A small contribution to a great project on Taboga

Taboga ebook cover by Okke Ornstein

From the press release:

In support of health care initiatives at the Centro de Salud (Health Center) on Isla Taboga, an island of about 900 residents that dots the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, a group of expats launched an e-book. My Ticket to Paradise: Expat Snapshots of Isla Taboga, Panama, features several entertaining personal stories written by North Americans living on the island.

I didn’t write a story, but the cover photo is mine. Read the rest of the release here and please order the ebook, here on Amazon.

Barro Blanco

Tabasara river

A Dutch semi-government institution, the Dutch Development Bank FMO, invests in a hydroelectric dam in Panama, called Barro Blanco. Green energy, and Holland can offset some CO2 emissions. Everybody happy, then?

Well, not quite. The dam is being built just outside the indigenous reservation of the Ngobe people, and part of their land, with several villages, will be flooded. Protests have already caused several deaths and many wounded. Environmentalists claim that the energy isn’t green at all.

Together with colleague Gilles Frenken, I set off to investigate. We found angry indigenous people, an energy corporation that constantly lies, and a Dutch bank that insists on looking the other way when human rights are violated.

Listen to the radio documentary on the HollandDoc website, here.

The documentary led to questions in parliament in the Netherlands as well.

Streets of Calidonia

Calidonia street photography

Panama City is, unfortunately, rapidly being developed. Skyscrapers mushroom everywhere, and the old center, Casco Viejo, becomes ever more expensive and snobbish as restoration goes on and the extended coastal beltway surrounds it.

Luckily, there are still some areas that remain intact. One of those is Calidonia, which runs along the extension of Via España towards the Plaza 5 de Mayo. It’s the pulsating heart of Panama City’s unofficial economy – which includes everything from market stalls to street vendors and pickpockets. Buses, cars and pedestrians fight to make their way through the organized chaos.

It’s a rewarding place for someone like me who loves street photography, so I decided to start a photo book project about it. And then I teamed up with Panamanian author Lili Mendoza, who was born and raised in Calidonia. She’ll write stories, and I’ll take the pictures. We have no idea yet when the book will be out, and are in no hurry. Here’s a gallery from my Flickr page.


Orphanage charity project

I recently stumbled upon an orphanage near Panama City and couldn’t believe my eyes. Children, some of them placed out of their homes by judges because of violence, abuse, or petty crimes, were living in tent-like structures. Walls made of freight pallets.

There was a group of students who had to do a community project and chose this orphanage. I started taking pictures, with the idea of making a small book and raise some donations. That worked, and the money has been spent on structural improvements of the place. The book isn’t finished yet, but will be in 2013. Sorry, no gallery yet.

Drugs Canal

Okke Ornstein in the Darien gap

The police raids a neighborhood near the Panama City airport. Armed to the teeth and dressed in bullet proof vests, they storm from one dilapidated apartment building to the other. Their goal: Finding members of street gangs and drugs. Rivalry between the various gangs and foreign traffickers is the main reason for an ever increasing murder rate in Panama.

Where do these drugs come from? Most of it comes from Colombia, through the impenetrable border area known as the Darien gap. Panamanian traffickers meet in the jungle with Colombian FARC guerrillas or bandoleros and bring the merchandise to the capital, from where it is then shipped further north.

The Panamanian border police, SENAFRONT, is trying to stem the flow of drugs coming through the Darien, without much success. Caught in the middle is the indigenous population, the Embera, and small farmers. SENAFRONT seals off entire villages from the outside world, even preventing the residents from working on their crops. But at the same time, the armed groups demand that the villagers supply them with food.

I made a radio documentary for a Dutch broadcaster about the trafficking, interviewed drug runners, got in trouble with SENAFRONT and talked with the real victims; the local residents. Listen to the documentary on the NTR website.