Two Problems, One Solution: Ecotourism in Panama

Globally, rural poverty is a double-edged sword.  It limits rural and indigenous communities and destroys the natural world.  When basic needs like education, sanitation and health care are kept at bay, change is difficult and environmental degradation is inevitable. In Panama, unsustainable methods of farming and deforestation continue to be a main source of income in many rural and indigenous communities. Scientists have determined that without increased conservation in many of these communities Panama will face a loss of biodiversity.  As Panama develops, it becomes harder for the country’s rural and indigenous populations to earn a livable wage.  While many seek employment in urban areas, most are met with a low demand for unskilled workers. In an effort to resolve the conflict the, Non Governmental Organization (NGO) Conversation Panama, has turned to ecotourism.

So what does ecotourism mean, and how can it help the environment and confront rural poverty?  Ecotourism encompasses three things: responsible travel, conservation, and improving the wellbeing of local people.  While many have adopted the term “eco” to portray an environmentally friendly image, few hold true to the real meaning of the word.

Conservation Panama, a U.S. – Panamanian NGO, is an organization that embodies true ecotourism.  By arming rural and indigenous groups with knowledge of the natural world, they offer a chance at meaningful and worthwhile employment.  

In April of this year, Conservation Panama launched their first “Rural Bird Guide Training” program in Boquete.  With plans to expand to a small community in Bocas Del Toro, the program offers rural and indigenous people the opportunity to earn competitive wages by developing skills as bird watching guides.

Panama’s unique geographical position offers a wealth of biological diversity and natural beauty.  While tourism is young in the country, it is no secret that Panama is quickly becoming a world-class ecotourism destination.

Frommers Travel Guide ranks Panama as one of the top bird watching sites in the world.  With close to 1000 resident and migrant birds, more than the US and Canada combined, the natural landscape entices birders and nature lovers alike.  Boasting a variety of "showcase" birds including toucans, macaws and the resplendent quetzal, Panama’s colorful world of birding can excite just about anyone.  

Despite this, bird watching remains a largely untapped market in Panama.  There are few trained and knowledgeable bird guides readily available throughout the country.  Conservation Panama saw this as an opportunity to meet a demand while bringing environmental awareness and revenue to some of Panama’s rural poor.  

By offering a livable wage through ecotourism, the program aims to create an appreciation for a prosperous ecosystem.  

Currently the Boquete program has three applicants, who are currently learning to identify local birds by sight and sound.  They will also learn about local conservation issues in the Boquete area.  

Upon graduating the program trainees will receive guide equipment, including professional grade binoculars, scopes and tripods.  Over the next year, Conservation Panama will continue to support these trained guides, while measuring the success of the program.  

As a community service, each guide that completes the program is required to offer a free day of bird watching monthly for residents of their local community.  In doing so, the hope is to spread knowledge and appreciation for the environment and the birds that call Panama home.  

Guides will sign an agreement to keep an affordable market price for their full or half day guided tours.  This will ensure that bird watching remains accessible to many.  Seeing wildlife in it’s natural environment is a gift.  By creating the opportunity to see some of Panama’s impressive birds, Conservation Panama aims to spark interest in both local and international conservation efforts.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau said it best, “People protect what they love.”

To learn more about the Rural Bird Guide Training program visit: