Dr. Corey Courtwright talks about his work in Panama – Valley Times-News
WEST POINT — In March, Bethany Courtright spoke to the Rotary Club of West Point about her time in Russia and her visit to Ukraine. Last Thursday, her husband, Dr. Corey Courtright, spoke to the club about his experiences helping indigenous people in Panama have better nutrition by building ponds and growing their own tilapia and catfish. Bethany is director of children’s ministry at Spring Road Christian Church and Corey is a fisheries biologist. He holds a BA from the University of Missouri and an MS and PhD from Auburn in Aquaculture.
The couple met while studying at Auburn.
While doing the work he was trained for in aquaculture, Dr. Courthright practically toured the Americas, having spent time in Panama, Ecuador and Haiti. At each stage, he worked with local people to teach the intensive production of freshwater fish in order to have a healthier diet.
In Panama, most indigenous groups still live on ancestral lands. The three largest groups are the Ngabe, the Bugle’ and the Guna. Two other important groups are the Madungandi and the Wangandi. The indigenous people of Panama represent more than 400,000 people, or about 12% of the country’s population. Most of the native population lived near the coast and lived off the sea when the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s. As these Europeans settled near the coast, the natives fled to the high mountains towards the center from the country. Most of them live there today. It is a hilly country and difficult to access. For many years they were isolated from the civilized world. Dr Courtright said some stories have been passed down from generation to generation about first contact. “When they saw the first planes they had ever seen flying overhead, they were scared,” he said. “They say they killed their roosters because they didn’t want their crowing to reveal their whereabouts to those on the planes.”
The mountainous lands are not conducive to growing crops and hence malnutrition is a big problem for the indigenous people. “Starvation is a way of life,” Courtright said. “More than 75% of them suffer from malnutrition. This is one of the worst rates in the world.
Obviously, these people need help from trained people like Dr. Courtright.
The main religion of the mountain people was founded in 1962 and is based on the belief that things were better in the past. “The influences of the outside world on their children are frowned upon,” he said. “It’s a difficult place to get to and you have to do a lot of hiking to get there.”
One of the benefits of fishing, Courtright said, “is that you can grow a lot of protein at low cost.”
On the other hand, there is a lot of work to be done to develop it from scratch.
He worked on a 32-acre site set up by a religious organization as a demonstration site to teach aquaculture and subsistence farming.
“We had to dig ponds when we got there,” he said.
Each pond would be about 150 feet long and 150 feet wide and about three to four feet deep. “I taught them how to raise tilapia and catfish,” he said. “You could feed them leaves, grass clippings and other yard waste. You can harvest tilapia every six months or so. I also worked with them with their farm animals.
Courtright did this for four years, then rotated between Ecuador, Haiti and back to Panama. It was missionary work for a church organization. There was a lot of work to do, but there was always time for Bible study. Each person has both a physical side and a spiritual side. “The spiritual side is more important,” Courtright said.
There are challenges to this belief, especially when working with those who are suffering. “People with starving children will ask you, ‘We know you love God, but where is he?’
Agriculture is more difficult in Panama than in the United States. This is a case where too much sun is the problem. “Days are always 12 hours long, and that affects what kind of crops you can grow,” Courtright said. “There are always problems that you didn’t expect. Something kept biting our pigs, and we knew we had to stop.”
Turns out the bite was made by vampire bats.
This problem was solved by placing strong netting above the pig pens.
Another constant concern was snakes. There are many more in Central and South America than in the United States. They are also bigger and deadlier. The bushmaster and the fer-de-lance in particular are very feared. The bushmaster is said to be capable of killing anything that crosses its path, and the fer-de-lance is known to have killed more people than any other reptile in the Americas.
The most dangerous spider in the world, the Brazilian banana spider, is also common in Panama. If you’re an indigenous kid growing up in Panama, if starvation doesn’t catch you, snakes and spiders might. A constant thought haunted Courtright when he lived with the natives.
“When I see the kids, I’ll know that no matter how hard I worked, some of them were going to die,” he said. “The only thing I could do was trust God and do His will.”
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