Changing economic paradigms in the Darien Rainforest

In favor of the natives - In favor of the natural environment


The Pajaro Jai Project is a unique indigenous-driven solution for rainforest preservation based on market forces rather than altruism. It is a remarkable effort which involves among other elements a world odyssey aboard the beautiful native-built ocean cruising yacht Pajaro Jai whose mission is to create direct markets for high-end products in agriculture, micro industry and tourism. The Pajaro Jai Project has already created some very interesting and dramatically profitable options for the natives.
And after many years of relatively fruitless effort by the international community to slow rainforest destruction, the indigenous solution to this problem, growing as it does from the earth and from personal and cultural experience is like a breath of fresh air. It may well provide a model to be emulated elsewhere.
The project capitalizes on the fact that that a monumental market opportunity grows from the catastrophic worldwide destruction of rainforest.
Scientists tell us that increasing volumes of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere in large part result from the destruction of the world´s rainforests. Even with many thousands struggling to stop that destruction the problem only grows worse – we lose 1.5 acres a second, an area the size of the entire Darien Rainforest every four weeks.
It is precisely the urgency of the problem which opens the door to one of the greatest opportunities of the century for those who can create truly effective solutions.
For many years The Pájaro Jái Foundation has observed first-hand the changes in Darien ecosystems and in the local society and pondered solutions. In alliance with the natives of the Darien, the foundation has created the Pajaro Jai Project (PJP) to create paradigms which gradually reverse the destructive trend in the Darien and economically benefit the local population at the same time.
An important underlying principal is that any solution for a problem so large and so intertwined with the activities of humanity cannot be solved outside those activities and that real success cannot be had without taking advantage of the most powerful motivator in the human psyche: greed. For a problem of this magnitude, altruism just won’t cut it.
The project has come up with some paradigms that promise to multiply the earning power per hectare of the Darien by 5,000% to 10,000%, and individual earning power by up to 25,000%. At the same time these paradigms will reduce rainforest destruction by a factor of 95% or better.
Impossible you say?

Socio-economic Paradigms

During the 20th century in a world that became physically and electronically more interconnected daily, it became increasingly obvious that we were all sitting in the same global lifeboat and that those that could should work to resolve instability and to improve the lives of the have nots, not only for humanitarian reasons but also to keep the boat stable and afloat. Today´s climate crisis only make this more obvious since rainforest destruction is intimately linked with elevated global temperatures.
There have been spectacular successes of the haves helping the have not´s in the past: the Marshal Plan, the Peace Corps, microfinance and many others, but helping others has always been a tricky proposition laced with unintended consequences and sometimes resulting in crippling dependencies. Recent evaluations by the United Nations conclude that many of the world´s famines impact inflated populations living in marginal areas whose continuance in those locations has been enabled by international rescue operations of the past.
One major element of international aid has been the creation of infrastructure, the idea being that if we build the infrastructure, the local society will do the rest. But what exactly is this¨rest?  Can we be certain that good will result? 
In the Darien rainforest of Panama at least, the net effect of the implementation of infrastructure during the last forty years seems to be an amplification of the problems of the past - poverty, rainforest destruction and conflict. We need to do better.
We need to pay much more attention to the larger socio-economic paradigms that evolve after the implementation of new infrastructure because we are spending billions without gaining particularly healthy results. The effort will be worth the cost which needn´t be much – after all, wisdom needs to be the major ingredient.
That´s what the Pajaro Jai Project is all about - looking for better combinations of developmental ingredients which include besides infrastructure, people, natural resources, culture, technologies, world events, etc. The goal is to tune the socio-economic paradigm for maximum positive yield and minimum destructive environmental impact.

Passive Paradigms:

For the past forty years the economic paradigms in the Darien have not favored the people who live there. Furthermore they have had the effect of damaging 40% of the rainforest. Some examples:

The Crafts Trap:

There has been much emphasis on the talent of the indigenous groups in the Darien, on their ability to produce beautiful baskets and carvings, and on the need to develop markets for those crafts. Unfortunately the earning capacity of a single individual working crafts doesn’t provide a healthy living. A woman working for an entire year produces a basket (photo) with a value of about $1,000. Without some other element, this is a recipe for poverty, one which assures the continuing survival necessity of slash and burn agriculture.


This is again a much touted future base for the people of the Darien but the tourists that arrive in the indigenous village of Mogue pay between $5 and $8 per person to enter the village and enjoy the participation of 60 or more Emberá. Half a dozen tourists might thus pay $30 for the lost day’s work of 60 or more individuals: that’s 50 cents per day per individual. Two to 10 visitors per week is the norm though on rare occasions they have had up to 100 visitors. In a year the village earns between $5.000 and $10,000 or between $10 and $20 per inhabitant per year (pop. 500). The real winner in this business is the package organizer who charges a gross $2-3,000 per tourist for a package whose highlight is the trip to Mogue.

