The right path that has no end
It is believed that the only thing that exists at the end of the longest of roads is desolation and oblivion. But, from Panama City, one need only take the wheel and head toward some 270 kilometers of paved road to the east, to be amazed at how roads multiply, people open their arms wider, and opportunities grow in fertile soil. Beatriz Schmitt is convinced of this, because she left for the land that is feared by the most cautious of people and came back to the city in love, hopeful, and focused on making Darién the place where people are not afraid to go to work.
Beatriz Schmitt is the national coordinator of the Small Grants Program (SGP) of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) coordinated by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). All pomp and circumstance of the acronyms aside, Beatriz is the good stepmother of at least 170 projects backed by the GEF which has paid out $3.7 million in the country since 2006, addressing issues related to the preservation of landscapes and coastlines, responsible agroecology, low-carbon emission power sources, and the environmental handling of chemical products and hazardous waste. Among the requirements she asks for those who want to apply for funding, she has them fill out a form and provide an answer to the question “what is your dream?”
In the province where FM radio waves don’t work, she and her team did podcasts with local voices, taking messages of preservation to play in the frequencies that travel in Whatsapp chains; in the culture where gender roles are more deeply rooted, they supported Emberá women in farming and processing borojó to produce and sell wine and jam in larger nearby towns; and in the land where heat is referred to as “water sun,” 22% of people have no access to drinking water…and that is where they have managed to have Wounaan artisan women set up rainwater collection and care systems with filters in their homes.
Beatriz and her team travel to the deepest corners of the jungle to help people who, in her own words, “want to help themselves.” But that journey is not limited to the last few years, or to the “distant Darién.” Ever since she left the School of Journalism in Colombia, her love of free and open spaces was described by her editors (and the circumstances) as “war reporting.” Later, in the early 1990’s, she was part of those who informed the world about the disarmament of the M-19 insurgent group. But avoiding violence and politics, she moved on to specializing in environmental and scientific topics and finally coming back to Panama (after working for the Bogota Mayor’s Office in environmental education projects with Antanas Mockus) and being part of projects of the Spanish Cooperation, the Office of the First Lady of Panama, the Albatross Foundation, and USAID, among others.
“I think that alternating between NGOs and international organizations has been important. In the former you develop the persistence, the will, and the creativity; while in the latter you acquire the context: these give you the woods, and if you don’t get lost dreaming about the woods, you keep working for the tree,” the Spanish-born explains. “I think the work at UNDP has the best of both worlds. I can keep working with people in the field, having the creativity, the will, and the persistence to work and achieve the changes, but at the same time I can see the context of things that happen and therefore obtain the mid-term and long-term funding for those actions to have an impact and move forward. That is why I like this job so much and I take care of it,” she adds.
She describes her work among anecdotes and laughter. She points to her gut as the birthplace of the projects she finances and she excitedly drills into her chest to signal where they must grow, but she takes it very seriously when she explains everything that sustainability entails. Especially in the land where those who blazed the trail with cutarras and machetes a few years ago don’t want that future for their children; where you find nationwide polls where their names are the main ones omitted; where those who want to better themselves must comply with the bureaucratic paperwork of the capitals and they don’t even have an electricity or water bill. Beatriz vents: “The government is very important. The less private investment and social fabric you have, the more important state workers become. For better or for worse. We need to help civil society grow so that it doesn’t depend solely on the government, so they stop the ‘I put a hand in and I complain’ activity.
She resumes the topic: “The first challenge of sustainability that we face is not creating initiatives but supporting and strengthening things that are already taking place. When there are organizations that come from abroad, we demand that they have a community counterpart, which is the one that ends up with the training. There always has to be horizontal management. NGOs have to understand that “that other one” is not your beneficiary but rather your partner. If it is not your partner, the project won’t move forward. People not only want to be trained by others, they want to do things jointly and to have tangible projects as a result. With that idea, we make the businessman, the public worker, or the consultant sit down and talk to them with a sense of familiarity. This strengthens people so they can be better administrators of their own future.”
For this interview, Beatriz took a break in the middle of the admissions process for new projects, which is at its peak. She takes her cellphone and shows the application form written by an indigenous woman who sent it via Whatsapp. “You can almost see the plate of food in the picture!” merging in a single laughter both uproar and tenderness. “I don’t see the end of this. My work is generally taking two steps forward and one step back (…) with persistence and focus I lose sight of the end. The truth is, I am lucky enough to only deal with people who have positive ideas. Have you seen the characters in our Newsletter? How can you not fall in love with Darién?”