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The Indigenous Emberá townspeople have long lived in the forests of eastern Panama. They know these forests inside and out: They walk, hunt and fish in them; they harvest fruit and nuts from them; they cut trees for fuel wood and building materials. But ever since a group of Emberá migrated west and founded Ipeti, Panama, a few decades ago, they have grappled with outside threats to their forest-based livelihoods.

By 2017, they faced an existential question: Would they hold on to their traditions, or head full-speed into modernity?  

Javier Mateo-Vega, an ecologist with the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute, hoped to help the villagers turn things around. Last February, he drove three hours east from Panama City to lead a land-use planning workshop for this 700-person community. He knew the workshop wouldn't solve all of the townspeople's problems. But he believed he could help them in one concrete way: by giving them data they needed to make strategic decisions to protect their forests in the coming decades. 

On paper, the work was intended to conserve tropical forests, crucial yet increasingly vulnerable bastions in the fight against global climate change. But Mateo-Vega and his colleagues also hoped it would also do something arguably just as important: empower Indigenous communities to take charge of their environmental future, and even reclaim their identity as forest people. 

“Imagine it’s 2055, and you’re in an airplane flying over your territory,” he said, as he took the floor before a group of around 50 community members. Women in brightly colored traditional skirts sat on folding chairs on one side of the pavilion; men in worn jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps sat or stood around the other. “What would you see?”

Behind Mateo-Vega, community leaders held two large maps that he had brought, based on data that community members had provided in a workshop the previous summer. One depicted a dystopian future in which Ipeti’s forests are almost all cleared for farmland. The other rendered a brighter outlook, in which the community was able to bring the forest back.

“This is your dream,” he said, pointing to the second map. “What are the Emberá without their forests?”

For a few seconds, the crowd was uncomfortably silent. Then one young man yelled out, “Nothing! Without our forests, we’re not Emberá!”

Mateo-Vega's face relaxed. Now they were starting to make progress.

Sara Omi (left), Cándido Mezúa (center) and Mateo-Vega explore potential futures for the Emberá’s forests
In Ipeti, Panama, Sara Omi (left), Cándido Mezúa (center) and Mateo-Vega explore potential futures for the Emberá’s forests. (Gabriel Popkin)

To say that the history of scientists working in Indigenous territories is fraught would be an understatement. Look through the literature and you'll find stories of researchers setting their own agendas, collecting and publishing data without consent, and failing to include community members as collaborators or coauthors on studies. 

In the context of this troubled history, Mateo-Vega's work could be the beginnings of a counter-narrative. In 2007, he visited Ipeti for the first time, while serving as director of Yale University’s Environmental Leadership & Training Initiative, a collaborative program with the Smithsonian. In 2012 he joined the research group of Catherine Potvin, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Institution and McGill University in Montreal who has paved the way for more collaborative research with the Emberá.

Over the years, Mateo-Vega says he and the people of Ipeti have come to consider each other adopted family. Such relationships have laid the foundation for a collaboration with the Emberá that goes longer and deeper than almost any other scientist-Indigenous community partnership anywhere. In return, Mateo-Vega has gained unprecedented access to nearly unstudied forests—and, perhaps more importantly, to the Emberá themselves. They have opened their homes to him, mediated with community elders and helped design and carry out complex research projects. 

Mateo-Vega aims to help bring Indigenous communities into a climate change conversation that they have mostly watched from the margins. As the world’s governments, conservation organizations and Indigenous communities struggle to protect forests and fight climate change, Mateo-Vega hopes to build a powerful model for others to follow.

Emberá women at a land use planning meeting led by Mateo-Vega
Emberá women at a land use planning meeting led by Mateo-Vega in February. (Gabriel Popkin)

The story begins in the mid 1990s, when Potvin, Mateo-Vega's advisor, ventured for the first time to the Darién, a remote, roadless Darién region in far eastern Panama.

While in Darién, Potvin heard that some Emberá had migrated out of the region and settled in Ipeti. Intrigued, she visited the town herself in 1996. She found a community that was carrying on some traditions, such as living in thatched-roof houses, but that was also assimilating into mainstream Panamanian society. Traditional body painting and music had all but disappeared, and Spanish was replacing the Emberá language. 

