The Upper Mamoní Valley was likely colonized originally by indigenous peoples as far back as 10,000 years ago. Prior to European and mestizo colonization, local Guna, Emberá and countless other tribal groups used the lands, and the area was part of a vibrant trade route. Many of the current footpaths throughout the forests are linked to the Guna transportation networks. A stone axe head was recently found on one of the properties on the east end of the Valley and several local homes proudly show traditional corn grinding stones as antiquities. These are evidence that forests were cleared and that the fluvial soils of the Valley were likely used over millennia for the production of corn, cassava and other staple crops.

Stone axes and fire were preferred methods of clearing, with sites typically cut, burned and worked for a year or two until production dropped off, a practice known as swidden agriculture. The rotating use of the lands in the traditional system created a patchwork of forest in varying stages of succession, and neotropical pollen records in many areas show that the large “primary” late-successional forest associations became more common only as Old World diseases and wars with Europeans greatly reduced indigenous populations, thereby reducing the scale of traditional swidden-based production systems.

Mestizo Colonization (1500’s to mid-1900’s)

Panama’s major colonization initially expanded west of the capital and Canal Zone towards the provinces of the “Interior.” The provinces of Coclé, Los Santos, Herrera and Veraguas have had European settlement since the mid-16th Century (eg. Natá, Coclé est. 1520), and these portions of the country were largely cleared for cattle and agricultural production. Most accessible lands had been cleared and settled by the middle of the 20th Century (1950’s).

Settlement and Deforestation in the Valley (mid-1900’s to 2000)

In the mid 1960’s Panama began an eastward expansion towards the Darién. This resulted in massive clearing of lands in the East Panamá Province and the extension of the Pan-American Highway as the conduit for immigration and the spread of the agricultural frontier. This new eastward migration was further supported by government policies geared towards incentivizing the citizenry to colonize Eastern Panama and Darien provinces.

Starting in the mid-1960’s, the Upper Mamoní Valley experienced a dynamic increase in productive land use. Land ownership was spurred by the construction of a road in the 1980’s and experienced over three decades of agricultural expansion and deforestation for cattle ranching. The devastation peaked around the year 2000 and has been very slowly reversing.

A propensity towards having large families meant that subsequent generations inherited increasingly smaller lands than their predecessors. This land use pressure was increased due to the practice of extensive “slash and burn” cattle ranching production systems that by nature constantly require more lands as soils become exhausted.

During the1960’s and 70’s at least $500M of World Bank and IDB loans were granted to help fund the expansion of cattle and the agricultural frontier, and much of the assistance came in the form of subsidized credit to farm-owners. However, only lands that had been completely deforested could be used as collateral to guarantee these low interest loans.

This trend was reflected in the Upper Mamoní Valley, as dozens of families from the Interior Provinces, mainly Veraguas and Los Santos, moved to the Valley and began to clear lands for cattle ranching. The new settlers colonized what are now San Jose del Madroño, El Valle, La Zahina and Mamoní Arriba, establishing the Valley as a major cattle production zone.

The mild climate allowed for nearly year-round production of new growth of grass, with a short dry season for preparing the lands — often by burning to promote new growth of grasses and remove less desirable woody species. At the time of Mestizo colonization, the Valley was considered “national territory”, and only from the use, care and enjoyment of these areas by the new settlers, and with tenure over 15 years according to the law, could they assert their claim to the property and have the right of possession granted. This land use usually led to total clearing of forests for agriculture or cattle ranching. Construction of a road into the Valley during the Noriega dictatorship in the 1980’s greatly facilitated the expansion of colonization into the area.

Nationwide programs of land titling and formalization of the names and numbers of fincas (farms) under Derecho Posesorio (right of possession) led to the eventual ownership of much of the Mamoní Valley. The lands were kept as cattle pastures, with small areas reserved for production of subsistence crops like corn, cassava, sugarcane and some fruit trees. In some instances the original colonists still live and actively manage their farms. In many other circumstances, the original owners have died, and the properties have been subdivided by members of the families. Wealthier individuals from the capital and interior purchased lands in Mamoní from the original owners, investing in both the lands and cattle.

