The Mirror of Armila

I was honored to be invited by Carl Safina to write for his National Geographic’s NewsWatch page, published here, about my experiences in Armila, Panama with the beautiful Guna women artists there.  Here is my original text:

THE MIRROR OF ARMILA, Pam Longobardi 6/17/14

There are no mirrors in Armila.  As a culture, the Guna are less concerned with themselves than they are with their families, friends and community.  When you live in Armila, you see yourself only as a reflection in the faces of the beautiful smiling people of this town.  Armila is in extremely remote southern Panama’s Caribbean coast, just a stone’s throw from Columbia, and is one of the most active leatherback sea turtle nesting areas in the world.  During my week in May 2014, there averaged 60-70 nesting turtles each night.  But the omnipresent mirror I encountered was the mirror of contemporary global culture, the overwhelming amount of plastic on their beach.ARMILAgirls_plasticbeach

Armila is only accessible only by boat, without public utilities or waste management. Ocean currents are quite fierce along this coast, with overhead waves and relentless wind.  These currents also bring massive amounts of plastic to Armila:  it is the most plastic-impacted beach I have seen anywhere in the world.


The people of Armila are very involved in turtle conservation. The Guna are politically savvy and independent thinkers who see the value of the turtles as an asset for their own future:  one endangered culture taking care of another, and are developing ecotourism to protect both.


Witnessing the force of will it takes the gargantuan creatures to maneuver their 600-1000 lb. bodies on dry land is something profoundly moving.  The turtles’ heads appear like large rocks seemingly incapable expression, except they are not:  the female turtles huff and blow with the sheer exertion of their labors, their eyes crying tears, their necks engorged pink by their efforts.  In the pitch-blackness of a town without artificial lighting, the turtles emerge from the sea toward the darkened land, an hour later following the light of the breaking waves back home.

Armila 2014-54

Except that now Armila has been given a wonderful gift: solar lighting.  It does make evening routines easier to have light as you scramble around to secure your mosquito net and search out unwelcomed visitors in your bed.  But lights wreak havoc on the turtles’ sense of place:  on a single night, seven behemoths dragged their unwieldy egg-bloated bodies so far up the beach that they entered the dirt paths of the town.  No one slept that night, coaxing the leatherbacks to haul themselves back to the beach and complete their life mission.

I came to Armila to pilot a project with Oceanic Society and the Guna women artisans.  They are talented artists of the art form of ‘molas,’ which translates simply as “clothing”, a rich and expansive canvas for traditional and experimental imagery.


I found their vision of the natural world, from smiling faces on dragonflies, to beautiful geometries of medicinal plants and leatherback turtles to be individual and powerful.  It was my intention to get the women to see the beach plastic as a potential and abundant art material.

In the gender divided roles of the Guna, women are responsible for the food preparation and trash disposal.  Viewing the world from their spiritual center the ‘grandmother ocean’ or Abuela Mar is The Great Recycler; she takes all the refuse and “turns it into sand.”  How sadly right they are now, as tonnages of plastic covering the beach are pounded into plastic sand.  In an earlier world of plantain skins and mango peels, this system of dumping refuse on the beach worked fine, but as the army of global plastic has invaded their beach and their lives, the lack of municipal waste management creates a plastic pollution disaster.

With large colorful fabric bags sewn by my Columbian friend Claudia, we met the women in the Council Hall, a ritually important place of spiritual guidance and political decisions.  I did my first beach cleaning with the town’s preparation for the Turtle Festival; massive logs, coconuts and plastic raked ceremoniously into large piles.  From the multitudes of plastic oddities, I chose pieces good for working with: HDPE, LDPE and PP, and natural materials in order to differentiate the things that belong on the beach causing no harm, from materials that are bad for the ocean, but good for making art.  The women left with their cloth bags to fill.


In a subsistence culture, most hours of the day are filled with chores to maintain daily life.  All food is cooked by wood fire, so women must drag giant logs from the beach and cut them into firewood.  Plantains must be picked and prepared.  I was aware that taking on another task like beach cleaning of plastic was taking time from other aspects of their daily work.

The day of the workshop, more than a dozen women arrived with bags full of thousands of pieces of plastic. To solve the immediate crisis of the disorienting solar lights, we collected 5 gallon buckets that had washed up to create light covers to shield the glare from the nesting turtles.  As artists and workers, it was instantly appealing to make something both beautiful and functional.  With small hand tools, drill and wire that I had brought as gifts, I taught them basic sculptural techniques, encouraging them to think of the plastic as cloth, and the wire as thread.  The women were totally absorbed, laughing and working, translating their own imagery from plastic, working for hours past the midday meal.  The joy of creating something beautiful out of something ugly, or worse yet, invisible, was significant.

MBM Photo Pam-6

As I departed Armila at the end of the week, the women formed a Plastic Co-op to work with the plastic in the creation of new artwork.  I am planning to return in September to continue my collaboration with them.  The ‘mola’ is elastic and evolving living art. The incorporation of recovered plastic from the beaches into these artists’ material vocabulary provides them with a near endless supply source.  It also begins the removal of the invasive species of plastic from the leatherbacks nesting zone, and, along with efforts already underway by the village, initiates a conservation victory in the making.





When I returned from Panama, I received an invitation to create a cover image for SIERRA Magazine.  With the experience of Armila so fresh in my mind, and a bagful of odd and disturbing plastic from the Armila beaches, I used a majority of this material in the creation of the cover for SIERRA.  See more here.


Commission for cover of SIERRA magazine
Commission for cover of SIERRA magazine


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