Traditional thatched-roof huts
Traditional thatched-roof huts and drying clothes at an Emberá community in the Darién. (Courtesy Javier Mateo-Vega)

When Bonarge Pacheco—an Emberá and Ipeti’s chief at the time—heard that Potvin was in town, he put on his best clothes and joined her for dinner.

Despite previous experiences with scientists who had gathered data in Ipeti but never returned results, Bonarge says that he was won over by Potvin. “I perceived that she was a sincere person, and I had heard about her work elsewhere,” he says. They talked until midnight, and by the next day they had a plan to collaborate.

Many of the forests surrounding Ipeti had been cleared both by villagers and invading colonos, and were in rough shape. Villagers had trouble finding not only chunga, but also several types of palm needed to continue building their traditional houses—round, open-sided structures with air-permeable floors and thatched roofs that stay cool even in Panama’s punishing midday heat. As a result, community members were starting to build new houses using non-traditional materials like wood planks and sheet metal.

Potvin worked with the community to study and grow four species of palm: chunga, wagara, giwa and sabal. That work paid off: With palms growing and providing materials, Ipeti was able to continue their traditional house-building. The study also had wider-reaching effects. Villagers went back to playing Emberá music—which relies on flutes made from a bamboo that Potvin also helped them grow—and revived their important cultural tradition of body-painting. 

Catherine Potvin, right, shows a carbon map to community members of the Kuna Comarca
Catherine Potvin, right, shows a carbon map to Evelio Jiménez and community members of the Kuna Comarca of Madungandi, in eastern Panama in 2013. Smithsonian Institution.

Around this time, high-level politicians and environmentalists began eyeing tropical forests like the Darién as part of global efforts to combat climate change. At the 2005 UN climate conference in Montreal, a program emerged for reducing carbon emissions from burning or clearing of standing forests, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The program was christened with the acronym REDD, which stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”

The basic idea is simple: Trees are roughly half carbon by mass, and growing trees devour and store carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for most human-caused climate change. To provide an incentive to keep forests standing, climate negotiators envisioned a carbon market through which wealthy countries responsible for most carbon emissions could pay poorer countries to protect forests. While no one thought such a scheme could prevent climate change, it seemed like a good strategy to at least slow it down.

Ipeti’s forests.
Ipeti’s forests. (Gabriel Popkin)

Potvin, who attended the climate talks as a negotiator for Panama, told her Emberá contacts about the carbon market discussions. Fearing being left out, community leaders asked her to help them measure how much carbon their forests contained. She agreed. Starting in Ipeti, she trained community members to record the diameters of trees in community-managed forest, agroforestry plots (plantings of fruit- and materials-providing trees) and cow pasture. They then used standardized equations and statistical methods to convert individual tree data into estimates of carbon stored in a given area.

They found that Ipeti’s forests contained about twice as much carbon per area as agroforestry plots, whereas the pastures, unsurprisingly, contained little carbon. Because the study was the first to quantify the carbon stored in Ipeti’s forest, it provided a crucial foundation for the community to explore getting involved in the emerging carbon market.

Equally important was the attention the study brought to Ipeti’s remaining forests, says Pacheco. At the rate Ipeti residents and colonos were clearing trees, half the remaining forest would be gone within a decade, the researchers found. Community members took note and dramatically slowed the rate at which they cleared forests for agriculture. As a result, about half their territory remains forested today—in contrast to Piriati, a neighboring Emberá community where Potvin did not work, and which eventually lost all of its forest.

“We call it the Potvin effect,” Pacheco says.

Javier stands at the base of a tree.
Mateo-Vega stands at the base of a cuipo tree in the forests of Ipeti. (Gabriel Popkin)

A few years later, Potvin, Mateo-Vega and Emberá leaders began planning a forest carbon measuring campaign in the Darién, with support from the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Bank. The challenges would be much greater than in Ipeti—field teams would need to trek in equipment by foot or canoe for stays lasting weeks, and they would need protection from the guerrilla warfare in neighboring Colombia, which threatened to spill across the border. The mutual trust Potvin and Mateo-Vega had spent years building would be essential. 