Cattle Farming:

According to the most successful cattle farmer in Quintin (a cattle culture village near Mogue inhabited by pioneers from the interior provences of Panama) twenty hectares (48 acres) will support 20 cows over time.   Of these, on average, five can be sold annually resulting at current prices in receipts of $2.500 per year.   With modern methods it’s possible to triple the yield, but the people of the Darien haven’t reached that level of sophistication. In order to sustain a lower middle class life one needs at least 200 hectares in pasture, but to develop real financial clout 2,000 are necessary, all at the expense of the health of the rainforest (which isn’t the ideal environment for cattle in the first place). In general, this economic path doesn’t enrich the common man in the Darien

Active Paradigms

Above are examples of passive economic paradigms. They are based in common knowledge and minimum risk. They don’t rely on mankind’s ability to seize the initiative, invent better options and create new worlds. 
To generate a strong economic future and at the same time preserve nature’s treasures we must take advantage of the possibilities that sleep in the present, take risks; look for active paradigms. Some examples:

Craft vs. Industry

The chair in the photo was made in a small-scale factory in the United States. The design, the joinery, and the finish are of world class quality. Using small-scale machinery one individual can produce one chair every three days. The world market price of the chair is $2,500. One hundred chairs with a market value of $250,000 can be produced by one individual during the period of time necessary for the production of onebasket – a 25,000% improvement in receipts per man-day.   One can quibble about precise details and precise designs but the overall implications are obvious.

Industry v. Cattle

From one typical hardwood tree in the rainforest it is possible to craft over 100 chairs. Harvesting one or two trees per year from the thousands typically growing on 20 hectares brings income 10,000% greater than that for cattle for the same area - with no damage to the rainforest.  The high quality of the chair means much less damage with far greater profit.

Active Tourism vs. Passive Tourism

The difference between active tourism and passive tourism is in control of the market. If the people of the Darien take responsibility for generating the market and managing the systems supporting that market, their income will rise dramatically, and the profit per customer will go from $5 to over $300. The Project´s first business venture is designed to realize that profit.

Patience Necessary -

Of course changes of this magnitude do not happen overnight, nor can we always expect maximal profits. The point is that within these paradigms exists a potential that doesn´t exist in current paradigms, a potential which if combined with patience, courage, and wisdom will alter in remarkable ways the future of the people and of the natural environment in the Darien.



What do the people of the Darien need beyond what they already have in order to shape active paradigms and create an economically vital future?    Not much – only three items:
  • Belief in themselves
  • Quality training
  • Control of the market
On these three elements we have focused during the last 15 years, and with encouraging results:

Belief in themselves

The Pájaro Jái Project, including the construction of the yacht itself, was designed to help the people of the Darien believe in themselves. The Odyssey that followed reinforced that belief helping to develop more confidence for subsequent stages. The children of Mogue, for example, seeing the courage of their aunts, uncles, fathers, and mothers as they confront the world, understand that they themselves are also capable of great things.


Those who built the Pájaro Jái received a great deal of training in wood-working and cabinetry as well as metal work. During the first leg of the Odyssey they met with experts in many fields, including furniture construction and tourism, who, inspired by their courage and vision, expressed an interest in creating alliances with the people of the Darien.  Top level experts will be hired to share their expertise with the people of the Darien some of whom have already shown great natural talent in many areas.

Market control

The remarkable impact of the Emberá on the press, on TV and radio during the Odyssey of the Pájaro Jái demonstrates the power of the vision and courage of the people of the Darien and the beauty of their work. In three months they generated 40 events in 20 cities resulting in 30 front-page articles. Thousands of enthusiastic individuals came to the yacht to celebrate and to participate. This same magnetism will be used to develop markets for products of the Darien.

Connecting with the World - Kaimókara S.A.

The heart of the message of the Odyssey of the Pájaro Jái connects with the world: There is hope for the future of the planet.  The next stage of the Odyssey will start in the summer of 2016 when the Pájaro Jái and it crew of rainforest natives will launch a six month tour of the west coast of the USA and Canada including press conferences, presentations, negotiations with strategic allies, etc. 

