The proper functioning of the interoceanic waterway and the production of water for two million people depend on the balance of the ecosystems of the Panama Canal Watershed. These ecosystems, in turn, are impacted by the environmental awareness of all citizens, which arises from an early and accurate education.
The seed of education
Humberto Guevara is the young president of the Chagres Alhajuela Consultative Council, a participatory platform for the people who live in this region of the Watershed.
“I started in the Watershed Guardians program when I was 10 years old, when I was in fifth grade at the Nuevo Caimitillo School. They would explain to us what the Watershed was and why it was important. The most important thing was to realize the value of the place where we lived,” she recalls.
After completing the two-year program, the children from the watershed became part of the Young Environmentalists Network.
“What they had taught us had raised our awareness and made us want to continue participating,” explains Guevara. Gone were the coloring books and the lessons of community advocacy in which they were trained in reforestation, cleaning of areas, solid waste management, among other topics.
For environmental engineer Itzel Muñoz, the connection was made through school tours. “It was since kindergarten, when we were taken to natural places. From that moment on, I felt that nature had a connection with human beings.”
Motivated by friendships, Itzel joined the Network seven years ago.
“I learned that there was the group of young people in charge of protecting the Watershed; they were not only from this area of Chilibre and Chilibrillo, but there were other regions that were also involved in environmental care” narrates the engineer. “We are environmental families,” she added.
Youth leadership that is beginning to bear fruit
Guevara has chaired the Chagres Alhajuela Advisory Council since October 2021. “For young people, joining the Council is an important step because it is where everything they have learned is applied in real decision-making,” Guevara maintains.
“The Chilibre-Chilibrillo water region is one of the most populated in the Watershed, and that is why when I entered the university to study environmental engineering, I wanted to focus on the relationship between land use planning and water care,” Muñoz explains.
A green classroom in Chilibre
Yanireth Ríos, a natural sciences teacher at the Chilibre Professional and Technical Institute (IPT), knows that what her students need is motivation.
“I teach young people between the ages of 12 and 18 and encourage them to value the biodiversity of their environment and to be agents of change in their community,” she says.
In collaboration with the Panama Canal, the Chilibre IPT created a trail on its grounds that has become an outdoor laboratory. “We needed something interactive with the students to get them out of the classroom and that’s why the trail we call La Huaca was born,” says Ríos.
The Ministry of Education (Meduca) and the Panama Canal recently taught a diploma course on environmental education and culture, aimed at teachers and students from the communities located in the waterway’s hydrographic watershed. A total of 660 students, 37 teachers from schools in 14 educational communities and 36 young leaders participated. Professor Ríos emphasizes that what she valued most about this training was that “a network was formed among teachers in the Watershed who now maintain contact and make plans to exchange experiences and projects“.
Environmental education is a lifelong process. It begins in the classroom, but never fails to bring value to the individual.
Ricardo Lawrence is part of the Panama Canal’s interdisciplinary socio-environmental management team, and explains that “In Panama, environmental education has been formally taught in schools by law since December 2014. But, there is also informal education that takes place in meetings, fairs, events, advertising campaigns where people are talked about and made aware of environmental care.”
“Environmental education is a lifelong process because we benefit from a healthy environment at all stages,” Lawrence argues.
Dreams of a conscious youth
For Muñoz, the most important goal in 50 years is waste management. “That is my ideal, that people learn what to do with their waste,” he says.
In March, the Young Environmentalists Network presented to the Panama Canal an integrated educational offer in secondary, technical and professional education that describes the limitations faced by students in the Watershed, “and proposes solutions related to the construction of higher education centers, use of existing infrastructure, transportation, scholarships, Internet access, places to stay, among others.”
“The most important challenge we have is to integrate,” Guevara maintains. “Knowing that there are no small contributions.”
For her part, Yanireth Rios knows that the changes are not immediate. “We work with a lot of patience and we don’t give up,” she says.