In southeastern Panama, the world's longest road comes to an abrupt halt as it crashes up against North America's last untouched tropical rainforest. As industrialists, land barons, and drug cartels battle to raze the last hundred miles to Columbia, the jungle and all of its inhabitants are treated as collateral damage as the road is pushed on through. Since those without a voice cannot speak, and those without an audience cannot be heard, we must travel beyond that road and inside that jungle to learn the voices of the indigenous tribes and species within.
WHERE THE ROAD ENDS
It is said you can drive from the tip of Alaska down to the tip of Chile, the road trip to end all road trips. It is said, but it is not so. Right smack in the middle of that network of nearly 30,000 miles of roads that make up the famed Pan-American Highway is 60 miles of pristine, virgin rainforest. The Darién Gap in southeastern Panama is a 10,000 square mile swath of untouched and uninterrupted jungle, and the only land bridge between North and South America. There are no detours, no side-roads, no other ways. This is the only place outside of Chile and Alaska where The Road just.. Ends.
WHAT MAKES THE DARIÉN SO UNIQUE
The Darién is home to three unique tribes of indigenous people: the Emberá, the Kuna, and the Wounaan. With the absence of roads, things like television and the Internet haven't had the capability to impact their communities, allowing them to sustain the same types of lifestyles they have for millennia. This lack of impact hasn't just benefited the local people: with the largest population of jaguars outside of the Amazon, along with an unrecorded amount of reptiles, fish, amphibians, bugs, over a thousand species of birds, and a constantly growing encyclopedia of plants and trees, the Darién is as vital an ecological zone as any on the planet, and the last of its kind in all of North America. The fact that it acts as a corridor between the North and South American continents only magnifies its importance.
THE DARIÉN STOPGAP
Although it's called the Darién Gap, the Darién Stopgap might be a more pertinent name these days. The overwhelming abundance that thickens the Darién with life has made the gap itself into something of a filter. While it keeps tangible things like narcotics and their violent counterparts from passing overland from Columbia, it has also proven successful at keeping unseen epidemics pass through. Foot and Mouth Disease has had numerous surges throughout Columbia and Brazil, with one of the most recent outbreaks being traced to a town less than fifty miles from Panama's Darién border. If FMD were to make it across the Darién, there are no other gaps or stopgaps between Panama and the United States that would keep it from returning to America after more than 80 years of exile.
SO WHY NOW
Every day more trees are cut down and the end of The Road snakes a little bit closer to the other side of the Gap. Despite the efforts of local environmentalists, an astounding 80% of these trees cut down are done so illegally, and without any mind for conservation or sustainability. The indigenous tribes know that the end of the jungle will also mean the end of them and their ways, as it will force them out of the villages and forests they've shared for centuries, and into urban assimilation. And though indicator species like the jaguar and the harpy eagle cannot speak, there's no doubt they too can feel the vice grip of the outside world tightening around them. As the global population increases and the planet gets smaller, places like the Darién are themselves nearing extinction. And once it's gone, it'll be gone forever.
AND WHAT NOW
David Smith* has spent the better part of the past twenty years fighting to keep the wild parts of this region wild. A professional bush pilot for over thirty years and across three continents, David has devoted his life to saving wild lands and the indigenous peoples and creatures that inhabit them. As his son, I've grown up surrounded by the significance of these places. I have also come to know their frailty. As a documentarian, it is my duty to bring awareness to the places and plights where such frailty is being jeopardized. As a North American, I feel a deep obligation to help protect one of my continent's last true swaths of untouched wilderness. After growing up where all the enchanting places from my Dad's stories no longer remained enchanting anymore, here is a place that hasn't changed in 10,000 years. So I'm going to take the three day journey over land, sea, and air, into the heart of the Darién Gap, to find my Dad, as he fights and flies with local tribesmen and women, against a world of adversity.
AND WHY YOU'RE SO IMPORTANT
If you're here on Kickstarter, it means you are someone who's interested in knowledge and awareness; both in becoming more knowledgeable about new subjects, while already more aware on many topics than most. That said, I can safely assume all visiting this page know what happens when people sit back and let natural resources be poached: a select few get rich somewhere over the rainbow, while the local peoples and animals are left out in the rain, their identity burned down with their homes. This has already started to happen in the Darién. The trees are being cut down as you read this, and hot pavement is being poured on top of the virgin soil. But we have a unique chance to bring this thirst for awareness that you possess to others before it's too late. And the more people we bring on, the louder our voice grows. And the louder our voice grows, the stronger our presence will be felt. And together, with your support and contributions, we will reenforce the roots of the Darién so that it's impossible for anyone to pave over this last majestic realm of primary, North American rainforest.
*There's a great feature article in the current issue of AOPA PILOT magazine on David Smith and his devotion to protecting Central America's "Resources at Risk". Here's a gripping excerpt detailing a particularly exciting morning of his down in the Darién--
"As Smith started the engine of the 206 while parked at the end of one of
the Darién’s airstrips to depart on a survey flight, a group of
horsemen carrying AK-47s emerged from the trees at the far end of the
strip. Realizing that grabbing the valuable airplane was their goal and
that acting immediately was essential, Smith firewalled the throttle and
shot down the runway, directly at the source of his concern. Breaking
ground and then maintaining about a six-inch altitude as it thundered
toward the bad guys, the airplane presented a frightening visage. The
horsemen had no time to unsling their weapons, only to spur their horses
off the runway as Smith and his adrenalin-soaked crew blasted past
them, pulled up to just above the trees, and, staying low for the next
few miles, escaped."
Read the full article HERE!
Risks and challenges
It is no surprise that the Darién Gap is on the State Department's list of places the average traveler might want to omit from their itineraries. In fact, most foreign embassies publish travel warnings for the area, clarifying that all areas beyond Yaviza (the town where the road currently ends) should be avoided.
National Geographic Adventure contributing editor Robert Young Pelton was kidnapped in the Darién in 2003. Mr. Pelton is something of an authority on dangerous places, having been the host of the Travel Channel series "The World's Most Dangerous Places" for five years, not to mention his time in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Liberia, Somalia, and alongside ground forces in approximately 40 other conflicts. When he was finally released from his captors in the Darién, here is what he had to say on the region:
"The Darién Gap is one of the last—not only unexplored—but one of the last places people really hesitate to venture to... It's also one of the most rugged places [on Earth]. It's an absolute pristine jungle but it's got some nasty sections with thorns, wasps, snakes, you name it. Everything that's bad for you is in there."
He forgot to mention jaguars, crocodiles, caimans, scorpions, spiders, and anything else that thrives in a primal region that averages about an inch of rainfall a day. And though, while recounting the dangers and atrocities of his ordeal, Mr. Pelton still couldn't help but remark on what "an absolute pristine jungle" the Darién is. And this, not the dangers of the region, are what we are fighting to protect. Because there are already people fighting the dangers of the Darién... with things like extinction. There will always be dangers in wild places; that's part of what makes them wild. But if we don't do everything we can to keep the jungle roadless, there won't be any more wild in which anything, dangerous or beautiful, animal or human, will have the chance to live on.
Learn about accountability on Kickstarter