In the summer of 2017 when the Pájaro Jái and it crew of rainforest natives will launch a year long tour of Europe including press conferences, presentations to the legislatures of the countries visited and to the European Common Market explaining the nature of their campaign and suggesting that international aid, much of which tends to undercut the confidence and initiative of poor societies, be structured to reflect the success of the their paradigm which places the need for belief in oneself above the need for infrastructure.
On these Odysseys, the natives will have the proper business vehicle: Kaimókara (the Dream) S.A., and the Pájaro Jái will combine spectacular events with explanations of the native´s model plan to sustain the rainforests.  They will be armed with brochures showcasing the products of the Darien and referencing the web pages necessary to connect clients to the new business.  
The primary business emphasis for this journey will be Tourism.  Citizens of the world show great interests in the Odyssey of the Pájaro Jái, in the courageous natives of the Darién, and in their dream to take better care of the rainforest while creating a healthy economic future.  For this reason we find ourselves holding back a tide of potential business while awaiting the moment when Kaimókara finishes creating the necessary legal and financial basis in Panamá.   To start, the business will be skewed toward large groups because the Pájaro Jái typically supports events for just such groups (conservation societies, activist groups, the United Nations, etc.).  During the 2006 Odyssey approximately $3,000,000 worth of large scale business was discussed and postponed until Kaimókara is ready.
These events are too large to take place in the Darien so we will bring the rainforest to the events which will take place in the large hotels of Panama. Representatives from Mogue and other rainforest villages will journey to the hotels to give talks about their dreams and overall vision for the future, about their innovative reforestation methods (see Self-Propelled Reforestation below) and other themes of interest to the people of the world. They also anticipate the opportunity to give the events the flavor of the rainforest with an indigenous dinner.
In the meantime Kaimókara is a) developing the necessary brochures for visitors to the yacht, b) installing the web page Kaimó, and c) negotiating contracts with the large hotels in Panamá in order to include them in our paradigm. The yacht itself is undergoing maintenance and preparing for a trip to California.

Overall Expectations

During the first phase of the Odyssey we received requests for business involving more than 1000 potential clients for conferences and ecotourism packages. That was without the use of brochures, without a web page and without any clear presentation of the business. We calculate that within five years with the necessary focus and materials, Kaimókara. will generate 10,000 clients annually representing gross receipts of at least $20,000,000 for Panama and $4,000,000 of profit for the Darien to be focused on the development of education, infrastructure, and the creation of other businesses that support the people of the Darien without destroying the rainforest. See Kaimókara for more information. 
Other elements of Kaimókara:

Small Scale Industry in the Darién

The first phase of this project occurred in 1999 with the construction of a model factory and the design and sale of hardwood benches and tables. The phase was intended to help us understand the obstacles to success in materials, design, markets, and workforce, etc. The factory is the same used to build the Pajaro Jai.   We will schedule high quality training in the Darien in 2016. We are building alliances with related businesses in other countries.  We are Integrating the business with our reforestation paradigm.  We expect to begin to ship product in 2018

An Agricultural Possibility

The Domestication of the Agouti Paca (Conejo Pintado in Panama) was proposed and accomplished for the first time in 1990 by Smithsonian’s Doctor Nicholas Smythe. The meat is widely recognized as the most delicious in the rainforest and was sought after by the rulers of Central America for centuries though they never succeeded in comercializing this very aggressive rodent.
Its principle food occurs naturally on the fruit trees in the rainforest and its production would therefore be far less traumatic to the rainforest ecosystem than is cattle production, for example.   Until Doctor Smythe´s involvement, however, a commercial future was viewed as non-viable because of its high investment to income ratio. Doctor Smythe argued that his plan for domestication changes that ratio and opens the possibility for economic viability. See La Domesticacion y cria de la Paca (Agouti paca) Guia FAO Conservación #26 of the Organization of the United Nations for Food and Agriculture.  
Kaimókara´s thoughts on the issue:
  • The meat of the Conejo Pintado will always be much more expensive to produce than pork, for example, and should not be positioned in that or any other high volume market where it cannot compete.
  • It should be commercialized as a luxury item (Russian Caviar, Panamanian shrimp, etc.)
  • Should be advertized as part of a solution to the environmental crisis - which indeed it is, and coupled with one or two yet to be determined complimentary alternatives with more rapid market entries. We are currently investigating various attractive possibilities.
  • Should start small with our program of Indigenous dinners in the hotels of Panama (two years)
  • Should continue with the top restaurants of Panamá, Europe and the United States which will see participation as a market differentiator and a major selling point.
  • Should be promoted during the 2016 and 2017 Odysseys of the Pájaro Jái
  • The goal: a minimum payment to the producer of 10 times the price per pound of beef
  • 100 medium sized top quality restaurants will together consume 26,000 animals per year = $5,200,000 to the Darién. (New York alone has more than 30,000 restaurants)
  • This has the potential to replace cattle as the principal agricultural product of the Darien, generating substantial profit but with far more favorable impact on the rainforest.
  • It is a ten year project with many obstacles, but once in motion it promises to create great economic opportunity in harmony with indigenous society and with the health of the rainforest. It warrants a little risk-taking despite the long timeline.
  • In 2016 two groups in the Darien will start raising Conejos Pintados using the manual produced by Dr. Smythe and working with two associates of the Doctor who continue to support the project. Volunteers will be guaranteed the 10X price per pound return for a minimum of two years.
  • The project will be evaluated periodically and be suspended only if we are convinced by some unforeseen obstacle that it cannot succeed. 

