Azota Caballo: a tree of salvation
by Malcolm Henderson and Andrés Rodríguez
Alex awoke to the thud of axes and the ring of machetes. Dawn hadn’t reached the shores of the lagoon but high up in the surrounding hills there was light enough to begin the cutting.
He found Jacinto on the dock mending the sail of the cayuco.
Jacinto, a handsome Bokota Indian from the middle of the Atlantic coast had worked for Alex’s father for the last ten years of the old man’s life.
“I never thought I would come to this,” said Alex. “It is very different from the photos which showed hills cloaked in the deep green of the rain forest canopy. Now the color is the light green of plantains with large patches of brown where the plantains have withered.”
“Each year the plantains are of poorer quality,” explained Jacinto. “Much of the land has been over used and is deprived of nutrients. This means the families need more land to produce the same amount of food. The only land they can take is the forest.”
“At first the locals invested in chain saws and the noise of the motors sounded all day long. That lasted until the price of gas reached twelve dollars a gallon and only the wealthiest Panamanians and Gringos could afford it. The people of the lagoon returned to the axe and machete and for their canoes they replaced outboard engines with sails.
“But do the locals need to grow so much plantain? Richard asked.
“The number of people living in the lagoon has doubled over the last five years. Those who have their roots here and were working in Changuinola for The Land Company or in Bocas for the Gringos came back to the lagoon when their jobs folded. With them have come their families. Likewise when the price of food in Bocas became beyond the means of the locals, many who had a family connections with the lagoon came here.
What food is left over after feeding their families goes to a Chinese businessman. He brings a diesel powered boat to the lagoon every other day and exchanges rice, milk, salt and soap for the plantains and coconuts. The plantains he sells in Bocas and Almirante to those who still have money. The coconuts go to the Gringo factory in Almirante where the oil is used to make diesel fuel.”
Ten years ago, the hills around the lagoon where still eighty percent covered with trees. I told people then that without their trees they would lose their water. Now with the trees almost gone, the springs are dry and the rivers only have water for a few hours after a rain.
“How is our water situation?” Alex asked.
“It is ample for our needs but nowhere near enough for all the people who are without. They come asking for water and we have to give. They need water not only for drinking and cooking but also to wash their clothes.” Jacinto told him.
“How is it we are so much better off?”
“Years back when your father and I discussed the future effects of global warming we knew water would be crucial for survival. The locals laughed at us and said there would always be enough rain in Bocas.
We set about protecting our sources by planting water conserving trees around the spring and along the banks of the creek. One tree, the Azota Caballo, is particularly good for this purpose. It grows an extensive canopy, providing deep shade. Its roots hold the water in the ground. We planted more than two hundred azota caballo and have always had water in the spring. If we were only looking after our own needs, I would have no worry for the future.”
“Can one tree make such a difference?” questioned Alex.
“It makes a huge difference but if all the other canopy trees are gone, it is too much to ask of the Azota Caballo to be the sole solution.”
"So what will happen?” asked Alex.
“Only God knows,” said Jacinto.
Malcolm Henderson is the author of “Don’t Kill The Cow Too Quick” a book about homesteading in Bocas del Toro.