Changing Planet

The Mirror of Armila

By Carl Safina and Pam Longobardi

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 Colombia, and is one of the most active leatherback sea turtle nesting areas in the world.  During Pam’s week there last month 2014, there averaged 60-70 nesting turtles each night.  But the omnipresent mirror she encountered was the mirror of contemporary global culture, the overwhelming amount of plastic on their beach.

Armila Gilrs on plastic beach photo: Pam Longobardi
Armila Girls on plastic beach photo: Pam Longobardi

Armila is accessible only by boat, without public utilities or waste management. Ocean currents are quite fierce along this coast, with head-high waves and relentless wind.  These currents also bring massive amounts of plastic to Armila:  it is the most plastic-impacted beach Pam has seen anywhere in the world. That’s saying a lot because we were both on the Gyre expedition to witness and remove plastic in the North Pacific:

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 of expression, except the female turtles huff and blow with the sheer exertion of their labors, their eyes dripping tears, their necks engorged pink by the heat of their effort.

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.

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 escort unwelcomed visitors out of 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.

Armila Boats photo: Pam Longobardi
Armila Boats photo: Pam Longobardi

Pam went to Armila as witness, teacher, friend, and worker. The first-person “I” below is Pam’s voice:

I came to Armila to pilot a project with Oceanic Society and the Guna women artisans.  They are talented creators 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, ‘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 plastic tonnage covering the beach gets 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.


Armila plastic beach photo: Pam Longobardi
Armila plastic beach photo: Pam Longobardi
Longobardi working with the Guna women artists photo Morrison Mast
Longobardi working with the Guna women artists photo Morrison Mast

 With large colorful fabric bags sewn by my Colombian friend, 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 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.

Longobardi and Guna woman artist working on a solar light cover photo Morrison Mast
Longobardi and Guna woman artist working on a solar light cover photo Morrison Mast

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. 

Pam plans a return in September to continue the collaboration.  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 plastic from the leatherbacks nesting zone, and, along with efforts already underway by the village, initiates a conservation victory in the making.


Doing Laundry in Armila Photo: Pam Longobardi
Doing Laundry in Armila Photo: Pam Longobardi


Additional project by Pam Longobardi and Oceanic Society:




Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.
  • lynda chase

    totally amazing, fascinating and so interestingly well written…..thank you

  • John

    Much of this plastic debris is toxic. Handling, shaping, drilling can expose people to a list of toxic chemicals and add to this environmental calamity.

  • Wayne Sentman

    John, while it is true that much of the plastic can be toxic, the unfortunate truth is that most of the plastic being handled are items that we all handle every day, toothbrushes, detergent bottles, deodorant roller balls, toys, and other various pieces of “everyday” plastic. So handling it collected off the beach is no different than handling it during its intended use. Additionally, not addressing the accumulation of plastic in their environment is equally as “toxic”. So rather than sticking their heads in the sand, the people of Armila seemingly are trying to create awareness of the issue by finding a way to repurpose the plastic pollution they are increasingly “buried” in, catalyzed by Pam’s assistance, to create awareness of their problem.

  • paul

    Site unseen.Exposing this type of toxic plastic refugee can only open consumers minds to just how much plastic is being dumped in our oceans.It seems an endless task to try and clean this up.Loose laws,manufacturing multinationals, driven by profits, are the producers of such destruction.As humans, why are we treating our planet with such disregard.Next generations will only look at such destruction saying ‘ convenience destroyed our Eco systems ‘ At that point it will be too late unfortunately.


    What a fabulous job you are both doing for our planet in recognizing the devastating impact plastic is having on all living creatures including human species. We down under are doing our bit in the Clean ocean Group I belong to. I also make art from discarded collected plastics as do the school groups in the area I live. I was wondering why I had not heard from you for a while. You are busy busy ,keep up the good work. Kind Regards Susan,

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