A Life Dedicated to Conscious Farming and Environmental Activism in the Darién Tropical Forest

May 23, 2024

Melinda Roper is a dedicated farmer and environmental activist living in the Darién tropical forest of eastern Panama. For decades, she has witnessed the destructive impact of deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices in her community. 

Melinda’s story is emblematic of the challenges faced by many small-scale farmers and environmentalists worldwide as they struggle to protect their land and way of life. Her story is an inspiration of how one person can make a positive impact on their community and the world through a holistic and conscious approach.

Meeting Darién 

Darién is a region that has faced numerous challenges over the years. Known for its difficult access and as a passage for many migrants—the famous "Darién Gap", this area was declared an agricultural frontier over 45 years ago. This attracted poor farmers from the country’s interior in search of land, but also led to the arrival of large ranchers and the expansion of agriculture at the expense of the tropical forest. 

The invasion of the Darién National Park and the Matusagaratí Wetland by rice farmers and loggers poses a serious threat to biodiversity and the ecosystem’s sustainability. Melinda, along with other activists and community members, has been fighting to protect this invaluable natural heritage. 

Transformation through Coexistence  

Melinda arrived in Darién in the 1980s, with the intention of co-existing with the community and seeking the common good. Over the years, she has witnessed the destruction of the forest and the need to find sustainable ways of living in harmony with nature.  

With that goal in mind, Melinda and her community created the organization Red de Vida, a farm and training center for conscious living. They allowed the forest to regenerate naturally, implemented rainwater harvesting techniques, and adopted renewable energies such as solar power to meet their basic needs.  


Special plants: Cultivating Positive Impact  

One of Red de Vida’s most prominent projects is the cultivation of medicinal plants, which benefit not only people’s health but also that of the forest. Additionally, they have established a farm where they experiment with organic agricultural techniques and promote awareness of the importance of conscious and nutritious eating. 

Education also plays a fundamental role in Red de Vida’s initiatives. By hosting university students interested in agroforestry and organic agriculture, the team is not only imparting knowledge but also cultivating an awareness of sustainable practices. Through workshops on holistic health, gender, and family management, they emphasise the interconnectedness of various aspects of life and encourage a holistic approach to well-being.  

During political campaigns, workshops are organised for politicians to connect with the environment and to nurture a spirit of conviviality during the meal. By encouraging the participants to engage in meaningful conversations and shared experiences over food, Red de Vida promotes a sense of community and interconnectedness. This practice fosters an awareness of the impact of our food choices on the environment and encourages mindful eating—a form of consciousness where individuals are present and attentive to the experience of consuming food, its origins, and its effects on health and the environment. As Melinda puts it: 

"The food blesses us. We don’t bless the food."

Special people: A Forest Retreat  

February 2024 marked the start of a new experience: a retreat on "ecological spirituality", a space designed to deeply connect with nature and reflect on the relationship with the environment. Taking place far from the bustle of the city, the retreat allowed immersion in the tranquility of the forest. During the retreat, various activities were engaged in, from reflections and meditations to sharing meals in community. Fundamentally, time was spent in the forest in silence, recognising how this ecosystem provides the oxygen needed while, in turn, exhaling the CO2 that plants use for their growth. It is fundamental to experience this relationship not only intellectually but also physically and consciously, through practices such as mindfulness and tai-chi. The results were encouraging, filled with hope as city dwellers were seen to be open to this kind of deep connection with nature.

Overall, these activities are intended to generate a mindset shift towards a more respectful and harmonious relationship with the environment. Through education, engagement, and conscious practices such as conviviality, nature connection and mindful eating, Melinda encourages individuals and communities to recognise their interconnectedness with nature and each other. This heightened awareness fosters a sense of responsibility towards environmental stewardship and promotes actions that prioritise sustainability and harmony.


Nurturing Consciousness and Collaboration   

Melinda emphasises the importance of consciousness in all aspects of life: from where we are to who we are with and how we relate to the environment and other human beings. She highlights the need to recognise the presence of spirit in everything and promotes a deeper connection with nature: 

"Consciousness of breathing is a very good example. When we breathe consciously, something happens to us. To put our thoughts in brackets, and just focus and feel the experience of breathing, for me, it is an awareness that the spirit is present. Many spiritual and religious traditions speak of the presence of this universal energy, this presence. And when the human being, family, community becomes aware of the presence of this spirit, this is consciousness expanding."

Melinda’s journey has been enriched by her involvement with The Conscious Food Systems Alliance (CoFSA). Through participation in CoFSA’s Consciousness Practices, Collective Inquiries, and Sharing Circles, she has gained invaluable insights into integrating consciousness into both her personal life and her work. Melinda and her team infuse consciousness into their farm organization by actively engaging in multicultural conversations with local farmers and agricultural professionals to discuss the cultural significance of food and explore challenges and solutions related to traditional farming practices. Through activities like meditation, nature connection, deep listening, and communal meals, they forge strong bonds with farmers and community members, fostering collaboration and alliance-building. These experiences have further empowered her to lead initiatives promoting conscious farming practices and environmental stewardship in the Darién tropical forest.

Melinda’s story is a powerful reminder of the impact that one person can have when living consciously and committedly and working in collaboration with others to protect and preserve our precious natural environment and our connection to it. Her work in Darién is a beacon of hope in a world that greatly needs visionary leaders, transformative actions and higher consciousness to live in harmony with nature. As Melinda gazes upon the flourishing ecosystem of Darién, her spirit soars with hope. She envisions Red de Vida continuing to inspire both the local community and visitors alike, emphasising the vital importance of integrating consciousness into every facet of the food production and consumption system.