High-End Restaurant

Kaimókara is investigating the possibility of building an elegant restaurant in Panama that offers an authentic indigenous menu. Aside from obvious economic possibilities, it would provide a monument to a rich past while enhancing the image of indigenous people everywhere.   It would be called Kaimókara (The Dream)
  • Bringing the Darién to Panama City
  • Preferably located in Casco Viejo beside the Muelle Fiscal
  • A nearby dock for the Pájaro Jái
  • Elegant and of ultra-high quality
  • With a menu reflecting the food of the Darien, but also offering monthly specials from indigenous peoples around the world. 
  • Exhibiting artifacts from the Darien a well as those from the featured cultures.
  • Indigenous alliances resulting from the Odyssey of the Pájaro Jái.
  • Offering indigenous-run events
  • Focusing on clientele from Europe, North America and Asia

Characteristics of These Solutions

  • Integrated into society, not appended
  • Industry dynamic, not craft dynamic
  • Business based not NGO based
  • Local Ownership
  • Driven by self-interest, not altruism
  • Quality, not quantity
  • Specialized Markets
  • Designed and promoted as part of environmental solution


The objective is to design and build an economic dynamic based on self-interest which drives massive reforestation not as a primary objective of the participants, but as consequence of their activity.
Most world reforestation efforts are fueled by altruism and are implemented via western-style hierarchal business structures. The methods employed for centuries by rainforest natives in contrast, are driven by self-interest and implemented via already existing culturally based activities such as hunting, farming, and recreation, and involving the whole society including men women and children. The shaman Ignacio, who lived most of his life at the headwaters of the Mogue river in the Darién Rainforest, planted his grove of mahogany looking for long-term profit, and he seeded and tended the grove by integrating that activity with already existing elements of his life.
We believe it far less traumatic to integrate reforestation into these structures than to replace these structures with western models.  The goal is economic vitality and cultural integrity but a major consequence designed into the paradigm is inexpensive and massive reforestation.
Darién Rainforest, Republica de Panamá
Emberá and Wounaan Natives of that area. Starting with the inhabitants of Mogue, Puerto Lara, and Manené and gradually extending to the independent villages and reservations (comarcas).
By integrating reforestation activity with profit-making initiatives starting with Indigenous-owned ecotourism and the production and marketing of world-class furniture and other rainforest products.
As these new economic opportunities develop they will be implemented as much as is possible in ways which capitalize on, rather than replace, existing cultural structures.

General Needs:

  • Satellite communication equipment for involved communities.
  • Boats and outboards for transporting people and materials.
  • Small-scale machinery and power supplies suitable for remote locations
  • Simplified reforestation manual for involved communities.
  • Training

Furniture-building needs:

  • Skills acquired by the native population during the construction of the sailing ketch Pájaro Jái.
  • Machinery and equipment used during the construction of the Pájaro Jái enables central factory for assembly
  • Satellite shops in villages provide detail finishing
  • Collaboration with existing designers, builders, retailers and wholesalers worldwide

Ecotourism needs:

  • Accommodations and food for visitors en route and at destinations
  • Experienced guides
  • Proper vaccinations
  • Equipment for emergency use
  • Well structured events and tours

Integrating reforestation with ecotourism and furniture production.

  • Pájaro Jái activity generates demand for rainforest products and ecotourism packages
  • Journeys to participating rainforest villages coordinated to support both initiatives and at the same time integrate reforestation:
  • Transport tourists to and from rainforest villages
  • Transport seedlings to villages
  • Carry furniture blanks to artisans
  • Transport finished work from artisans to assembly location
  • Inspect last planted seedlings
  • Locations for new seedlings decided
  • Pay for prior work
  • Involve tourists in the reforestation process
  • Previously completed work shipped to La Palma for assembly
  • Periodic shipment from La Palma to Panamá
  • Periodic shipment from PRORENA’s seedling farm in Panamá to La Palma
  • Periodic furniture shipment from Panamá to key destinations.
Note: Rainforest replacement cost for individual furniture items and for each eco-tourist will be established with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and PRORENA
Subpages (1): Overview