During our lives we come to some important crossroads where we are given stark choices about the direction in which to proceed. I mention this because I came to such a crossroads in 2002. As a successful biologist I was undertaking cutting edge research that was fully funded, I had just received university tenure and my career path couldn’t have looked better. But deep down I felt that the knowledge gained by my research and that of others was not reaching the people that most needed it. At that stage I made a startling and crucial decision. I gave up my job, my tenure, and my life as an academic to do what I needed to do.
I came to Panama and realized that this small country represents in many ways all that is right and wrong with our global situation. It has tremendous diversity - rainforests, coral reefs, mountains and mangroves. It is a biologist's delight and a globally recognized area of strategic importance for biodiversity conservation. But at the same time it is being destroyed at an incredibly alarming rate - all in the name of progress. Panama is a small country that is only just getting to grips with becoming a sovereign nation and its development path is far from set in concrete. If we are going to succeed anywhere in turning things around it is likely to be here in Panama.
In getting to know the country I realized how inextricably linked the human condition is to the health of the natural environment. I noticed that farming by the poor is incredibly wasteful - often cutting down 50 or 100 acres of rainforest just to feed a family of 6. So why are farmers doing this? I discovered out that they lack crucial farming knowledge and are unaware of viable alternatives. The necessary information is out there but it is useless if it is not conveyed to the people who need it the most.
Our challenge is enormous yet we believe that our dedication is contagious and already we are making our mark. People are becoming aware, farmers’ lives are being changed and the environment is better off as a result.
My job is fulfilling but I am never satisfied. We must change our course radically if we are to give our next generation a chance. I hope you will consider the role you too can play in charting our route.