A surfer creates an island eco-haven with ancient know-how

Javier Lijo chose the plot because of the waves nearby, but soon set about improving it

When Javier Lijo bought nine acres of deforested land on top of Panama Island, he kept his eye on the waves below.

The Argentinian, an avid surfer, has always dreamed of a quiet life surfing the sea, away from the car-filled giant metropolises of Latin America. But his passion for sustainable living led him in a different direction.

Over the course of 20 years, with the help of the local indigenous people of Ngäbe-Buglé, he transformed his land on Isla Bastimentos, on Panama’s Caribbean coast, into a thriving, forested ecological haven.

Mr. Lijo hopes his example will serve as a model for others who want to reforest the cleared land.

An old photo of the land that Mr. Lijo has purchased since the purchase

The land had been cleared for cattle grazing and was infested with mosquitoes when Mr. Lijo bought it

View of a building among the dense vegetation on Javier Lijo's farm

Much of the vegetation has since grown back, and the buildings are hidden among the foliage

The 52-year-old pulls off the soaked leaves of one plant as he shows visitors around his Up in the Hill eco-farm, explaining that this particular species’ water retention is so high that “you could take a bath in it.”

To the uninformed, his land looks wild. But most of it is cultivated: one part has trees to make furniture, another part has cocoa trees for chocolate, an herb garden at the top, and a variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers everywhere throughout the forest.

Most products sell locally.

Javier Lijo holds a cocoa pod

Cocoa is just one of the many things that Javier Lijo grows on his organic farm

This is a big change since Mr. Lijo bought the land in 1996. It had been a cleared cow pasture back then, full of mosquitoes and flies, but he fell in love with it anyway.

When he started farming, he read about the theory of permaculture – a sustainable way of life that emphasizes recycling and reducing the impact on the planet. Hence the idea for an eco-paradise farm free of pesticides, where everything has its use.

He said his vision is one where “education, community work, a variety of materials on the farm, different ways to make money and live” will come together.

First he had to learn the basics, and for this he turned to the indigenous people who have managed the forests of Panama for centuries.

The indigenous people of Ngäbe-Buglé have many nearby settlements.

Mr. Lijo first met 53-year-old Benjamín Aguilar in 2000 when he asked him to help cut down trees on the farm.

Photo by Benjamin Aguilar

Benjamín Aguilar is a member of the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous group

Soon Mr. Aguilar was advising him on how to develop the land, what to plant and what trees to use for timber.

“I taught him how to make cocoa, how to ferment it, and how long it takes to roast,” recalls Mr. Aguilar.

Mr. Lijo says the Ngäbe-Buglé showed him “everything” he knew about land management. “They have a lot of knowledge – it’s generation after generation, hundreds of years.”

He was not the only one to realize the value of indigenous knowledge for forest conservation, especially since more than half of Panama’s mature forests are in indigenous territory.

One of the world’s leading research institutes in tropical biology, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), runs several projects where its scientists collaborate with indigenous peoples.

Prof. Catherine Potvin, a STRI researcher who has been working with the indigenous people of Panama for over 20 years, explains why this approach works so well.

“Indigenous people cultivate not necessarily to become rich and to do large enterprises. They have no concept of economic growth,” he says.

“They’re just looking for stability. They want to maintain themselves and their territory in the long term.”

Indigenous land management also provides “green infrastructure” that can protect the environment, such as soil in intact forests that can absorb water to prevent flooding and release it during the dry season to prevent droughts.

Mr. Lijo has noticed that the quality of the soil on his land has improved since he started afforestation. There is also greater biodiversity with a variety of animals such as monkeys, birds, bees and armadillos returning to the farm which was previously used for grazing cattle.

The strawberry frogs are the most notable. A nearby beach was named after them, but their numbers dwindled as tourism and clearing for farmland on the island threatened their habitat.

View of a strawberry dart frog on a leaf

Strawberry frogs can now be found quite regularly

“For over three years (after buying the land), we have never seen frogs, but now they are everywhere,” explains Lijo.

His work is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere in Panama.

Jefferson S Hall is a STRI scientist who led the reforestation efforts that protected the Panama Canal from flooding.

In October, the institute reached an agreement with Ngäbe-Buglé to create a reforestation project on their territory that captures carbon and improves the ecosystem.

“People were skeptical at first because they’ve seen outsiders make a lot of promises, promises they don’t keep,” says Hall.

“We are at the beginning of a long-term relationship. We are at the beginning of our learning curve. We are impressed, but not necessarily surprised, with how enthusiastic people are about planting trees.”

As for Mr Lijo’s project, Mr Hall is adamant that it may be small, but is confident that even small efforts can help.

“One of the phrases I often repeat is that reforestation must be done one landowner at a time,” he says. “So, kudos to the person who did it.”

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