January trip

We’re happy to report that our January visit to Panama was successful, and lacked any (major) accidents. The main purpose of this trip was to introduce two members of our Advisory Board to Planting Empowerment’s work on the local level.

I flew down with one of Planting Empowerment's advisors, Grace Goodell. As a distinguished anthropologist and one of our earliest advocates, Grace brings years of experience to the business, providing guidance on everything from our social and environmental programs to the best channels to offer our investment products.

The trip got off to a rocky start. Flying out of DC, our plane sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes due to “traffic control” issues somewhere in New York. The pilots then realized that we burned a lot of fuel during those 20 minutes, and should refuel before setting out for Miami. With only a 45 minute layover in Miami, our chances of making the connecting flight to Panama City were washed. However, a 15 minute phone call later, the nice folks at American Airlines (disclosure: I’m an AAdvantage member) had comp’d us tickets through another carrier later in the afternoon.

We arrived to Panama City around 9:30PM, headed to the Budget counter to pick up our Toyota Yaris, and after some haggling over insurance coverage were on our way into the city. We met up with Chris at the Hotel Venezia and had a late dinner along with some well deserved beers.

The next morning Grace, Chris and I met up with some UNDP (United Nations Development Program) personnel who had heard of our work and wanted to see it for themselves. One was working on creating partnerships with large multinational companies to develop more sustainable sourcing practices, and another had significant experience in carbon markets. On the way out to Darien we discussed Planting Empowerment’s work, development issues, and the broad movement towards environmental sustainability.

We arrived to Nuevo Paraiso around 1pm, and met up with our Field Superviso Liriano Opua and intern Javier Solis. We headed to the Friends and Family plantation to survey the trees and take in the view of the Congo River Valley. The trees for the most part look good, although we lost a couple to the gallina ciega (blind hen) pest, which eats circumferentially into the tree trunk until it simply falls over.

Fortunately this is not a rampant disease, and the losses fall within the projected "thinning" schedule.
Deciding that we weren't sufficiently "roughing it", Grace took an accidental detour into the underbrush, narrowly avoiding some broken bones. After successfully making it out, we headed to the Adelante plantation to tour the younger trees which are demonstrating tremendous growth. As the tropical sun descended, the team drove to Santa Fe to spend the night.

The next day we visited Arimae to hear leader Elivardo Membache explain the struggles Arimae is experiencing with illegal loggers and squatters, and to check out the cocobolo and cacao plantation planted through funding from the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Program.

That night, after arriving one hubcap short back to Panama City, we picked up Ned Symes at the airport and got caught up over dinner. Ned has over 25 years experience in the affordable housing industry, and is the co-founder Quadel Consulting. During his brief tenure on the Planting Empowerment Advisory Board, Ned has been helping us think through our business model and investment products. Ned brainstormed with us about how to quantifiably compare the amount of biodiversity  found in our plantations against the very limited biodiversity found in the monoculture teak plantations. Ned and Grace both left after stopping to purchase some of Panama's great rum and a souvenir hammock for the backyard.

Our last visitor was Scott Budde, Managing Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for the academic pension giant TIAA-CREF. He was interested in learning about our operational model and exploring how TIAA-CREF could possibly develop some minimum social and environmental standards for their timber investments. TIAA-CREF is one of the biggest timber and agriculture land owners in the country, so demonstrating to Scott how the PE model functions could  potentially influence how they manage their significant holdings. Although we managed to disturb a nest of ground wasps, which mercilessly attacked him, he came away impressed.

And of course, we were excited to see our old communities--now partners--and connect our visitors to the business that they've helped to shape. We're looking forward to implementing their suggestions, and continuing to expand our reach in 2011.

Check out photos from the trip.