Mateo-Vega hired an Emberá assistant, Lupita Omi, whom he knew from working in Ipeti, to arrange meetings with village chiefs. (The two have become so close they now call each other hermanito and hermanita—Spanish for “little brother” and “little sister”). In 38 separate meetings, the pair explained their project’s goals and how the collected data would benefit communities. Deliberations could last up to five hours, because community members were wary of any initiative that carried even a whiff of REDD+.

“The communities really listened carefully to every word,” Omi says. “They realized it could affect their livelihoods and their territories.” In the end, every community accepted the project.

Mateo-Vega then hired and trained a crew of forest technicians from Darién and Ipeti, and plunged into the forest. They set up camp, sent hunters out after monkey or iguana for the night’s dinner, and got to work staking out square plots 100 meters (slightly longer than a football field) on a side and measuring the height and circumference of every tree larger than 50 centimeters in diameter.

For their efforts, Mateo-Vega and his crew got access to forests that virtually no scientists had ever studied. They discovered a tree that shattered the record for the largest in Panama. The crew’s measurements revealed that some of its forests were far more carbon-rich and replete with biological diversity than anyone had documented.

In addition to collecting valuable data, Mateo-Vega’s team proved a larger point: that community members with proper training but no prior science background could take forest measurements just as well as scientists. And they could do it at a fraction of the cost. Similar success stories from collaborations elsewhere suggest REDD+ could be widely implemented and monitored directly by communities that own much of the world’s forests.

Emberá communities are now prepared to collect data to support REDD+ or any other future carbon compensation scheme, they wrote.

“We worked ourselves out of a job—which was the plan,” Mateo-Vega says.

Armed with data, the Emberá communities set about figuring out the next step: how to use it. In Ipeti and Piriati, which only received formal title to their lands in 2015, the consensus was a series of land use planning workshops to map out how land use decisions would affect their forests. 

The workshops have been “an awakening” for the communities, Mateo-Vega says. He recalls one elder in Piriati crying as he realized his daughters had never seen the forest or eaten bush meat—the native game animals Emberá people have traditionally hunted. “They realize they have gotten off track,” he says.

A man sits outside his home.
An Omi Casamá family member of the Ipeti Emberá community sits outside his home. Credit: Maria Sanchez.

Back at the land use meeting in Ipeti, as Mateo-Vega continued to explain the data visualized by his maps, his audience had begun to open up. Community members were reflecting on what they had lost as the forest had disappeared. “Before, we ate peccary and deer,” one man said. “Now we have to have park rangers.”

Another lamented that they were eating introduced tilapia, rather than native wacuco fish that used to thrive in streams protected by forests. “I’m Emberá; I want to live like an Emberá,” he said.

By the end of the meeting, community members were in agreement: They needed to bring back the forest. But given that farming often brings in quicker—and much-needed—profits, how exactly they would do this remained to be figured out.

After the crowd dispersed, Mateo-Vega huddled with community leaders. They were contemplating a concept they called Emberá-REDD. They would consider participating in the UN program, but on their own terms, not ones cooked up in Panama City or Washington, D.C.

Young people could be employed to measure carbon and patrol the territory to ensure colonos did not destroy their forests, one leader suggested. REDD+ would thus be not just about trees and carbon, but about jobs and education—and about food security and cultural preservation.

“We need to protect the forests for our own reasons,” said Mezúa.

The forest would come back. The communities would go back to eating bush meat and gathering medicinal plants. They would build their traditional houses again.

A woman shows her stained hands.
An Omi Casamá family member of the Ipeti Emberá community shows her hands after practicing traditional tattooing with fruit juice. Credit: Maria Sanchez.

Mateo-Vega liked what he heard. But he and Potvin are quick to emphasize that their job is not to choose whether or not the communities ultimately accept REDD+, or make any other decision for them. Rather, it is to empower communities to make their own informed choices.

They acknowledge that this is not always the easiest or quickest or most glamorous way to do science. But it’s the right way. “It’s a partnership and a relationship of equality,” Potvin says. “I think of it as decolonization.”