To visit the rainforest of Darién, Panama, is to see Pope Francis’ words on care for creation come to life. There, Maryknoll Sisters Jocelyn “Joji” Fenix and Melinda Roper, Panamanian lay missioner Clara Meza and a team of dedicated Panamanians work to promote a way of life that harmoniously co-exists with the environment and one another.
They run programs that include sustainable living and alternatives to the slash and burn agriculture that has been destroying Darién’s forests for decades. “I think one of the big problems that has caused a lot of destruction in our environment, in God’s creation, is not recognizing that God is really everywhere,” Sister Fenix says. “God is in our fellow human beings, in the animals, in the land. So, how can we help others to stand in awe at the wonder of all creation?”
The missioners practice what they preach. They live in a pastoral center in Santa Fe, Darién, where they use rainwater and solar energy sources, cultivate food at a model farm and preserve the flora and fauna around them.
Calling Laudato Si’, the pope’s encyclical on the environment, “a great affirmation for what we have been attempting to do for the last 30 years,” Sister Roper says that all of us have the responsibility to go beyond environmentalism to integral ecology, which involves our relationship with others, the earth and with God.
Sister Roper started her mission in remote Darién in 1985, after serving as her congregation’s president. “When the Church divided the mission zone, we ended up with no priest in our zone,” she recalls. Sister Roper and other Maryknoll sisters provided pastoral formation in 40 communities, training catechists, encouraging women to become delegates of the word, and, with permission, performing baptisms. In addition to accompanying the people in their faith, the sisters promoted cultural unity among Darién’s indigenous populations, Afro-Panamanians and settlers from other provinces who migrated to the region when the government gave farmers land, starting in the 1970s.
“To be a Darienita is not a question of where you were born,” Sister Roper says. “It’s when your life says, ‘I am part of this land; I am part of this environment; I am part of these people.’ … We realized that until people could stand up and say, ‘Yo soy Darienita’ (I am a Darienite), they would see land as a commodity, not a way of life.”
Sister Fenix, a medical doctor from the Philippines, continues this work and cares for people’s health in Darién. She became “a volunteer ‘ambulance’ driver for people who had no access” to vehicles that could navigate the treacherous road conditions and created new programs empowering women of the region to learn preventive care and alternative medicine.
“Through their interaction with the people, (the sisters) taught us more about God,” says Horacio González, a Panamanian who manages the pastoral center. “We thought God was far away in heaven and not here with us.”
Virginia Girón, a member of the holistic health care group that Sister Fenix founded, agrees. “I thank God that I am able to support others and have learned this from the sisters,” she says.
In the course of their busy healthcare and pastoral work, the sisters have discovered the importance of the forest not only to Panama but as a source of oxygen and a jewel of biodiversity for the whole planet Earth. At the same time, the sisters have witnessed the rapid destruction of the forest due to slash and burn agriculture and logging.
They have worked with the people to find sustainable alternatives to feed their families while protecting the environment, such as composting, crop rotation, use of natural fertilizers and natural herbicides. The missioners are also preserving 80 percent of the pastoral center’s 50 hectares of donated land as secondary rainforest with native plants and animals.
The province of Darién, which borders Colombia, has some of the most diverse and exotic plants and animals due to its location as a “biological corridor” between South America and Central America. However, this bridge of biodiversity is in danger. Panama loses about 20,000 hectares every year to deforestation, according to the National Association for the Conservation of Nature, a Panamanian non-profit organization.
“We hope to be able to rescue that Darién we used to have. We used to call it the ‘green gold province’ because of the vegetation,” says González, as he guides visitors through the forest in the sisters’ backyard, pointing to the different plants and their uses and the center’s project to reforest the area.
At the center’s greenhouse, Marcelina Noriega cultivates plants to reforest a portion of the nearby Sabana River. She explains that planting trees and shrubs on the riverbanks prevents erosion and “gives back to the river that does so much to sustain the life in the area.”
This reforestation is part of ECODIC (Community Team for Integral Christian Development), a program started by the sisters more than 15 years ago. The program—and the cooperative that grew out of it—focuses on cultivating a new relationship between the earth and its inhabitants. Team members, including Noriega, cultivate plants to make into medicinal products such as salves, teas and soaps that can be used to treat arthritis, muscle pain, skin infections and other ailments.
“These are local products that help the sustainability of the forest, but also help to maintain (the people’s) health and well-being” while producing income for their families, Sister Fenix says.
“We are fortunate that people dedicated themselves to these projects and have continued them,” Sister Roper says. “You don’t just go there and preach; you are present, you are working with them trying to develop solutions, work for change,” adds the missioner from Chicago, Ill. “Whether it is relationship with the environment, with the earth or with others, it takes time.”
With the help of local artists, the missioners developed a holistic education program that incorporates faith, art and theater with environmental education for children to see the beauty of the forest and to develop a cultural identity. “We had children who participated here and are now professionals. This program has helped them develop their talents and showed them that by studying, they could go far,” González says.
At the center, local families develop their understanding of caring for the whole community from a Christian perspective that respects the ancestral knowledge of the original peoples of Darién, while sharpening their skills in small project administration, family care and community building. “Let’s preserve the world that God has given us,” says Auristela Hernández, who works with the sisters.
Featured Image: Maryknoll Sister Jocelyn Fenix (c.) and her team pray for the environment at the sisters’ pastoral center in the rainforest of Darién, Panama.