Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I want to give everyone a little update on my projects. As I’ve already explained, I’m both a graduate student responsible for conducting research for my thesis and a Peace Corps volunteer responsible for development work in my community. My graduate work consists of seismology research on Panama’s highest point, Volcan Baru, while my Peace Corps project (at least for the moment) is a latrine construction project in my community. Both projects are progressing just fine, despite minor hiccups here and there so it’s time to let you all know how things are going (especially since some people have been asking when and where they might be able to donate to the latrine project).
So we’ll start with the latrine project. During the first few months of my time in Pena Blanca, I held some community meetings asking what strengths, weaknesses and needs the community felt they had. Obviously, the weaknesses were easy to compile. We're all human and if we've ever been accused of having a strength, its complaining. I got answers like, “the road is in bad shape,” “nobody wants to work together,” “there's no cell phone signal,” “we don't have latrines,” and “we don't have water”. Just a hint: “nobody wants to work together” is the real key to most of the weaknesses. The strengths of the community were a little tougher to get at. When I asked, the people at the meeting just sat with bowed heads, scared that if they made eye contact I'd ask them directly. But with a little bit of prompting we got to, “we have lots of water”, “we have a health post”, “we have a school”, “we have a road”, etc...(Just as an aside there is more water in Pena Blanca than in most every other Peace Corps site in the comarca, the water system just doesn't serve everyone). Lastly I asked, if they had the choice, what sort of project would they like to undertake. I got some requests for fixing the road or bringing in cell phone signal but the nearly unanimous priority was latrines.
This is from way back in August. Just so you get an idea of what my meetings usually look like.

So that's the background story. In preparing and planning I had to try to create some sort of organizational scheme. I had already visited all the houses in the community (something like 69 'households' but they all include multiple structures) so I just assigned each a number and made a list. I tried to cross-reference this list with my host mom and some neighbors to see if everyone in the community was included. They said 'yes' (I'm pretty sure some got left out, but those people let me know soon enough). In any case, next to each name was a row of boxes that each family needed to check to participate in the project.
The requirements are as follows:
  1. Attend each of the 2 mandatory talks I gave. The first was on general sanitation and dealt with how diseases are spread through daily activities as well as how to limit their spread by doing things as simple as hand washing (remember that basic, quality education is a right to which these people have never really had access). The second talk was more of a training on how to construct the pad for the latrine. For the most part, the men in the community have at least a basic knowledge of working with cement (although they seem to be of the opinion that more water and more cement always make a better mix...) so they were fairly attentive and seemed to grasp the ideas I was presenting. We also talked a little about maintenance which really just means making sure the hole is closed so nothing gets in and maybe tossing a little ash from the cook fire in to keep the smell down.
  2. Each family must make a 5 dollar deposit to be considered part of the project. The idea is that 5 dollars will provide some sort of incentive to finish the latrine at which point I will return the deposit. I'm not entirely sure if 5 dollars is enough of an incentive for some of the 'wealthier' families, but I think it works for the really very poor families who neither view it as too much money, nor see it as an insignificant sum.
  3. Each family is responsible for bringing all of the materials which are readily available to the work site. This includes wood, gravel and water.
  4. Each family must dig their own hole to the specifications outlined during the meetings (1x1x~3 meters and away from water sources and houses).
  5. If they so choose, they can pay 10 dollars towards the cost of corrugated metal roofing material. If they do, I will buy the rest.
  6. Each family must sign a contract stating the above rules and repercussions of not complying (they lose the deposit and they do not receive their latrine).
At the time of writing we've done the two meetings and collected all of the money (there still remain some individuals that owe me but I think they'll come through). The final tally comes out to just over 70 latrines with just over 50 of these families having bought their share of the metal roofing. I'm currently in the process of typing up the proposals and I should have them turned in by mid-May. The total cost of the project will come out between 4500 and 5000 dollars depending upon how I work out the transportation (it takes 2-3 hours to get from the hardware stores to my house in a pickup truck, on a good day, so transport is always tricky).
This is where you guys can help. Peace Corps has a 'grant' called the PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program) which is really just a page on a Peace Corps website which allows people to donate to any Peace Corps project on earth. Once I get my proposal in and approved, my project will have one of those pages and you all can feel free to donate. I'll post the link on this blog as well as facebook, probably, as soon as the site is up.
2 hours of these shenanigans to get materials in (or get Chet out)...

Alright, so I'll transition to my volcano seismology project now. I've talked very little about it in this blog so I'll start from the beginning.
When I learned that I was coming to Panama, my adviser got a hold of a couple of contacts he had here who own a private geophysics firm called OSOP. OSOP is based in the town of Volcan on the flanks of Volcan Baru, Panamas highest point which is also a volcano, and work in the manufacture of seismic instrumentation, training in and installation of automatic analysis software and much more. Check them out at We didn't really know much about the area nor what I might be able to do for thesis research but my adviser's contacts paid off as the owners, Angel and Branden, were more than happy to give me a hand. Thus began a series of visits to Volcan to meet with the OSOP staff and brainstorm ideas for what we might be able to do to as research.
Ok so, Volcan Baru. It tops out at 3,474m (11,398 ft) sits at the far western end of the country. The surrounding areas are known as the 'tierras altas' (highlands) and are home to some of the more beautiful corners of Panama. The temperatures are usually cool and pleasant year round, thus some of the worlds best coffee is grown here. The scenery and temperatures also make this a haven for American and European expats looking for foreign living and lower prices. As a volcano, Baru isn't as active as many of it's Latin American cousins. However, and this is important to my study, although there are no explosions or lava flows, there are still frequent earthquakes at Baru. In May of 2006 the areas around the volcano were hit by what is often called a 'swarm', a concentration of earthquakes in a given location over the span of a couple of days or weeks. This swarm scared the local population and convinced the government (through the University of Panama and other organizations) into funding a full-time seismic monitoring network for the volcano. They essentially contracted OSOP to set up and maintain the network. Unfortunately, even though there are still frequent small earthquakes in the area, the funding dried up in a couple of years (quite typical in the developing world) and the network fell into disuse and disrepair. For the last 4-5 years, then, there has been little to no monitoring of the volcano at all, and that leaves some questions unanswered, specifically, is the volcano showing signs of activity and what is causing the earthquakes? So my project, at the moment, is to reestablish some sort of network on the volcano.
My adviser, Greg, and I. Doing seismology with some friends in Boquete.

Recently, just prior to my adviser Greg's visit, Angel and Branden decided that it would be in everyone's best interest for them to donate 8 newly completed sensors (designed and built in their building in Volcan) to my project. So over the last month my time spent in Volcan and Boquete has been spent developing locations for these sensors and installing them. Right now I've got 4 stations placed and collecting data and am working on developing locations for the other 4. The hope is that we can get some sort of idea as to what's causing the small to medium sized earthquakes which occur frequently around the volcano and maybe say something about the state of activity of the volcano. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome information. Thanks for the update. Can't wait to help out what a great experience. So proud of you. Keep up the great work
    Love Mom and Dad