18 Aug 2016

1,000 [Mahogany Trees] at 65

By: Jorge Ventocilla

I think my devotion to the Gospel and Christian goodness would increase if the holy precept “Love thy neighbor” could be combined with this one:Love the trees

José Carlos Mariátegui

Thank you for your valuable feedback on the July newsletter about the non-preservation of visual- and soundscape in Panama, especially in public transportation. I truly appreciate it and agree on writing about this topic again in the future. However, and for months, I have been wanting to share with you a pleasant experience I had in Veraguas, and tell you the story of an exemplary person.
 
To our readers who may not be familiar with social programs in the country (we certainly have readers in different countries, and we would like to acknowledge them accordingly), I would like to explain that the Panamanian government has a special transfers program for the elderly, administered by the Ministry of Social Development. Through this program, individuals 65 or older are entitled to receive from the government B/.120.00 (the equivalent to US$120.00) per month, provided these individuals are not currently covered by any of the Social Security’s Retirement or Pension Plans, and are living under conditions of social risk, vulnerability, exclusion or poverty.
 
This program is commonly known as “120 a los 65” ( something like “120 at 65”). The title of this newsletter is a paraphrase of the name of this program.
 
I met a gentleman who should be given a national environmental award, or at least some kind of recognition by the Reforestation Association. His name is Filomeno Aguilar (*). He just smiled at me when I mentioned awards and recognitions.
 
Almost every day, starting at 5:30 a.m., Filomeno walks from his home to his property, “Los Espavés”, located along the river (Río Calovébora), in Veraguas. Some friends who live in Santa Fe, Veraguas, had told me about “Don Filomeno” and his mahogany trees, and I wanted to join him on his walk to his plantation. I wanted to hear, directly from him, how did he first had the idea of planting more than a thousand mahogany trees, a species deemed as one of the best timber trees native to Panama. Mahogany is also a threatened and/or endangered species in most of its distribution range in tropical America.
 
- “Let me tell you, it was 1992 when I planted those trees. And I did it thinking ahead about my retirement. You know, since I have no Social Security coverage, I arranged one for myself with my own hands,” this is what Filomeno told me before we arrived to the property.
 
Born in Veraguas in 1942, “a fine year”, as he cheerfully says, Filomeno Aguilar has always being a farmer. Just like his parents and grandparents before him. He married his wife when he was 21 years old and they had 10 children. In 1988 he began working on a portion of the property (“Los Espavés”) and, three years later, he decided to plant mahogany tree seeds near the brook that meanders through his property.
 
He remembers gathering the seeds from one of the few mahogany trees that were still high up in the mountain. On the following rainy season, he planted them and had to trim the grass around them as to avoid them dying by “suffocation”. Then, the trees “started to grow and they themselves did all the work from there.” He planted more than a thousand, but some of them just died. According to his calculations, almost after 25 years, he may now have a thousand mahogany trees growing on his property.
 
It was definitely not an easy task. It was not just throwing seeds to the patio and stand and watch them survive. He had to choose the right seeds. He chose those from the best trees, put them in bags, trying to avoid them getting too much sun or bugs, and watered the seedlings during dry season. We must remember that our dry season is relentless. Once planted, an unattended tree can only thrive if cared for. Therefore, watering on those first dry seasons was crucial.
 
There is always room for learning. “When I first planted them, I did not leave enough space between them. Eventually, I had to dispose of some of them to make space.” He benefitted from the discarded trees, nonetheless. Some of them were sold as post frames for construction.
 
Since there is more to life than work, Filomeno also enjoyed music. His father and his grandfather were good at playing the accordion, and he inherited this talent. Music was not only for enjoyment. “The accordion was the healing balm once I found myself all alone,” he candidly told me.
 
- “I even had to sell the accordion because playing it always involved alcohol in some way. When people came to listen to me playing, they always brought a bottle with them. When there was no accordion, then there was no alcohol…”
 
Filomeno was good at songwriting and composing. Still today, people in the nearby towns remember about his songs.
 
- “Those songs resided in my memory, they were born from there. I have that gift.”
 
That is true. He has a musical talent. And he also has the talent of planting trees. A talent that helps produce oxygen and green marvels for all of us and, why not, a talent that will serve as an insurance for him at old age.
 
A word to the wise (is sufficient). Planting trees in Veraguas, or anywhere else for that matter, is not easy. It demands hard work, care, especially when trees are just starting to grow, and patience. I would say it also requires humility and solidarity, because it could happen that the person who plants the trees does not receive any kind of benefits in the end.
 
Nevertheless, it is possible to make them grow and, fortunately, there is no need to wait hundreds of years in the tropics. I think I have written before about my friend Gregorio Jaramillo Sánchez, “Don Goyo”, from Cerro Teriá, in Capira. He is a gardener and was the first environmental historian of Gamboa, a community located in the area formerly known as the Panama Canal Zone. In 1955, he planted the mahogany trees that grew to be the tallest ones that can be seen currently in this community, right on the corner of Río Chagres and the Canal. When I saw them for the first time, in the 80’s, they were already really tall.
 
Kudos to Don Filomeno, there in “Los Espavés”! It was a real pleasure meeting such a hard-working gentleman and farmer. After learning more about your story of planting mahogany trees for retirement, I must say: I want to be like you when I grow up.
 
(*) Names and locations have been changed at the request of the person interviewed. The author respects this request for anonymity and attests to the veracity of the information contained herein.