Vuela Verde: Regional Airline First to Use Voluntary Carbon Offsets to Help Conserve Panama’s Darien Rainforest

aeroperlas.jpg Flying over Panama, it’s hard not to be dazzled, and a bit awestruck, by the vast expanses of lush, seemingly almost untouched tropical forest. This bird’s eye view can be misleading, however. The dwindling amount of large, contiguous tracts of undeveloped tropical rainforest that remain are under increasing pressure from deforestation due to a range of factors– demand for tropical hardwoods, clear-cutting by farmers, land speculation and property development, and mineral and energy resource exploration high up on the list.
While the economics of and motivations underlying these subsistence and commercial activities are clearly established, quantifiable and accepted, the intrinsic, and in many ways still largely unknown, value standing rainforests provide in terms of a wide range of direct economic and indirect ecological “life support” functions are not. Climate modulation, watersheds, constraining erosion and conserving soil health, as well as providing food, timber, medicinal and any number of other types of useful products for local communities in particular–is “externalized” by economists, and by and large a secondary consideration, if that, for business folk, as well as politicians and government officials.
Themselves strapped for funds and resources, local environmental organizations, such as Panama’s ANCON (Asociacion Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza), are ramping up efforts to engage the private sector and enlist businesses in their efforts to conserve and sustainably make use of the rich abundance of resources a healthy rainforest ecosystem affords.
Regional airline Aeroperlas in July became the first Panamanian company to agree to completely, and voluntarily, offset its carbon dioxide emissions by helping conserve a 1,000 hectare area in the Darien, part of environmental NGO ANCON’s “Vuela Verde” (Green Flight) program. ANCON executive director Alida Spadafora and staff are working to convince other businesses to take the same route.

Greening Flight

“We’re talking about quality of life–conserving and protecting water, soil and air quality while continuing to halt global warming. These are things that ultimately determine the living standards for people and their children. We need businesses and corporations to invest in the types of activities and projects ANCON, and many other organizations, are involved in.”

jaguar.jpg Stretching from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean with an awe-inspiring mountain range separating the Panamanian isthmus from Colombia, the Darien province is home to one of, if not the, largest areas of contiguous tropical rain forest in Central America. Its Pacific and Caribbean lowland forests, dry and cloud forests and tropical forest ecosystems sustain an amazingly diverse– and as yet incompletely told or understood– population of plant and animal life, as well as a diverse range of Amerindian tribes and culture.
Panama’s largest ecoregion–encompassing around 1/3 of the entire country’s land area–the Darien is home to one national park–Darien National Park, as well as Punta Patino, a 30,000-plus hectare private nature reserve acquired by ANCON in 1995 as a result of its “Adopta Tu Hectarea” (Adopt Your Hectare) campaign, which was sponsored by longstanding ANCON partner and supporter The Nature Conservancy.
As a non-government, non-profit conservation organization, ANCON, working within a nexus of interests that includes those of local communities, enterprises and the Panamanian government, is striving to institute a sustainable environmental and resource management plan for Punta Patino, one that includes educational nature tourism and sustainable community development efforts in support of its main mission: rejuvenating and conserving the secondary tropical forest that makes up most of the reserve area.
Having weathered an institutional financial crisis in recent years and having worked extensively on climate change issues and projects during her six-year tenure with the United Nations Development Program, ANCON executive director Alida Spadafora and her staff, drawing on their own as well as expertise of Costa Rica’s FONAFIFO, to design a voluntary carbon emissions offset program that it has been proposing to airlines and other companies doing business in Panama for about two years now.
While an initial proposal is still under consideration by Copa Airlines–they are participating in a larger program initiated by partner Continental Airlines, Spadafora found a willing participant in Aeroperlas, a regional airline owned by Costa Rica’s Taca Group, whose Sansa regional airline was already participating in a similar program run by FONAFIFO (Fondo Nacional de Financiamiento Forestal).
Through the Vuela Verde program, Aeroperlas is offsetting its annual carbon dioxide emissions contributing to Ancon’s efforts to conserve and rehabilitate a 1,000 hectare plot within the Punta Patino reserve, an area that was once home to a cattle ranch. Boiled down and simplified, the calculations and offset value are based on the CO2 produced by Aeroperlas’ flights over a one-year period and the amount of CO2 it’s estimated is absorbed by one “typical” hectare in the plot area, factoring in the cost necessary to conserve what still is a remote, relatively isolated area.
Aspiring to the same goals as the U.N. Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism and employing internationally accepted standards for carbon emissions offsets and sustainable forest management used by other, larger and better funded organizations and institutions, ANCON’s Vuela Verde program with Aeroperlas is affordable and practical, executive director Spadafora explained.
“We view the voluntary carbon offset program as an expression of corporate social responsibility,” she told Triple Pundit. “We didn’t have the money to go through the verification process and qualify for EU ETS or UN CDM credits, so we needed other partners. We decided to leverage our own expertise and resources, as well as that of our partners and similarly engaged organizations and programs, and approach local companies, or subsidiaries of multi-national companies, asking them to participate.”
Having signed on its first corporate participant, ANCON is looking to expand the program to include other airlines, as well as companies in other industries and businesses. Discussions with the Panamanian subsidiary of CEMEX, the Mexican cement and industrial group are at an initial stage, Spadafora related, and Ancon is also speaking with international shipping companies about joining the program.
In addition to providing much needed funding for ANCON’s efforts to rejuvenate and sustain forests and wilderness areas in the Darien and throughout Panama, Spadafora sees the voluntary offset program as a vehicle to communicate its message and engage businesses, as well as government officials and local communities, in efforts that can lead to a more holistic and integrated framework for valuing and managing tropical forests, natural ecosystems and natural resources more generally.
When discussing such lofty goals with businesspeople and government officials, “We’re not talking much about biodiversity, though it’s wonderful to see key indicator species, such as jaguar, being seen more and more in the reserve.
“We’re talking about quality of life–conserving and protecting water, soil and air quality while contributing to halt global warming. These are things that ultimately determine the living standards for people and their children. We need businesses and corporations to invest in the types of activities and projects ANCON, and many other organizations, are involved in.”

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email:

Leave a Reply