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Survivors in Wekso's Jungle
Américas / March-April 2001

By Larry Luxner

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.

Yet this is Panama -- and this whole place might have gone down the drain if not for the efforts of Conservation International and a local indigenous tribe known as the Naso.

It was here in Bocas del Toro province, in 1983, that Panama's 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 training from U.S. and Panamanian instructors.

In 1989, the Marines invaded Panama, and 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).

"During the two years it was abandoned, a lot of people came and looted the place," says Manuel Ramírez, Conservation International's director for Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua. "All the tiles in the barracks were stolen. The bathrooms, the showers, the sinks -- everything that was detachable was taken."

In 1991, 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.

But that didn't do much for the Naso people, who were living on the edge of poverty. So Conservation International, which was already working on buffer-zone management, decided that Wekso would make an interesting eco-resort for foreign tourists.

Since 1996, CI has invested just under $20,000 in materials, equipment and training.

"With help from CI, we built this place up little by little," said Leonardo Aguilar, president of the Organización para el Desarrollo Sostenible del Ecoturistico Naso (ODESEN). "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."

A census taken last year shows 3,300 Naso living in 11 communities along the Río Teribe, the biggest among them Sieyic and Sieykin. Their undisputed leader is King Tito Santana, Latin America's only ruling monarch.

"Wekso's attraction is that it combines three elements," says Sabrina Bini, the CI official who's been most responsible for overseeing the project on a day-to-day basis. "You're in a national park, you have the ruins of a jungle survival school, and it's project that helps the indigenous community."

Wekso is so remote that in order to get there, you have to take a 90-minute flight from Panama City to Changuinola. From there, it's a 20-minute bus ride over dirt roads to the banks of the Río Teribe, to a little pueblito called El Silencio. And from there, you travel one 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.

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 will have received specialized training in English, mechanics, administration, accounting and other valuable skills necessary to run a modern eco-resort.

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

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