When leaders from Panama’s Ella Drua community, Carlos Gil and Isabel Carpio Chami, came all the way to the USAID office in Panama City, we could hardly contain our surprise. They had traveled here to thank us for a project we had recently completed in their community. In tow, they carried a giant hand-woven basket that took five women nearly a year to finish. The fact that they had left their quiet secluded village in the jungle to come into the bustling city truly moved us. Yet ultimately it made us realize there was something remarkably appropriate about the occasion.

Amidst the daily routines that we at USAID have all grown accustomed to, from our desks behind the mountains of work, we sometimes fail to keep in mind the most important results of our work: the benefits that the men, women, and children receive as a result of our long hours. By losing sight of this, it’s also possible to lose the driving inspiration necessary to keep doing what we do.

Community women of Ella Drua. Photo Credit: Fernando Alvarez/USAID

So what we found so striking about this unexpected visit was how it managed to bring everything back full circle. While at one time we at USAID/Panama had reached out to lend a hand to the men, women, and children of Ella Drua, they had now come here to lend a hand to us. To remind us why we do what we do. And whether or not they had intended to do so, by bringing this gift of thanks they put a strong gust of wind into our sails.

As part of a long-term program in Panama Canal Watershed— which not only ensures the wellbeing and smooth operation of the Panama Canal, but also provides the water supply for half of the country’s population— USAID/Panama administered a small grant to the people of Ella Drua to support activities to benefit the area.

The community of Ella Drua, home to an indigenous group called the Emberá-Wounnan, used the grant to support an eco/ethno-tourism project that will give enterprises an alternative to activities such as slash-and-burn agriculture that inflict harm on the watershed.

“Before, the community really didn’t have many sources of income other than small agriculture,” Emberá regional leader Carlos Gil explained in Spanish, a language he speaks in addition to his mother tongue, Emberá. “Now we can care for our local environment and at the same time provide a sustainable future for our children.”

The project also had other positive effects. We saw community women empowered by their new entrepreneurial roles, and we saw youth begin to take pride in their traditional culture. Ella Drua leaders are now planning on sharing their experiences with other communities in the Darién region, which borders Columbia, especially those in which youth are at risk of drug-trafficking.

When we were invited to come to the inauguration of the eco-lodge they had built using the USAID grant money, of course we gladly accepted.

Although it’s only a ten minute boat ride from the main road, the community of Ella Drua is a world away. We arrived at the dock and were greeted by several women wearing vibrant floral skirts, traditional tops fashioned of hundreds of threaded tiny dried seeds called Lágrimas de San Pedro (Tears of Saint Peter), and headbands adorned with hibiscus flowers.

They led us to the Tambo (central pavilion) where they performed traditional music and dances, and gave ceremonial speeches detailing historical accounts of the events that led up to this day. After several more songs, and with music still playing, they led us in a procession from the pavilion to the eco-lodge, where the inauguration ceremony began.

The ceremony is performed for all new structures to ensure that it remains sturdy and will never fall. The men play music with flutes and drums, while the women dance in single file from post to post and bless it as they circle around it.

Through the day, and over a delicious lunch of chicken and patacones (fried platanos) served in rolled up banana leaves, community members continued to thank us for our support. However, it was clear that on this particular day, it was we who were truly thankful.


  • Watch a short clip of the inauguration of the USAID-sponsored eco/ethno-tourism project
  • Read more about this project in USAID’s FrontLines magazine