A Week in Panama: HII in Latin America for Economic Empowerment Exchange Program

I recently represented Human Impacts Institute in an international program funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Professional Fellows Division. Human Impacts Institute was choses to participate in The Economic Empowerment Program (EEP), administered by the University of Connecticut’s Global Training and Development Institute in collaboration with the University of Peace in Costa Rica. The EEP took professionals in the social entrepreneurship, environmental, community development, and health sectors in the Northeastern United States and countries in Central and South American including Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, and Peru to partake in an NGO job shadowing exchange program. As part of the exchange program my Professional Fellow counterpart, Alberto Pascual, traveled to New York City last April to job shadow Human Impacts Institute (HII). Pascual, who himself works in the field of sustainable and community development, was able to see how HII confronts these issues in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. In August, it was my turn to travel to Alberto’s home of Panama and learn about Panama and how his organization, Fundación Communidad, confronts sustainable and community development in the country. From experiencing the extreme metro center of Panama City to the very rural San Miguel Centro, I left Panama finding it to be a country possessing beautiful landscapes, a rich and complex history, and diverse lifestyles with a push and pull of preserving its historical culture and development.


My first day in Panama City was eye opening. I was exposed to the whole city- from the old, historical areas to the very new and modern. The eldest, most historic area of the city, Casco Viejo, has been in existence since the late 1600’s. Casco Viejo is Spanish for “Old Quarter”. Casco Viejo holds very aged, Spanish influenced architecture and is now considered the artsier, more bohemian area of Panama City. There is also a bit of French influence in as the French Embassy is located in the heart of Casco Viejo. It is a very touristy area of Panama City with its incredibly beautiful views of Panama City, many boutique hotels and restaurants, and long shaded walkway where national handicrafts are sold to visitors. Casco Viejo possesses true charm. It is here that one can truly see the contrast between historic Panama and the strong influences of the U.S., Europe, and Asia with the view of the shiny high rises of Panama City.

The new areas of the city are where you would see the abundance of high rises. While in the center of the city, I remember feeling taken aback at how completely different my premonitions about Panama City were compared to what I was seeing. There is a great deal of influence from all over the world; Italian restaurants, French restaurants, Taco Bells, and malls with Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works, Hello Kitty stores, you name it really. On one hand, the clashing and combining of cultures is great: more economic opportunity for trade and intercultural understanding. On the other, I feel that the international influence resulting from the Panama Canal is threatening Panamanian culture and identity.


After being in the city my first day, it was time to travel to the interior of Panama. Our first stop was El Valle de Anton in the mountains. El Valle is a beautiful little town with one main road where small and locally owned shops and restaurants stand. We took a very short hike just in the area behind our hotel. Beautiful rainforests full of butterflies, rivers, and flora and fauna right outside your back door- not bad, not bad at all! While in El Valle, against beautiful and mountainous scenery, Alberto informed me more about his Professional Fellows Exchange Program project that he has been working on. This amazing project is explained more in depth in the blog “The Cucuà Coffee Project”.


The next morning, we traveled to Penonomé in the Coclé province to get a head start on our travels to the Cucuà Coffee Project. Penonomé, like El Valle de Anton, was a small town. However, unlike El Valle de Anton, Penonomé seemed to have more commercial institutions and travelers going through the town. It was a very rainy day in Penonomé as Alberto further prepared me for the coffee project the next day. The next morning we woke at dawn and traveled up to San Miguel Centro to see The Cucuà Coffee Project. (Further explained in blog “The Cucuà Coffee Project”)

After seeing the coffee project, we traveled back down rough terrain of San Miguel Centro to Penonomé and El Valle and eventually back to Panama City. I experienced a bit of a culture shock returning back to Panama City. Though I was not staying in the center of the city, I did find myself reminiscent of the interior with its natural beauty and terrain. However, my last two days in the city were terrific.


That Thursday was ‘Canal Day’. I learned about the infamous Panama Canal; the hardships, the revelries, and the utter unbelievable human power required to build the incredible canal. I saw the obvious United States influence with housing and neighborhood design in areas surrounding the Canal. North Americans lived in these neighborhoods when the U.S. was in control of the Canal. While at the Panama Canal museum, I was able to see first hand how a ship travels through the Miaflores Locks system. This sight amazed me; manmade power was able to lift and lower a giant ship 16 meters with water from a nearby reservoir. Hundreds of thousands of individuals died from disease while building the Canal as ownership was passed from country to country (France, The U.S. and Panama all included). Today the Canal is in full power of the Panamanian government and serves as the country’s main income.

The next day I met with United States Cultural Aggregates Margarita Pearce and Kathy Guiducci-Ferry at the United States Embassy in Panama. We discussed my experiences, my impressions of Panama, and my main take-aways from the program. It was a wonderful experience to meet with those in government and tell them about my work at Human Impacts Institute, Alberto’s work (Fundación Communidad), and my enriching and enlightening experience in Panama.


On my last day, Alberto and I walked up the steep roads of Ancon (a small town with in Panama City) right in the middle of an extremely humid afternoon. Ancon is a very high hill that has the most amazing views of Panama City- the old and the new parts against the Pacific Ocean. Knowing I was leaving this beautiful, complex country the next day after an amazing week- I savored every moment the view.

The next day we traveled to San Jose, Costa Rica to meet with rest of the Professional Fellows involved with the Economic Exchange Program. The Fellows, University of Connecticut and University of Peace staff associated with the program gathered for two days of workshops and sharing experiences. The workshops and classes were centered on social entrepreneurship, wealth and happiness, and non-profit success stories in Latin America. As a young professional working in community development and interested in a career in food, health, and the environment, I found the subjects of the workshops thought provoking and inspirational. It solidified my dream and passion to work with people, helping them attain a better quality of life, one step at a time. What were more inspirational than the workshops was meeting the other Fellows in the program; hearing about the other Latin American Fellow’s projects and the United States Fellow’s experiences. Each and every person’s work was unique and inspiring. Other Fellows were located in Costa Rica, Peru, Columbia, and another pair in Panama. Some worked with women in Columbia who were abused and displaced, some with communities high in the mountains of Peru helping them attain more nutritional vegetable varieties, some with communities helping them create products out of their crops. All were so inspirational and motivating to me.


I left the Professional Fellows Exchange Program and my time in Panama feeling inspired, motivated, and knowledgeable about my aim with my career and personal goals. Bringing my experiences back to Human Impacts Institute was rewarding. I brought back a new outlook on working with local communities to achieve more sustainable lifestyles for a healthier world, perfectly aligned for HII. I am proud to announce that the University of Connecticut’s Global Training and Development Institute has selected HII for the third time to participate in the exchange program again. Stay tuned to HII’s blog for more international HII experiences from HII Development Manager Tess Clark early next year!

Melanie Griffin, Outreach Coordinator

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