Views of Panama

Back to the Land

As cities grow, more and more people are planting more than just ornamental grass in their yards. Whether out of concern for the environment or simple curiosity, urban gardening is becoming increasingly popular among those who have never before taken an interest in agriculture.

By:r Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

What happened to John Douglas was pure chance, and you’re about the see why. Twelve years ago, suffering from intestinal pain produced by acute heartbreak, spurred on by simple anger and indignation, he left behind the 5.4 million square miles of his northern country when it failed to meet his expectations after homecoming.

He did this through the Peace Corps, which is how he landed in Panama. Six years later, he felt so at ease amid the humid greenery of the isthmus that he bought ten acres of land at a place with a storybook name: Churuquita Grande. Today, John Douglas is happy, surrounded by orange, mango, soursop, and banana trees, bean and lettuce crops, tomatoes, water apples, eggplant, balo, lemon trees, peppermint, Chinese bananas, chillies, avocados, and passion fruit…

“It’s my hobby,” he tells us, from the shade of a living fence. John lives near the Zaratí River in Penonomé. He has a “right hand man” named Marcelino, two dogs, and a lot of laziness. That’s why his farm is called Los Perezosos, or the Lazy Ones.

Perhaps it was an attempt to shake off the cries of the past or the hysterics of love… there’s no way of telling. Perhaps it was plain and simple curiosity. Perhaps he was charmed by the new understanding he had of Mother Nature. Maybe it was all of these reasons, but the truth is that John decided, more than five years ago now, to devote himself to planting, observing, and waiting for the fruits of his labor; he tells us all of this in his stumbling “gringo” Spanish while walking leisurely around his farm, which may look chaotic but is actually very carefully planned thanks to the knowledge of permaculture he has gained over the years.

But what is permaculture?

It’s more than just planting organically; it’s a way of life with established ethical principles regarding land management, finance, community governance, education, technology, and even construction methods.

With regard to land and nature management, for example, the system favors bio-intensive gardening, seed saving, and food forests. It supports home-schooling and natural childbirth, complementary medicine, and the right to a dignified death. And in questions of finance and land use, permaculture promotes local monetary systems, farmers markets, fair trade, and the creation of eco-villages.

The concept was coined in 1978 by Australians David Holmgren and Bill Millinson and, in a nutshell, involves “upsetting the fruit cart.” The trend has taken hold lately, given nature’s tendency in recent years to “make us pay,” and its most popular aspect is the way it promotes a small-scale relationship between man and the land. Permaculture offers the possibility of once again bending over to till the soil without agrochemicals or pesticides, growing fruits and vegetables for one’s family or community.

“Man is beginning to understand the importance of the land… We’re beginning to see that the planet can provide us with the best response to our existence, and that nothing beats a natural crop, a sunbeam, or a wild orchid,” says Victor Vallejo Mateo, who is in charge of the “El Huerto en tu Casa” Facebook page.

According to the latest statistics the page now has over 12,300 members. What does it offer? “It gives people an overview of the benefits of living with nature, the beauty of plants, and the relationship of living beings to each other,” says Matthew Vallejo. “It’s about creating awareness of the simple, vital things that the land has to offer,” he adds.

Every day, enthusiastic members of the group share photographs of their gardens and harvests —from papayas and zucchinis to cherry tomatoes and roses— while also learning when and what to plant, how to fight pests, and how to make compost from natural waste, among other things. The page is also culturally interesting because it brings together people from around the world who learn the names and benefits of the same plants in different countries.

Looking for Eden

Finca Los Perezosos, Churuquita Grande, Penonomé, Coclé is about seventy-five miles from Panama City. John Douglas’s way of farming initially inspired jokes and distrust, but six years later he points proudly to the results. “My soil test is my harvest,” says John. An always-plentiful harvest is achieved using natural insect repellents (balo tree, nim, and herbs such as lemon grass) and fertilizer made from natural compost. “Clean ground equals erosion; ground strewn with ‘garbage’ means greater harvests,” he adds.

For example, citrus trees and vegetables are not grown in separately at Los Perezosos. Trees, vines, and creepers are planted together to take advantage of the mutual benefits they can provide for each other and improve protection from insect attacks and diseases. “Monoculture farms are more exposed, because what attacks one plant will attack all the others too,” says John. “Variety provides greater resistance in the face of disease and strengthens the soil,” he adds.

His method of farming is so efficient that he doesn’t even worry about watering; the soil remains moist thanks to shade trees and the compost he places around the plants or uses like “growing tables.”

Finca Las Lomas, Pedasi, Los Santos province lies about 220 miles from Panama City. What happened at Las Lomas was pure chance: one day, he opened the Manolo Caracol restaurant and, as we know, restaurants need fresh produce for their kitchens. At first, it was enough to shop at the markets. Then he began touring of agricultural fairs in search of specific fruits and vegetables, free-range chicken, or quail eggs… “Then we opened a restaurant in Pedasí and we realized we had all these great products around us,” explains Daniel Suaya, one of the restaurant’s two partners.

Once in Pedasí, a dream to buy land they could farm began to brew. The partners bought seventy-five acres of guayacan, corotú, wild cashew, oak, laurel, hockey, cedar, and hawthorn trees… “Every kind of tree imaginable.” They found monkeys in the trees (howlers, capuchins, and charros) and in the middle of all this they planted cassava, saril, bananas, papayas, guavas, basil…

“We now have an organic farm. It’s an agrotourism farm with trails … I even have a press to make my own honey,” says Daniel. Everything we produce is used in the kitchen at Manolo Caracol in the Casco Viejo, and we’ll soon be using it at another restaurant we opened in Pedasí called ‘La Huerta’.”

La Granja, Cativá province of Colón, is about forty-five miles from Panama City. It started as a family farm and, over the years, began opening to the public. With agritourism tours and adventure activities, La Granja was designed to teach kids where their food comes from.

There are: banana, cassava, and pineapple groves that are fertilized using the waste from the animals bred there. In fact, there are more animals than anything: chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, buffalos, cows, goats, and even a donkey. The goats provide milk used to make cheese. Hens provide eggs and meat, and when ducks and pigs become too plentiful, they’re sold, which in turn becomes a source of income for the self-sustaining operation. These products are also used in the La Granja restaurant.

If you crave aromatic and medicinal plants, you’ll find purple basil, lemongrass, oregano, and rosemary. If you’re interested in composting, they can introduce you to the California earthworm method.

Los Perezosos, Las Lomas, and La Granja, each with its own vision and strengths, contribute to the dreams of their founders as well as to a bigger collective dream that, in the words of Vallejo Mateo, responds to our need to demonstrate that “we can live, feed ourselves, and reproduce without damaging the ecosystem.”


How to Get There

Finca Los Perezosos: In the Churuquita Grande community in Penonomé, a two-hour walk from the Inter-American Highway out of Panama City.

Contact: John Douglas Phone: (507) 6001 0410.

Finca Las Lomas:  In the Oria community in Pedasí, Los Santos province. About four hours from Panama City on the Inter-American Highway at the Divisa intersection. From Divisa, another three hours to the south.

Contacts: Daniel Suaya and Manuel Madueño

Finca La Granja: Cativá, Colon province; Corredor Norte, an hour and a half from Panama City.

Phone: (507) 6780 1655 / (507) 6780 1644.

Lodging is available at all three sites.