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Panama: From survival school to eco-resort
Latinamerica Press / March 25, 2002

By Larry Luxner

CHANGUINOLA, Panama -- Next time Hollywood movie moguls want to make a film about the Vietnam War, they might consider Wekso.

Here, amidst the thick jungle undergrowth, the rushing river and the chattering of strange birds, lie the camouflaged ruins of concrete buildings and army barracks in a scene eerily reminiscent of Southeast Asia.

In 1983, Gen. Manuel Noriega turned a 125-hectare piece of land into a military post and jungle survival school known as Panajungla. For six years, soldiers from a dozen Central and South American countries received intense and often brutal training from U.S. and Panamanian instructors. According to local lore, young recruits would be dropped by helicopter into the forest, equipped with only a machete, and told to come back to base within 60 days. Many never returned, while others did and went crazy from loneliness.

When the U.S. Marines invaded Panama in 1989, Noriega's soldiers abandoned the site, leaving behind an odd assortment of ruins -- including the concrete remains of a countertop and metal poles on which barstools once stood. Nearby, a faded slogan painted by the Noriega regime still reminds visitors that "Dios y La Jungla Nos Protega" ( God and the Jungle Will Protect Us).

Now the Naso indigenous community and Conservation International (CI) are giving the site a new lease on life as a tourist destination. In 1988, the 207,000-hectare Parque Internacional La Amistad was created along the Panamanian-Costa Rican border, offering environmental protection for an area covering about 10% of Panamanian territory -- including the entire Wekso compound.

"Because the Naso territory acts as an important buffer for Parque La Amistad, we wanted to work with the Naso in some sort of project," said Manuel Ramírez, CI's director for Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua. "It took two years for us to receive an invitation from the Naso Council to describe and present to them what we wanted to do."

According to the 2000 census, 3,300 Naso live in 11 communities along the Río Teribe, the biggest among them Sieyic and Sieykin. Their leader is King Tito Santana, quite possibly Latin America's only ruling monarch.

"The role of the king is to fight and defend his people," Santana said. "He listens to the voice of the people, and he takes their message to the local, provincial, national and international levels. The king is the only channel of contact with any outside organization.

"I have come to realize, seeing the promotion of tourism within the Kuna territory, that tourism is an important step for Panama's indigenous people. Here, we have whatever the visitors want to see for themselves. Whatever they want to know, we can give them answers."

Talks with King Santana led to the proposal of a comprehensive ecotourism project, as well as a shaman's apprentice program involving three shamans and 30 students, whose goal was "to help pass the Nasos' knowledge about the use of medicinal plants from the older to the younger generation."

Since the project began in 1996, CI has invested nearly $20,000 in materials, equipment and training.

Leonardo Aguilar, who the indigenous Organization for Sustainable Development of Naso Ecotourism (ODESEN), says he's encouraged by the results so far.

"With help from CI, we built this place up little by little," Aguilar said. "We started out with 15 members, but some of them have left since then. Maybe they though there was no future, and they got impatient. Today we have nine members, and we're trying to replace those who left."

No one lives full-time at Wekso, which in the Naso language means "place where the bongo tree grows." The property falls under the jurisdiction of Panama's National Environmental Authority (ANAM), although it is maintained by Naso community members.

"Wekso's attraction is that it combines three elements: You're in a national park, you have the ruins of a jungle survival school, and it's project that helps the indigenous community," said Sabrina Bini of CI, who oversees the projct.

"This is the first initiative in Central America in which an indigenous group is totally managing an enterprise like this," Ramírez added.

To reach Wekso, visitors must take a 90-minute flight from Panama City to Changuinola, then a 20-minute bus ride over dirt roads to the banks of the Teribe River. From there, it's an hour by motorized canoe to Wekso's landing dock. Sometimes, the motor isn't strong enough against the rushing current, and everyone has to get out and push.

A road used to extend here from Charagre, but it was swept away by the river. And a heliport once used by the Noriega regime is so thickly covered with beautiful green ferns that you can no longer see the concrete.

Indeed, its very isolation -- with its abundance of birds, frogs and other biodiversity -- makes Wekso an adventurer's ideal weekend getaway.

"The problem," says Bini, "is that until recently there was no marketing strategy. There was nothing. For five years, these people received only biologists, student groups and random tourists who arrived here by chance. It never really worked as a tourist facility."

Bini, who was once a lawyer in her native Italy, spent months developing a workshop to teach the Naso about ecotourism, writing proposals, producing brochures and promoting the site among tour operators.

But it hasn't always been easy, particularly when dealing with Panama's sometimes arbitrary government bureaucracy. For example, one on of her trips to Wekso she was shocked to find that at least 60 huge trees which had done a good job of hiding the ruins had been hastily chopped down the day before her arrival.

"The manager of the park ordered the trees cut in order to plant little fruit trees," she said scornfully. "One of his justifications were that the roots of the trees were destroying the ruins."

Bini adds: "The biggest problem with this project is that there's no official agreement between ANAM and the king [Santana] on the use of this area for ecotourism."

That shouldn't stop tourists from enjoying everything Wekso has to offer -- from savoring fresh arroz-con-pollo dinners served in hollowed coconut shells to floating down the Río Teribe in homemade bamboo rafts. Other delights include birdwatching, interpretive walks and visits to the Naso villages adjacent to La Amistad.

Accommodations are in a simple, thatched-roof house containing three rooms with two beds each. The price works out to around $55 a day including meals and round-trip boat transportation between El Silencio and Wekso -- a fraction of what a similar experience would cost in neighboring Costa Rica.

Within a year, says Bini, CI hopes to see 20 tourists a month visiting the project, which will eventually be run completely by ODESEN. By then, various members -- thanks to an agreement between CI and the Panamanian Institute of Tourism -- will have received specialized training in English, mechanics, administration, accounting and other valuable skills necessary to run a modern eco-resort.

"Panama is blessed by the fact that it's still an undiscovered destination, so big tourism volumes have not really affected any particular indigenous culture like in Costa Rica, which is becoming another Disney World flooded with tourism," says Marco Gandásegui, vice-president of Ancon Expeditions, a leading Panamanian tour operator. "We must have a proper approach to tourism before this happens."

In fact, Eliseo Vargas, ODESEN's treasurer, says he's worried about an influx of tourism.

"We are trying to preserve our customs without incorporating foreign ideas into our culture. This is what we don't want to happen." Adds Aguilar: "There will be problems when there are a lot of tourists, and there are no norms governing entrance into the villages. Anotehr problem might be if tourists only visit one community, and only that one community benefits."

Even so, says fellow ODESEN member Raúl Quintero, "I think tourism is good for us. With our few resources, this will really help our families. We're not professionals here, but we will learn."

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