9 May 2017

Urban Biodiversity: How Can We Love You More?

By Jorge Ventocilla

“A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it
than by the woods and swamps that surround it”  
- Thoreau: Walking
Columbina talpacoti - Photo by: Elpidio González
How many times have we heard that our city is host to rare and particular biodiversity? I would like to write about this, and especially about how to value this biodiversity.
To me, urban biodiversity can be found not just in the wild around the city, but in the things we use, eat, and more. Such diversity includes everything from the two primate species that have thrived in Cerro Ancón, the titi monkey and the gray-bellied night monkey (jujuná), to the rice we serve daily. Among these, we also find things we need to control, like mosquitoes, and the diseases they spread; however, we will talk about the beneficial kind of biodiversity.
What makes this city so rich, biologically speaking? On one side, we have both salt water and fresh water bodies: the nearby Pacific Ocean, and the lakes that are part of the Panama Canal system, including rivers and brooks. I know, the Matasnillo River sometimes resembles a sewer, but we should keep in mind that a tremendous amount of work has been done for controlling its use, and we also need to remember that the conditions of the Panama Bay have greatly improved.
On the other hand, and this is particularly true here, we still have forests very close to the city. This was possible because they have been protected since the 80’s and 90’s; if they had not been protected, they now would be prey to the greed of those who care more about land and money (“sick” people, as Pope Francis call them).
Thanks to a series of historical reasons, whether it was military strategies for the defense of the Canal area, or for the protection of its water sources, and in the last decades because of the growing environmental awareness, these forests remain in place, and are still collective property: Parque Natural Metropolitano, Parque Nacional Soberanía, Parque Nacional Camino de Cruces, and others.
It is worth mentioning that important scientific research has been and is being conducted in Panama. Science is been made here in the city. Many institutions come to mind: The Gorgas Memorial Institute, the Smithsonian, SENACYT and its different dependencies, the Summit back in the days, colleges, universities, etc. The Smithsonian alone receives more than a thousand “visiting scientists” every year, both local and foreigner; some stay for a few weeks, some other for several years. The scientific knowledge base, the amount of information about nature in Panama must be the largest, compared to any other country in the region.
Titi monkey - Photo by: Manuel Martín (CC BY 2.0)

Shouldn't public be more informed and aware about biodiversity in the country?
I dare say that one of the reasons of our biodiversity is coincidentally the diversity of people who have made of this city their home. Just remember that when the Canal was under construction, workers from more than 80 countries came and stayed. The Isthmus has been a bridge for human life, and also for cultural development, since Pre-Hispanic times. Knowledge, flavors, plants, spices were brought by these diverse groups of people.
Yes, this city’s biodiversity is very rich. Nevertheless, our lifestyles keep us distant from nature, compared to people in other cities. We don’t see nature, don’t know nature anymore. Our parents and grandparents were able to identify many of the trees planted in the countryside. How may of those do our kids are able to identify here in the city?
What can we do for this biodiversity to be valued? I think one way of doing that is to combine scientific information with cultural information; and, as an example, I will again mention the case of lemon grass. It is important to remember that this plant came from Asia and that it is now been grown all over the world. Its scientific name is Cymbopogon citratus. Reactions to the answers of some friends to the question “what does lemon grass mean to you?” were mostly favorable.
Mirna Santana is a botanist and a Nature Guide in Barro Colorado.“When I was a little girl,” – she told me – “in a town called Santa Rita de Antón, my sisters and I used to go to our grandparents’ house every evening. My grandmother would give us cookies or bread and butter, with some lemon grass tea.  At the same time, my grandfather would sit on his rocking chair and read stories about elves, witches, and about popular Latin American characters as Tío Conejo and Tío Tigre (Uncle Rabbit and Uncle Tiger). That plant is an indivisible part of all that. Years later, in Puerto Rico, where I attended a master´s program, Ms. Benita (the cleaning lady at the scientific station) planted lemon grass for me, ‘to keep me company’ – she knew that I liked it a lot. There are many things behind lemon grass.”
Lemongrass - Photo by: Magalie L'Abbé (CC BY-NC 2.0)
From the Azuero region, the sociologist Milciades Pinzón wrote: “Lemon grass is a common staple in Panama, particularly for Panamanians on the countryside. They are not just part of the biological environment, but also of the social environment. Lemon grass is the memory of both the grandmother and the mother. It speaks of funerals at the countryside, with all the emotions they bring to our mourning souls. I think there is a lot more about medicinal plants and emotions to be discovered that has not been studied yet.” 
When we want to raise awareness about the biodiversity of this city, we need to include both scientific and cultural information. By doing this, the public can relate to what they learn, and the information goes straight to their hearts. We value and cherish those things we keep in our hearts more than anything else.