Fostering Grassroots Sustainability in Panama

By Emily Primack

It rains almost everyday in the early afternoon in La Palma. While walking I notice buckets collecting the water to be used for later. My first day with my host family, they explained that water was a valuable resource and was to be used sparingly. Basically, I understood from my basic level of Spanish that I should simply live by the old saying, “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.” I have gotten more and more used to taking 60 second showers and brushing my teeth with as little amount of water as necessary.

For some reason, I assumed all of this effort to conserve water was the whole “Going Green!” fad. However, a few days ago while riding a chiva (a bus without a schedule), I noticed all of the people around me throwing their trash out the window as if the ground was their own personal trash can. I kept it cool until I reached my house and could ask my host family about littering. They explained to me that there was indeed a law against it, however it was not enforced whatsoever.

I learned that my family and others living in La Palma do not conserve to save the environment, but instead to save money. While it makes complete sense, I was a bit dissapointed.

Yesterday I introduced the three R’s to my classes: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. They looked confused even when I switched to Spanish. They simply could not fathom holding onto their trash for more than a minute. I admit, I may have gotten a bit carried away in class while talking about global warming. I preached that it was the job of every single person to take care of this world. They looked very lost so I switched to a song to get the message across. It was a bit more successful than my preaching. “Clean up, Clean up, everybody everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share.”

The lyrics were translated and hopefully the message as well. Throughout the week we will continue the environment lesson plan, making posters for the school and a concert for the parents presenting a few environmental songs. While some might argue that I should be lecturing in my own country, I see it completely fit to teach this lesson plan in my community. My classes at GW teach that it is just as important – if not more important – to educate the international developing communities about global problems. It is, of course, a joint effort.

And so at the end of the week when I take my students to do a trash clean up around the city, I hope they understand that it is up to them to convey the message to their peers and I’m crossing my fingers that the next time they have trash, they think twice before tossing it out the window.

Emily is a sophomore in the Elliott School with a major in International Affairs and a concentration in International Development. She is currently abroad teaching English with Learning Enterprises in La Palma, Panama.

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