Agriculture Extension Volunteer

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact Peace Corps domestically and internationally.

The information provided for each assignment is subject to change, including the tentative departure date.

Project Description

Many traditional Panamanian agricultural systems, such as slash and burn agriculture, are unsustainable with population increases and shifting production practices. This has led to production on steep hillsides and less use of rest (fallow) periods, resulting in land degradation, increased production costs, reduced yields and profits, and population migration toward protected areas and urban centers. It is a challenge to produce high quality nutritious food, as well as earn income in these areas.

In order to address these issues, Volunteers in the Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) project work with low-income rural farmers to improve the food security, resiliency, and sustainability of their livelihoods. Volunteers accomplish this by promoting best practices, new techniques for farming, agriculture based income generation activities, organizational development, and nutrition within their communities.

Volunteers will start with a community assessment, getting to know their local farming families and then coordinate activities such one-on-one interactions on the farm, co-facilitating group trainings, and coaching farmers through applying practices they might have previously learned. They work with men, women and children who are growing a wide variety of crops, such as corn, beans, root crops, plantains, bananas, vegetables, coffee and cacao. The communities to which SAS Volunteers are assigned range from almost completely subsistence based families to those that are starting to either sell small amounts of cash crops, such as coffee or vegetables, to contribute to their income, or organize into groups in which to do so.

Volunteers and their communities may address agriculture issues that include topics such as soil and water conservation, composting, green manures, soil improvement techniques, organic agriculture, adequate use of agrochemicals, integrated pest management, post-harvest management methods, preservation of harvested products, and elaboration of value-added products, among others.

Many communities, as they are starting to move beyond the subsistence level, are looking to explore new income-generating activities. So Volunteers also work with farmers to help them to develop these agri-business topics, focusing on things like farm planning, marketing skills, keeping records, and budgeting on a very basic level. Some more advanced communities might be forming cooperatives, making legal contracts, or addressing issues such as quality control of value added products.

While many Volunteers work mainly one on one with community members, others work with groups. Volunteers are trained to help these community organization members to assess their own organizational capacity and co-facilitate the creation of an action plan based on the assessment. They then train and coach community members on the decided topics in areas such as strategic planning, organizational structure, communication and leadership.

To address nutrition issues, Volunteers work with key household members to improve understanding of the importance a diverse diet that includes nutrient-based food and incorporating recipes promoting such food, particularly lesser known or non-commonly used agricultural crops.

The communities where Volunteers work often, but not always, have support from local host country agency technicians and/or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Volunteers might have the opportunity to collaborate with these partners.

COVID-19 Volunteer Activities

In the past year, the world has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a Volunteer, you will be trained in how to best protect yourself from COVID-19 exposure and understand the impact of and steps to reduce stigma related to COVID-19. You may also have the opportunity to engage with your community on implementing or enhancing COVID-19 mitigation activities, such as COVID-19 prevention and risk reduction strategies including social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing, addressing myths and misconceptions related to these practices, and vaccine hesitancy. Activities will be tailored to address the COVID-19 circumstances in the communities where you will serve.

Required Skills

Qualified candidates will have an expressed interest in working in agriculture and one or more of the following criteria:

• Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science degree in any field
• 5 years' professional work experience

Desired Skills

Competitive candidates will demonstrate the following skills:

• Bachelor of Science degree or Associate degree in Agronomy, Horticulture, or other related fields
• Familiarity/experience with agriculture and/or farm work
•Experience in leadership, facilitation of empowering and motivating others
•Experience teaching adults and children formally and informally
• Conversational Spanish language skills
• Public speaking and presentation skills
• Willingness to live in an indigenous area (cultural/language adaptation can be more challenging)
•Ability and willingness to hike long distances on a regular basis
• High level of self-initiative and self-direction, mixed with a good sense of humor

Required Language Skills

Candidates must meet one or more of the language requirements below in order to be considered for this position.
A. Completed 4 years of high school Spanish coursework within the past 8 years
B. Completed minimum 2 semesters of Spanish college‐level coursework within the past 6 years
C. Native/fluent speaker of Spanish

Candidates who do not meet the language proficiency levels above can take the language placement exams to demonstrate their level of proficiency. Competitive applicants typically attain a score of 50 on the Spanish College Level Examination Program CLEP exam or a score of Novice‐High on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL OPI).

