Colorado State University alumnus Adrian Benedetti is leading the way to connect people in Panama to the outdoors with an award-winning organization dedicated to creating awareness of outdoor recreation in the country’s tropical forests. Benedetti is founder and president of Fundación Caminando Panama (Walking Panama Foundation). Though born in Panama, Adrian spent much of his life in Colorado, immersed in outdoor recreation.

He founded Caminando Panama, an organization working to create an outdoor community that appreciates Panama’s wondrous natural and cultural heritage, shortly after completing a Master’s degree in Conservation Leadership at CSU.

CAMINANDO PANAMA RECEIVES INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION FROM AMERICAN TRAILS

Caminando Panama recently received the International Planning & Design Award during the 22nd American Trails International Trails Symposium for its outstanding planning, design, and implementation of trails. The award recognized Caminando Panama’s leadership in restoring two historical trails, the Camino de Cruces (Crosses Road) and the Camino Real (Kings Road).

In addition to the their historic significance, Benedetti said the projects received international recognition because they positively impacted local economies and communities and fostered a community of trail-based recreation.

INSPIRATION AND FRUSTRATION LEAD TO GREAT SUCCESS

The idea to start Caminando Panama came from two strong emotions: inspiration and frustration.

The inspiration came while completing his final project for the Conservation Leadership through Learning Master’s Program in Chiapas, Mexico. While in the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve working on a climate change risk assessment with local communities, Benedetti learned about a breath-taking trail that went over the Sierra Madres and down to the Pacific Ocean.

The magnificent trail is maintained entirely by the community whose main livelihood, gourmet coffee production, is at risk due to climate change. Benedetti considered how the communities could use trail systems to create supplemental income through ecotourism.

The second emotion, frustration, came to Benedetti upon returning to Panama and seeing trails that nobody knew about that were in poor condition without any infrastructure or signs. Benedetti knew that creating an outdoor recreation ethic would mean starting from scratch to teach people how to recreate and how to feel safe while they were doing it.

Benedetti decided that he would work to connect Panamanians with nature with a web-based trail inventory inclusive of information about site locations, directions, and trail difficulty. While this type of on

line information is common in the United States, Caminando Panama was the first to create a web-based trail inventory in Latin America.

As Benedetti took to the trails to map out routes for the online inventory, he ran into local guides who had been trained by various non-governmental organizations to work in the ecotourism industry.  But the tourists never came due to a lack of marketing.
Benedetti added guides’ contact information on the web-based inventory for hikers to contact them directly, enhancing marketing of their services. According to Benedetti, “that’s pretty much what I thought Caminando Panama was going to be, was just this trail-based web inventory and then help out the guides with their [contact] information, but then it just kind of grew.”

Not only does Caminando Panama manage the trail website, it also builds capacity for rural park rangers and tourism operations and hosts volunteer trail maintenance days to improve trail infrastructure. Benedetti said that Caminando Panama will continue to identify trails that have the potential for supporting local economies and then work to develop those.

PREPARING THE NEXT GENERATION OF CONSERVATION LEADERS

Benedetti graduated from CLTL’s first cohort of students in 2012. He says the most valuable lesson he learned was the importance of working across disciplines. “[CLTL] introduces you to the value of all these multiple disciplines and how to bring them all together and work on these complex conservation issues that we have nowadays.”

Benedetti attributes much of the success of Caminando Panama to being able to bridge disciplines, especially with the Camino Real trail, one of the trail award selections. Benedetti brought in many partners with different specialties to work together on the Camino Real. “I think that’s one of the key things of CLTL is looking at the big picture and saying ‘Ok. To make this big picture happen, what are all the components that we need?’ And not being afraid to knock on all of those doors from the very beginning.”

Another impactful lesson from CLTL was realizing that conservation varies widely from country to country and across communities. During CLTL and from his experiences working in the United States, Mexico, and Panama, Benedetti has learned to be sensitive to these differences and know that a blanket solution for all the complex issues in conservation doesn’t exist.

A VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF ECOTOURISM IN PANAMA

Caminando Panama is making a positive impact on the environment and people of Panama and setting an example for other countries in Latin America. Benedetti is excited to see what the future holds.

He hopes to foster a community of recreation and transition Panamanians to a heart-based connection to places that motivates their support for conservation. “My vision is through Caminando Panama creating partnerships with other outdoor clubs and other outdoor actors and really fostering that base of stewards that is just beginning to recreate, just beginning to value these beautiful places. And hopefully that will then begin to permeate and have an impact from the ground up.”

The Conservation Leadership through Learning program is an innovative Master’s degree offered by the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources in the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University.

Written by Terra Sampson on December 5, 2016; Video by Wes White