Bocas del Toro Hope Spot: How an Island Chain in Panama's Efforts to Promote Ocean Health Have Been Recognized

Boats at the Starfish Beach, archipelago Bocas del Toro, Panama
Boats at the Starfish Beach, archipelago Bocas del Toro, Panama | © Dmitry Burlakov / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Jenn Parker
29 June 2020

Bocas del Toro, an archipelago in Panama, has been designated a Hope Spot, recognizing the islands’ importance to the health of the ocean and empowering its community to help protect their environment. Culture Trip discovers how it was nominated, and the work the islanders are doing to support their ecosystems.

The earth is burning up, average sea temperature and water levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, sharks are disappearing, mangrove forests are being replaced by residences and many coastal communities are at risk of collapsing economically and literally into the ocean. But it’s not all doom and gloom. One island chain in Panama is a shining example of what hope, hard work and a lot of helping hands can accomplish to help safeguard the environment for future generations.

An archipelago acts in the nick of time

Within eyesight of the mainland, Bocas del Toro is a tropical archipelago of nine main islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Swirls of turquoise and deep aquamarine ocean hug mangrove-fringed rainforest islands where an eclectic mix of cultures and an astonishing diversity of wildlife peacefully coexist.

But while Bocas del Toro might look like a utopia, sadly, like the rest of the world, it is not safe from the effects of climate change, ocean acidification, agricultural runoff, human-made pollutants, corruption and the wear and tear of an ever-expanding tourism industry.

Fortunately, though, several members of the local community had the foresight to act quickly to change the course of Bocas del Toro’s future.

A significant proportion – estimates say 95 percent – of the local economy in Bocas del Toro is reliant on tourism. One of the major draws is diving. But the allure of pristine unpopulated beaches, dense animal-filled forests, a wonderful and welcoming local community and Caribbean island vibes attract more and more people every year.

The tourism boom, which began in the 1990s, happened particularly hard in Bocas del Toro, and the rapid development of tourism infrastructure and influx of people certainly had – and continues to have – an impact on the land and ocean ecosystems. Left unchecked, as can be observed in many coastal communities around the world these days, rampant tourism and the unceasing exploitation of the natural environment can cause a wave of destruction. This wave can ultimately lead to the collapse of the local economy and in turn the local community.

Luckily, in Bocas del Toro, action was taken before the damage had been taken too far.

A new hope: Bocas del Toro Hope Spot

In December 2019, Bocas del Toro was designated as a Hope Spot, and in February 2020, the Bocas del Toro Hope Spot was officially declared. This announcement was celebrated by the islanders.

To understand what a Hope Spot is, it’s important to take a decade-long step back. In her 2009 TED talk, Dr Sylvia Earle, the founder of Mission Blue, introduced the concept of Hope Spots. “Hope Spots are special places that are critical to the health of the ocean – earth’s blue heart. Hope Spots are about recognizing, empowering and supporting individuals and communities around the world in their efforts to protect the ocean.”

Anyone can nominate a Hope Spot, which are designated based on the following criteria set by Mission Blue:

  • A special abundance or diversity of species
  • Particular populations of rare, threatened or endemic species
  • A site with potential to reverse damage from negative human impact
  • The presence of natural processes, such as a major migration corridor
  • Significant historical, cultural or spiritual values
  • Particular economic importance to the community

Mission Blue’s goal is to have 30 percent of the ocean protected by 2030. In 2009, when the initiative started, only 1 percent of the ocean was safeguarded. As of 2016, that number had risen to 4 percent, which now includes more than 100 Hope Spots. The organization has a long way to go to accomplish that 30 percent goal, but the future of our planet and our species directly depends on that goal being reached.

The Bocas del Toro Hope Spot Coalition was assembled in 2019 to tackle the nomination process and put into place a plan complete with tangible goals.

Krista Shoe, Hope Spot champion and manager of nursery operations for Caribbean Coral Restoration, says, “What’s so great about the concept of Hope Spot is it’s a grassroots effort. It’s recognizing that trying to get laws passed and go through the proper channels takes too long. If we gather together, become ambassadors for the ocean, and come up with and implement goals for ourselves to improve our community, change can actually happen quickly.”

The coalition realized that if it wanted to see change, it would have to create change and inspire others to follow their lead. The change also needed to happen quickly, with the effects of greenhouse gases already impacting the environment. To this end, the Bocas del Toro Hope Spot Coalition set in motion four attainable goals to kickstart an eternal dedication to maintaining Bocas del Toro as a safeguarded Hope Spot.

Putting words into actions above, below and by the sea

The first four goals are focused on coral restoration (growing coral and creating artificial reefs), mangrove reforestation, environmental and ecotourism education for children, boat drivers and tourism providers and a collaboration with local park rangers to help monitor the reefs and mangroves in the marine-protected areas.

These goals are all interconnected and reliant on each one being implemented and achieved – the same way that everything in the natural world is interconnected and reliant on its surroundings.

Resident lecturer in tropical coastal ecology at the School for Field Studies and coalition member Carolyn Kovacs has spent a significant amount of time snorkeling and studying both the reefs and mangrove ecosystems of Bocas del Toro. She has seen first-hand the tragic effects of sea temperature rising and a century of intensive fishing and sedimentation due to the agricultural runoff from the nearby mainland banana plantations.

She exudes hope, though, as she describes some of the healthier patches of reefs and the colorful and charismatic sea creatures that thrive there. She also shares that some of the researchers from Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) recently discovered coral growing in the red mangrove forests, which has only been observed in a few other places around the globe.

Carolyn shares that the underwater mangrove ecosystem in Bocas del Toro is some of the most vibrant she’s ever seen. There are more than 120 species of sponges that present themselves in every color of the rainbow, starfish galore, seahorses and a kaleidoscopic collection of little fish, many of which depend on the mangroves as their nursery grounds.

Carolyn and the School for Field Studies center director, Dr Cinda Scott greatly contributed to the biological and social science information that was needed during the Hope Spot application process. Now, SFS is working directly with the education-focused goal, which includes teaching marine science classes organized by local NGO Give and Surf, creating educational material and presenting information on the best environmental practices to the islands’ boat drivers and tour guides.

Additionally, the Panama tourism board has asked Cinda for science-based material for creating a training course and certification program for tour guides in Bocas.

Cooperation conquers all

The Bocas del Toro Hope Spot Coalition works well together because it’s made up of people with different strengths who can contribute to the collective goals. It’s a micro-community of like-minded and proactive individuals who have taken it upon themselves, with support from the local and international community, to stop waiting for the right things to happen.

The future of our oceans is precarious. Humans are the heaviest weight on the scale, and to avoid tipping into the point of no return, we must band together and make the right changes happen as soon as possible. For some of us, the ocean is our sanctuary, but the ocean plays a significant role in the lives of everyone on the planet.

If there is one thing to take away from the work that has been done to protect the environment on Bocas del Toro, it’s that when people and communities work together, positive change can happen, and can happen quickly. Time is certainly of the essence now.

The motto attached to the Bocas del Toro Hope Spot and coalition is Sin el mar, no hay Bocas (No ocean, no Bocas). Let’s not forget, without the sea, there is no you and me.

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