The Story

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 with my Dad’s stories where all the enchanting places no longer remained enchanting, 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.

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!


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