Volunteers need to demonstrate an Intermediate level of oral and written proficiency in Spanish for site placement by the end of Pre-Service Training.

Living Conditions

SAS communities are generally remote, rustic, and a truly rural living experience. The communities are approximately 50% Latino (Spanish speaking) and 50% indigenous. Indigenous communities can be more challenging in many ways and require Volunteers to respect and adapt to strict cultural practices and be willing to learn both Spanish and the indigenous language.

Community Access
SAS Volunteers will frequently hike long distances in a hot and humid climate to get in or around their communities. Communities can be up to one hour from a road, often through very muddy, mountainous terrain with steep hills where walking is the only option. Several communities are only accessible by boat. Volunteers should expect strenuous hikes, long boat rides, and/or long bumpy car rides on unpaved and often winding roads to get in their communities. Due to the remoteness of the communities, Volunteers will have limited access to resources such as medical facilities.

Volunteers may live in a rural Panamanian-style home made of concrete block and cement floors or in a wood or clay structure with palm-thatched roof and dirt floors. Volunteers in indigenous areas may live in a wooden hut with a dirt floor or a thatch-roofed hut raised on stilts close to a river. Services such as electricity, running or potable water and sanitation systems may be rudimentary or non-existent.

Peace Corps/Panama examines each community before selection to ensure that basic health and safety criteria are met.
Volunteers will be required to live with a host-family during their first three months of service in their community. After these three months, Volunteers generally live on their own in pre-approved local housing that meets Peace Corps/Panama’s housing criteria.

Food and Diet
The Panamanian diet varies according to the region and the ethnic makeup of the population. Most often the diet consists of rice, beans, bananas or plantains, root crops, and corn. Rice and beans (kidney beans, lentils, or red beans) is the staple dish. Corn is served in many ways but is usually ground, boiled, or fried. Sancocho is a traditional dish (somewhere between a soup and a stew) prepared with a variety of vegetables and chicken. Most rural areas have an array of fruits, including mangoes, papayas, pineapples, avocados, and oranges, but only in certain seasons. The availability of garden vegetables, such as tomatoes, sweet peppers, and cucumbers, varies according to the region and the season. The most common meats are chicken and beef, which are often deep-fried or stewed. Fish is available sporadically in coastal regions and riverside communities.

Some Volunteers are vegetarians, but very few Panamanians follow these diets. Most Volunteers start a garden in their community, and many buy staple foods (rice, beans) in a small store in their village. Volunteers can buy can buy a wide variety of foods and imported goods in supermarkets in the provincial capitals one to two times a month when they travel out of their community.

Services Access
Cell phone service/data can be very limited but will be available in some form in most communities. Generally, communities will not have electricity but solar panels can be purchased at affordable prices. Internet access in Panama is spreading, provincial capitals and other large towns have internet cafes. Connection speeds tend to be slow, but the service is reasonably priced and otherwise reliable. Internet access for Volunteers is available at the Peace Corps/Panama office.

Peace Corps Panama does not provide Volunteers with a cellular phone or data but Panama offers many cheap data plans. Volunteers either bring an unlocked cellular phone from the US or buy one in country. Almost all Volunteers bring a computer from the US to use in Panama. It is the volunteer’s responsibility to maintain and insure electronics that they choose to bring.

Learn more about the Volunteer experience in Panama: Get detailed information on culture, communications, housing, and safety — including crime statistics [PDF] — in order to make a well-informed decision about serving.

Couples Information

Panama is happy to accommodate cross-sector couples, as well as same-sector couples. We will identify communities with sufficient work opportunities for both volunteers. Therefore, your partner can apply and must qualify for:

Sustainable Agriculture Volunteer, or
Business Advising Agriculture Volunteer, or
Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Education Volunteer

Medical Considerations

Before you apply, please review Medical Information for Applicants to learn about the clearance process and other health conditions that are difficult to accommodate in Peace Corps service.

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