World population reached three billion people in 1960, four billion in 1974 and now has soared to almost 8 billion. Pressure on resources continues to grow. How can we manage tropical landscapes to optimize water supplies, remove carbon that causes global warming from the atmosphere and conserve biodiversity? In 2007, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) established the largest experiment of its kind—the Agua Salud Project in the Panama Canal Watershed—to answer these three questions.
Thanks to generous contributors and partners, STRI already provides high-quality scientific information to investors, conservationists and policymakers about best practices for tropical land use management.
The Agua Salud experiment has already revealed that several native tree species are better adapted to growing in the poor soils of central Panama than teak and may command higher market values. Project hydrologists showed that forested soils act as a sponge, enhancing dry season flow and reducing runoff that could not only damage Canal infrastructure during storms in Panama, but is also relevant throughout mountainous areas across the tropics. This is particularly important as severe weather events such as super storms and droughts become more frequent in the coming decades as climate change models predict. The project also authored handbooks with specific guidelines for growing native tree species—relevant to everyone from families who want to plant trees around their houses to large-scale reforestation businesses.
But how best to guarantee that this information makes it into the hands of people who need it? How can researchers ensure that the public understands the contribution of science as we shape a sustainable future?
Changing the Conversation:
In addition to developing a 3,000 square foot exhibit for a Smithsonian Affiliate, the Canal Museum (MUCI) in Panama, this year the STRI communications group teamed up with the Agua Salud staff to create a new video narrated by Hillary Hughes in both English and Spanish, aimed at helping our audiences in Panama and abroad to better understand the experiment and how it relates to their lives. Smithsonian Affiliates plans to make the videos available to other museums and partners.
Sustaining Earth Optimism through Key Lessons Learned:
The videos emphasize the importance of understanding Working Land and Seascapes, a key strategic area identified by the Smithsonian’s Conservation Commons. They premiered on April 21st during a live STRI/Earth Optimism chat between STRI Interim Director, Oris Sanjur; Agua Salud director, Jefferson Hall; post-doctoral fellow Katherine Sinacore and graduate student, Edwin Garcia, who shared their insights and answered questions. Visit our website to see the webinar (posted during the week of April 26) and find out more about what we're doing to inform tropical conservation efforts through research.