It seems like everyone complains about government inefficiencies at one time or another and it’s easy to point the finger at the most prominent leader when things aren’t going the way we want or when changes aren’t happening fast enough. However, as Mayor Martin Downer is quick to say, “change is hard” and everyone needs to be involved to help resolve some of the key issues facing the archipelago.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced as mayor is for people to understand change. People are accustomed to doing things their way, even if it’s not the best way, and they don’t want to try another way,” says Downer. The mayor has seen lots of changes; some good and some bad, since his childhood days in Bastimentos. There is a lot more tourism now which has led to more opportunities for the youth to find jobs, whereas before they would leave for Chiriqui and Panama City. On the flip side, the increase in tourism means an increase in trash to depose of and not many places to put it on these small islands.
While trash seems to be universally recognized by everyone in Bocas as a huge challenge and it’s only a fairly recent issue. Before the increase in tourism and commercialism, particularly in the last decade, trash was not a problem. Now, Downer’s number one priority is resolving the trash issue and he’s asking for all the help he can get. He has created an environmental committee to work on trash issues; including recycling, trash disposal and other related issues. He is also a big fan of getting outside opinions and advice. “I like to consult a lot and to get different opinions and ideas. The more you consult, the less mistakes you make,” says Downer, who has had consultants in from around the province, Panama City, and Costa Rica, as well as sought advice from local residents, business owners, and other key stakeholders.
Perhaps it’s his travel and work experience outside of Bocas that has allowed him to appreciate a diversity of opinions and recognize that potential solutions already exist in the hands of others. Downer spent a lot of time away from Bocas, working internationally on a cruise ship through the Caribbean and Europe, working in customer service in Panama City, and helping to manage small businesses in Changuinola and Bastimentos, before he returned home and entered the political scene.
Now two years into his first political term, he is slowly starting to see changes and has a clearly defined vision for the future. Old Bank is a bright spot. They have really cleaned up the community and addressed the trash issue in the last year or so and he’s hoping that pocket of success will continue to spread. On the horizon, there are some major projects in the works including a new hospital, an expanded airport, and renovated playgrounds and parks on Isla Colón, as well as many smaller projects on the other islands, including water systems and low income housing. Beyond the infrastructure projects, Downer also wants to develop more social service programs to support families and parents. His top priorities are to give training and support to families, especially single parents, offer programs to at-risk youth and teens so that they stay in school and provide more services for special needs children.
At the moment of the interview, the mayor commented about a couple of projects in which the municipality was working on: “$80,000.00 is being invested to treat the garbage problem and we are looking for a piece of land to have a collection center in order to begin recycling. We are also searching for an appropriate piece of land to be able to treat the solid waste with all the necessary technology. We are building and buying more trash cans and have $96,000 for the Simón Bolívar park remodeling project and as soon as rainy season is over we will be doing some improvements. we have a budget for building a youth park in Carenero.”
Downer has a lot of work ahead of him but isn’t deterred. He knows change is slow, but the end results will be worth it. For now, what he wants the local residents to know first and foremost is this: “I believe in always having an open door, some people think it’s my way or the highway but I want to hear from the community.” So feel free to stop by the mayor’s office (located in the Municipal Building, in between 2nd and 3rd street, next to the main park) anytime to share your ideas and suggestions and offer your help in making Bocas del Toro the best it can be.