March 15, 2003: Headlines: COS - Panama: Agriculture: Reforestation: Composting: Ag Weekly: Shani Cummins worked as an agricultural educator in Panama

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Panama: Peace Corps Panama : The Peace Corps in Panama: March 15, 2003: Headlines: COS - Panama: Agriculture: Reforestation: Composting: Ag Weekly: Shani Cummins worked as an agricultural educator in Panama

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Sunday, January 16, 2005 - 3:10 pm: Edit Post

Shani Cummins worked as an agricultural educator in Panama

Shani Cummins worked as an agricultural educator in Panama

Murtaugh farm girl spreads sustainable message

By ViAnn Prestwich

Ag Weekly correspondent

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- Reducing the environmental impact of humans and agricultural endeavors has always been problematic especially when people and animals become congested. Shani Cummins learned, however, that the remotest corners of the world have these same problems.

Cummins, 32, recently returned from a tour with the Peace Corps as an agriculture educator in a secluded corner of Panama. Her home base for two years was El Naranjal, a town of about 150 people. To reach this small community required a 4-1/2 hour bus ride from Panama City, an additional two hours in a four-wheel drive truck, and then a two or three-hour hike depending on how much luggage the traveler decided to carry.

"As they were giving out assignments, they asked if I liked to walk. I didn't know that meant three-hour hikes," Cummins said.

Small and inaccessible though the village was, the population was polluting their own water supply.

"Animals were running all over," she explained, "loose pigs, horses, chickens. Fencing these animals away from the community water sources was difficult because we didn't have proper tools to make durable structures."


One of Cummins' projects was to start a tree nursery. She had school-age children plant and tend young saplings that were eventually planted around water sources.

Reforestation was of particular interest to Cummins who saw the negative effects of the slash-and-burn approach to farming. Every year, trees were destroyed to provide a plot for crop production. Because of erosion and little understanding of sustainable agriculture techniques, the fields were only productive for one year.

"It was a matter of survival," said Cummins who saw first-hand rural poverty and its challenges. "They are just trying to get enough to feed their families. Still, it's a very inefficient way of producing food."

Not only is the deforestation inefficient, but the population is using up the easily accessible locations. They now must travel longer distances to fields.

Cummins explained that before the 1970s most of the indigenous communities in Panama traveled around eating native plants and moving on while the resources renewed themselves. To receive certain social programs such as schools and roads these groups were required to establish permanent settlements.

"In some ways they are poorer now," Cummins said.


Explaining to people with little more than a sixth-grade education why some traditions were impractical was hard for Cummins. She had to be content with small changes. One change she tried hard to effect was a consistent habit of composting.

"We'd use machetes to cut the corn down and add to a compost pile," she said. "We'd add bean pods, horse excrement anything else we could find and let it all compost under a black tarp."

Like most Peace Corps volunteers, Cummins was the only American in her assigned community. She intentionally lived at a standard that didn't set her too far apart from her neighbors. However, Cummins did pay for the materials to have a home built for her. A community get-together erected her a two-room grass hut with a zinc roof. There was no electricity, but hopefully the next Peace Corp volunteer is enjoying the assignment and the home as much as Cummins did.

Back home

Although it's been nearly 15 years since Cummins left the Murtaugh, Idaho, farm where she was raised, she still draws upon her agricultural background and now her Peace Corps experience as she works in various seventh-grade classrooms in Idaho Falls. Not only does she help Spanish-speaking students, but she is often asked to give lectures so students will understand the benefits of such things as live tree barriers, terracing, and other basic land conservation practices.

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Ag Weekly

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Panama; Agriculture; Reforestation; Composting



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