A Hero’s Journey into Panama’s Future of Biocultural Renewal

Nathan Gray | June 8, 2021 | Leave a Comment

The team arriving at the Atlantic coast of Guna Yala at the culmination of the journey

This is the fourth blog in a new blog series by Geoversity

After twenty years of ecological restoration and educational work in Panama, we finally signed a formal agreement with a national government entity. When I shared news of this milestone with one of our former “biocultural leadership” interns she assumed it was with the Ministry of Environment. Nope. Tourism. She thought I was kidding.

I went on to tell her that the Minister of Tourism himself just completed one of our Geoversity expeditions that had him sailing, paddling, mountain biking, trekking, and solo white-water rafting from the country’s southern Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast of Gunayala, an autonomous territory of the country’s indigenous Guna people. “Was that his punishment,” she asked with a laugh, “for promoting skyscraping and beach-hogging hotel development?” No, just the opposite. This was Iván Eskildsen’s much-merited hero’s journey. In an industry long associated with some of the worst forms of economic development, we consider his focus on “heritage-based hospitality” to be one of the most inspired models for sustainable and ecocentric tourism we have ever encountered.

Ivan and ICE biking
Arrival of the Transcontinental Journey group on bikes at Centro Mamoni at the Mamoni Valley Preserve
Children of Guna Yala along the route

President Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo’s appointment of Eskildsen in 2019 to head up the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) came as a surprise. A key spot in the cabinet went to a young person with no political baggage or affiliation. At an early age, with degrees in both Finance and practical formation in Philosophy, Eskildsen started a hotel, residential and commercial real estate complex on the Pacific coast of the Azuero peninsula and other projects that are widely lauded as exemplars of good taste and cultural sensitivity.

Speaking to his wife, the multifaceted artist-at-heart Maria Amelia, I assumed that it was in the world of hospitality that their paths first crossed. I was amused to learn that they met when he was teaching at the New Acropolis, a “School of Philosophy in the Classical Tradition” based in Panama City. She signed up for its course, Practical comparative philosophy of the East and West, a step that would soon lead to their sharing a path of karma yoga with the parenting of a bright and inquisitive girl now seven years old.

Taking the reins at ATP, joined by the talented strategist Dario Jhangimal as his senior advisor and co-author of the new vision for Panama, he took the unusual step of reaching back twenty years into Panama’s past to reprise an ambitious plan for the transformation of the country into a “heritage-powered economy” developed by Dr. Hana Ayala, then on the faculty of the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine and the founder of Pangea World an NGO dedicated to research and planning for economic development respectful of cultural and ecological heritage. Dr. Ayala’s original brief for a national “Tourism Conservation Research (TCR) economic development model” excited international attention and moved architect Frank Gehry to design the world’s first museum of biodiversity on the waterfront at the Pacific entrance to the inter-oceanic canal in Panama City. Ultimately, however, it failed to get traction with a government in the throes of assuming control of the canal and major U.S. military installations. For Eskildsen, coming upon Dr. Ayala’s plan so many years later, it felt as if he had made an extraordinary archaeological discovery: a blueprint for all that he dreamed of accomplishing for his country in his lifetime.

After taking office, he invited Dr. Hana Ayala to return to Panama to assist a team of public and private sector leaders in tackling anew her detailed plan to weave economic development, particularly the hospitality and tourism industry, with frontier scientific research and nationwide natural and cultural conservation. She did so in February 2020. We at Geoversity were delighted! The TCR model, with its “heritage routes strategy” fits perfectly with our mission of leadership for biocultural renewal.

In September of 2020, The Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) announced the national assembly’s unanimous approval of its Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism 2020-2025 by the National Tourism Council, the main public-private body for the management of the tourism sector in Panama.

Dr. Ayala’s updated TCR Heritage Routes strategy now features three focus areas: Cultural Heritage, Green Heritage, and Blue Heritage. Comprised of 19 circuits that tell the stories of Panama, the plan was developed with thorough analysis and research conducted in multiple workshops with the help of local and international consultants, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), the academic team of the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, the Ministries of Environment and Culture, the Panamanian travel industry, Geoversity, and other key organizations.

Will Panama’s leaders finally succeed in making Dr. Ayala’s vision a reality? In this post-COVID era when civilization is confronting the greatest threats we’ve ever faced, the challenges are myriad.

Portage at Cangandí Falls, Guna Yala
river descent_
Descending the Cangandi River, Guna Yala

We’re banking on Eskildsen and his circle of creatives. Having just shared a life-changing journey across Panama with him, we gained an insight into his character. It was on the morning following three days of hard biking and hiking that we paused on the northern edge of our 12,800-acre Mamoní Valley Preserve – at an opening on the ridge with a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean in the far distance. We were standing on the Continental Divide that defines the inland border between the Mamoni Valley Preserve and Guna Yala.

Micaela Iron Shell-Dominguez and Iniquilipi Chiari leading a blessing at the Continental Divide

There the young Lakota leader Micaela Iron Shell-Dominguez, a co-founder of Geoversity’s School of Biocultural Leadership, led the group of explorers in a traditional blessing. She spoke from the heart of her profound gratefulness to the Mother for her gifts of pure water and life. As she went on to cleanse us with the smoke of burning sweetgrass, the founder of the Guna Youth Congress, Iniquilipi Chiari, welcomed us into the territory his ancestors fought to create and that his peers are determined to protect. Evoking the warrior spirits, he readied us for the descent down the sacred Río Cangandí to the sea.

When it came time for the Minister of Tourism to speak, he stood silently for several minutes. He was overcome with emotion. “I think it’ll take some practice for me,” he said, smiling and with tears in his eyes, “to express what I’m feeling here in this sacred spot”. At that moment, we knew he was made of the right stuff. And, soon, we were off on our great journey.

“Panama supports Geoversity's Vision of Panama as a home to the Biocultural Renaissance. Throughout our history, the Isthmus of Panama has served as a natural crossroads, driving transformation in: the world climate when the Isthmus emerged, the biodiversity of the Americas allowing animal species to transit serving as a land bridge, and the world economy serving as a bridge for world commercial routes. During these critical times, we are getting ready to, once again, be at the epicenter of a global transformation, empowering young, multiethnic, resilient leaders.”

Iván Eskildsen, Minister of Tourism, Panama

Minister Eskildsen’s Keynote at the 2021 World Travel & Tourism Council’s Global Summit.

Nathan Gray is Co-Founder and President of the  Geoversity Foundation www.Geoversity.org 

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.