In 1990 the Upper Mamoní Valley was still experiencing an expansion of the agricultural frontier, with several smaller landholders in the upper reaches of the Valley, and major deforestation occurring along the Rio Bonga and headwaters of the Mamoní River. The pasture extent in 1990 is estimated at about 2,250 hectares within the Valley, with over 4,500 hectares of old growth forest still remaining. Much of the lower lands were dedicated to cattle ranching, with subsistence corn production and artisanal gold mining the other major economic activities.

The Creation of the Mamoní Valley Preserve (2000 to present)

In the early 1990’s, the Panama’s dictator, Manuel Antonio Noriega, was deposed, and in 1999 Panama gained ownership of the Canal. The 21st Century has since brought sweeping changes to much of Panama, and the Mamoní Valley is no exception.  The last 15 years have seen the arrival of international land investors and conservationists to a region previously dominated by Panamanian cattle ranchers.

The year 2000 is of specific significance as it is in all likelihood the maximum limit of pasture and non-forest lands in the Upper Mamoní Valley. Using Landsat data and high-resolution aerial photo imagery, it is estimated that there were 3,097 hectares of fields and pastures in the Valley, approximately 28% of the Valley’s total expanse. At this stage, the watershed was 72% forested, with about 3,750 hectares of mature forest and about 3,920 hectares of younger secondary forest. There were large amount of cleared pasture in the Eastern end of the Valley surrounding the town of San Jose de Madroño. The Central Zone is the most forested portion of the Valley. . The West Zone, around the town of Mamoní Arriba, which at the time had three or more times the current population, was also heavily in pasture.

Around 2000, regional demographic trends towards urbanization, as well as a drop in the profitability of extensive cattle ranching on already deforested land led to major emigration. Many people in the Upper Mamoní Valley moved to Panama City or to just outside the Valley into Chepo and San Miguel, pursuing wage labor jobs, better education and opportunity. Others moved on to areas further east into the Darién or to the Caribbean slope to continue expanding the agricultural frontier through logging and cattle ranching. As original owners grew older and less able or interested in working the farms, or their second or third-generation inheritors moved to the city, many of the lands were neglected or sold off to larger land owners, a trend exacerbated by the decline in the profitability of smaller-scale cattle ranching.

Around 2005, conservation-minded investors with a vision of the Mamoní Valley Preserve began purchasing strategic parcels throughout the Valley. The lands were purchased on a property-by-property basis, with some of the lands negotiated as groupings, targeting both the large remaining forest blocks, as well as some of the most productive and accessible lands in the Valley. At this stage, much of the land ownership is still as Derecho Posesorio, and many of the owners face financial or informational hurdles in getting their land titled under the National Land Management Authority.

According to some locals, the Earth Train and Rainforest Capital Management team’s “hands-off” management strategy strengthened the Valley’s economic decline. As cattle ranching declined and land began reverting to forest, it eliminated jobs and livelihoods that were sustained by the land use activities of former owners.  In 2014 this “hands off” trend reversed when Rainforest Capital Management began investing significant amounts into sustainable management of its by then roughly one-third of the Valley.

The last decade has seen a heavy trend of forest cover increase, closely tied with the Valley’s depopulation as residents moved to the cities and/or in search of new forest frontiers in Darién. By 2013, the Upper Mamoní Valley increased its forest cover over the previous 13 years by over 1,250 hectares.

As per 2013 estimates based on remote sensing information and corroborated with visual interpretation and measurement of available satellite date, the Upper Mamoní Watershed was 82% forested, with 3,875 hectares of mature forest and 5,570 hectares of secondary forest, totaling 9,445 hectares of area in some forest association. In the entire valley there were still 2,073 hectares of plantable lands, with a total of 627 hectares of rastrojo-shrublands and 1,446 hectares of pastures.

Since 2014, investments in sustainable enterprises in the Valley by Rainforest Capital Management, Forest Finance, Earth Train and Kaminando have increased. The Mamoní Valley Preserve was established and is growing. Slowly but surely, the vision for the ecological enhancement of the Mamoní Valley Preserve is becoming a reality.