVINGS for your business. This is part of what we've done at Tungara Hostel... see, easy!
2) After visiting the beach
After you have been sunbathing or swimming and spending some time at the beach, I assume that you would (hopefully) pick up your own trash, correct? Well it won’t hurt to also pick up that old washed up plastic bag that is laying a few feet away from you in the sand, or that plastic bottle that "is not yours". Trust me, I've done it, and I am still alive! Same thing with any trash you find along the road. I am not saying that you should transform yourself into a garbage man: just do what you can, when you can. And don't be lazy just because you can't immediately find a trash can. Save your trash and throw it away properly when you come across a trash can, like the one in front of Habla Ya! If you have a business, why not put up a trash can on the sidewalk? Oh, because with the new trash collection system you have to pay by bag? Come on! Don't be cheap and do your bit if you consider Bocas del Toro your home and others will follow!
More than 4 years ago, a group of local surfers spearheaded an initiative to eliminate a horrendous dump which was located less than 30 meters from the sea, close to a famous surf break known as Dumpers on the way to Bluff Beach. Now, we're not asking you to deal with a dump, but if you do manage to see the odd piece of plastic by the beach, please take it back to town with you.
3) Throw organics in the compost, not in the general trash
It smells bad and decomposes, generates maggots, flies, and all sorts of stinky stuff. If you were in Bocas during the last trash crises I am sure you've seen the vultures in the streets tearing apart huge trash bags, and re-decorating the streets with whatever was inside. I don’t have to describe the smell to you. Just tell yourself that these vultures would not have taken YOUR trash bag if you would have used your organics for compost. That thought always makes me feel better.
Don't be lazy and don't put organics with your rest of your trash. Find somewhere in your yard and if you don't have a yard, find someone who does. In Bocas Town there are several locals (the Chitré restaurant for example) who will be happy to take your organics to feed their pigs amongst other things
4) Avoid take-out meals
They are often served in Styrofoam containers, and cannot be reused. If you can, just avoid take-out altogether, but if you know you are going to be a repeat customer, bring your own Tupperware. Sorting trash is nice, but avoiding generating it is even BETTER!
Styrofoam take away container? Please... DON'T! It takes more than a MILLION years for Styrofoam to decompose!
5) Help educate the local population about recycling
One day I was walking down the street in Boquete, and a teenager in front of me threw an empty plastic milkshake cup on the floor after he finished drinking it. So, sarcastically, I tap his shoulder and say “disculpa, creo que se te cayó algo” (excuse me, I think you dropped something). And in all honesty and with a big sympathetic smile, he tells me “no, tranquilo, está vacío” (no, don´t worry, it's already empty). I was so taken away by his answer (because it was honest) that I didn’t get mad at him. He truly had no clue that it was wrong to do that. If you are volunteering in Bocas del Toro or Boquete, this is something we need help with. If you have the chance to work in public schools with children or teens, or other local businesses, a little workshop about trash and how it can be recycled would be a huge step in the right direction.
6) Stop buying plastic water bottles
At Tungara Hostel and Habla Ya we offer free drinking water for our customers (tap water is not potable). It is filtered rain water, tastes great and is perfectly safe to consume (I bet you whatever you want that it's safer than what you drink back at home full of chemicals of all sorts). If you already have a water bottle, just refill it as much as you want, or use the cups we have at your disposal. Just think about the amount of plastic you avoid being tossed somewhere by doing this. The Gourmet store by Casa Verde also offers bottle refills at a very low cost, as well as other places in town, so no excuses!
Don't buy plastic bottles. Get your water from a refilling container at your hotel. If they don't have one, DEMAND ONE!
7) Say NO to plastic bags in grocery stores
Instead, bring your own bag (I am sure you have a back pack or a reusable grocery bag somewhere!). Most of these plastic bags will end up in the ocean, along the road or on the beach, and turtles or dolphins choke on them because they confuse them for jellyfish. Not to mention that it can take hundreds of years for a plastic bag to decompose.
8) Do you care about animals and wildlife?
Then don’t hurt them! Here are a few things you should avoid: going on tours with boat drivers that have 2 stroke engines. They pollute more (emit oily fumes) and are noisy. Go with someone who has a more efficient 4 stroke engine instead. Moreover, motor boats often cut dolphin’s fins, and can hurt them badly. If you really would like to go on an eco-friendly boat tour, we recommend the catamaran sailing tour. You want to see some starfish? You find them so pretty and you really want to know what they feel like? Curb your enthusiasm, and please don’t touch them. Don’t pull them out of the water to take pictures. Leave them in peace and enjoy their beauty without disrupting or endangering their lives.
Habla Ya students and teachers enjoying a day out with Bocas Sailing
This list should be much longer, but these are the things I came up with for now (here is a link with other things you can do to reduce waste while traveling). If you do some of these things, you'll be a more responsible traveler, and we will be very grateful for your efforts. Together we can make this paradise a sustainable one.
Please feel free to leave a comment below about what other things you can do to be an eco-friendly traveler.