Photograph By Rebecca Hale
Photograph By Rebecca Hale

Ruth Metzel Has a Secret Weapon to Save an Ecosystem

Metzel’s mission is to preserve an endangered ecosystem in rural Panama. Her key to success? Community outreach.

This story appears in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Ruth Metzel may have figured out a way to save a critically endangered ecosystem: build relationships with the people who live there. For a decade the ecologist has studied tropical dry forests in Panama’s rural Los Santos Province. There, intensive cattle farming reflects the threat to the forests countrywide. Many farmers, proud of their traditions yet aware that land-use techniques need to change, are eager to do something about it.

Metzel co-founded Azuero Earth Project as a way to guide those who lean most heavily on the forest ecosystem toward living more harmoniously with it. “The key,” she says, “is to reach people where they’re at.” Azuero works with cattle ranchers to identify exactly which trees—native and fruit—to plant on their land and where. The new growth helps form a corridor that replenishes the forest and restores habitat for wildlife, especially the critically endangered Azuero spider monkey. With over 5,000 trees planted since 2017, Metzel has high hopes for this approach.

To support Azuero’s mission, Metzel was awarded a National Geographic Society grant to teach Panamanian artisans how to responsibly source the grasses, seeds, and other native materials they use to make crafts. The end goal, says Metzel, is preventing this endangered ecosystem from being degraded any further—and growing it.