Developing A Rural Community in Panama

After the military regime of General Manuel Antonio Noriega was toppled in December, 1989, the new government had to start from square one.  One of the sectors that needed urgent attention was agriculture in the countryside.  The indigenous population was almost starving, and there were not enough resources in the country to provide them with the urgent assistance they needed.  We decided to request aid from the United Nations.

I started to work for the Panama government on January 1990, when the country was still badly shaken  by the looting that took place after the military intervention of the United States and the new government was just starting to organize its structures.  At the request of Vice President and Minister of Economic and Planning, Guillermo “Billy” Ford, I was given the responsibility of supervising a rural development program called “Programa Mundial de Alimentos—PMA” (World Food Program) sponsored by the United Nations.

The main purpose of the program was to develop economic depressed areas in the countryside, specially the Ngäbe-Buglé Indians in the Provinces of Veraguas and Chiriquí.  My area of responsibility was the community of Altos de Chamí in Chiriquí.  It was an integral development project with different  improvement programs such as:

  • Tilapia fishing ponds to procure proteins for the community.
  • Planting coffee, cabbage, oranges, pine trees, tomatoes, and corn.
  • Lessons on how to make tortillas, bread, and salads.
  • Lessons on how to organize a credit union to market oranges, corn and coffee beans.
  • Distribution of medicines and other health campaigns.
  • Lessons on how to read and write.

I think I’ve said before, that the most productive years were those I spent working for the Panama government (1990-1995).  It was the first and only time I worked for my country.  Due to political reasons, I was separated from my job after a new government was elected.  I was reluctant to leave, but I had no choice but to go.  I returned to work in the private sector until I retired three years ago.

Below are several pictures depicting the different aspects of the PMA program.  I apologize for the low quality of the snapshots.  I took pictures of old photographs which were found by accident by my wife while looking for stuff in one of our closets.  I thought these pictures were lost.  A picture of a picture equals a low-quality result, but it’s better than nothing at all.  Anyway, you can still grasp what we were doing in Altos de Chamí.

Small coffee seedlings ready to the carried to the areas where the coffee plantations would be located. We wanted coffee to be a main source of income for the Indian community. Altos de Chamí is in the highlands of Chiriqui suitable for growing high-quality coffee. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
A group of the administrators of the PMA program visiting a “tilapia” pond to provide proteins to the Ngäbe-Buglé Indian population of Altos de Chamí. I’m the small guy at the right hand side of the picture. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.

Tilapia are mainly freshwater fish, inhabiting shallow streams, ponds, rivers and lakes, and less commonly found living in brackish water. Historically, they have been of major importance in artisan fishing in Africa, Latin America, and the Levant, and are of increasing importance in aquaculture.  In the picture above you can see the pond where the tilapia fish were cultivated.

Snapshot of two beautiful Ngäbe-Buglé’s young women working in a deposit of pine seedling used to reforest wide areas of eroded land in the highlands of Altos de Chamí. We imported the pine seedlings from Honduras for our reforestation program. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Snapshot of an instructor of the PMA program teaching a group of Ngäbe-Bublé Indians how to market corn, oranges, and coffee at the “Cooperativa El Despertar Guaymí” credit union. The same entity was used to teach them how to read and write. It was like a little school for adults and children. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Snapshot of a coffee pulp separator machine provided by the Panama government for the Indian community. The funds for this machine were supplied byFES—“Fondo de Emergencia Social” (Social Emergency Fund). Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Snapshot of a PMA instructor teaching a group of Ngäbe-Buglé women how to make bread. The flour was furnished by the United Nations. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Snapshot of Yours Truly and Rubén Montezuma, a tomato farmer in Altos de Chamí. He was the most productive farmer of the project, even though he was very young. (October 6, 1991). Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Snapshot of Yours Truly donating an agriculture accessory to a member of the community to eradicate unwanted insects. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Snapshot of the Administrative Secretary of the project and a Ngäbe-Buglé Indian woman inside her rustic home. As you can see, they don’t usually wear shoes. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.
Snapshot of Yours Truly and a young Ngäbe-Buglé woman grinding white corn to make tortillas. Notice the minimalist home of this young woman. Photo by ©Omar Upegui R.

2 thoughts on “Developing A Rural Community in Panama”

  1. Tilapia is one of the most commonly-served fish here now. I rather like it – my favorite restaurant does a tortilla-encrusted version that’s so good.

    I’m completely taken by your third photo, of the two young women. I think it’s my favorite of any I’ve seen on your blog. They’re beautiful, of course, and their dresses are lovely. Beyond that, what I assume is a slight fading of the photo gives them an ethereal appearance, a timelessness that’s quite gripping. Thanks so much for sharing the photo, and the story as a whole.

    1. Hi Linda:

      As a matter of fact we had tilapia for supper yesterday. Aura is a knack at the kitchen. The tilapia was absolutely delicious.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the pictures of the two Ngäbe-Buglé young women. Those are the typical dresses of this tribe, original from the provinces of Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí and Veraguas.

      You are right, the original photographs were somewhat faded and that’s the reason the color is lighter in some parts of the pictures as you corrected assumed.

      Now you know something else about the Panamanian culture and its people.



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