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"Reality" TV Gets Real Trashy

Author: Jmaher and Michael Drake
Date: August 29, 2008
Note: The following has little to do with Tree Climbing, but since most of us who climb are interested in the environment and environmental issues I have added it to this website. Its only relation to our activity lies in the fact that it was encountered while involved with tree climbing this summer (2008) in the Panamanian rainforest. Since the Coalition is a member of Leave No Trace I feel the issue can justifiably be aired here.

I had only been at Boca del Drago, Republic of Panama, for a couple of weeks this summer when I began to notice a larger than usual amount of vehicular traffic along the road in front of our field station. After a few questions I began to understand.

It seemed that MTV was on the island and that an episode of their "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" reality show was being recorded at a spot just a few miles away. Or so I was told. Nobody was real clear about what was going on and I was told that MTV was trying to keep the whole thing a secret in order to keep unwanted visitors from showing up at the site. I can understand that; I wouldn't want a crowd hanging around while I was trying to create a scenario in which everyone was pretending that the event was happening on a deserted island. It would be rather hard to convince the public that they were watching an adventure in a remote location while a crowd was standing in the background.

All of the vehicles were going back and forth along the road that runs from the Drago beach community to a location farther northeast along the island's coastline. It didn't take long for those of us at the field station to figure out that all of the MTV crew was staying at a large house just down the road from us. Naturally, my curiosity led me on a little walk down the road just to see who all these people were. As I approached the big house I became aware of men in camouflage with Policia Nacional patches on their uniforms, guns on their hips, and who were watching me intently. I quickly changed my direction! A member of the local community explained that MTV had hired the police in order to ensure their security.

The next day I took a walk in the other direction, down the dirt road that leads away from our beachfront community. It goes through a dense forest to an area the locals call "Gringolandia". A lot of folks from the USA and other places around the globe have big homes out this way. After about a half mile there is a gate across the road, to ensure that it remains a "private" road and to guarantee the privacy of homeowners. The researchers and students at our field station have long had permission to go into this area, and we use it quite often to reach some of the island's more inaccessible sections of rainforest. On my walk, I wasn't going anyplace I shouldn't.

But, now there was a gatekeeper who was holding a clipboard and looking at me with suspicion. There has never been a gatekeeper at this place before. Keep this in mind: This is a rainforest and the area along this muddy dirt road is heavily forested and is a long way from almost anywhere else. Normally there would be no more than four or five vehicles a day along this road.

However, as I watched, a convoy of three vehicles approached from the other side of the gate, two pickup trucks and a four-wheel drive SUV. The gatekeeper swung open the gate, the vehicles drove through and past me, going in the direction from which I'd just walked. No one offered a greeting, no one waved a hand, no one even rolled down a window; the occupants were hidden behind smoked glass.

This was very uncharacteristic behavior for those who come and go in this part of the world. The local culture demands that we all look out for each other. This was the first time I had ever been passed by a vehicle on this road without a greeting or the offer of a lift. I walked back to the field station without going any farther; it was getting late and I was tired.

During the following weeks I walked this road often, both by myself and with students. Most of the time was spent a long way off the road in the forest toward the interior of the island. There are some huge trees here and the climbing is quite spectacular. There is also the opportunity for students to involve themselves in some very interesting canopy research in this area. The road was nothing more for us than a route of access to be followed by long walks along primitive trails that lead away from it. More than once we went to areas beyond the gate, but made it a point to keep away from whatever was going on with the MTV people. Their vehicles continued to come and go and not once did we encounter even so much as a friendly gesture.

Then came the day that our director, and some of our students, returned from a walk along that same road carrying a couple of garbage bags that they had picked up along the way. The garbage bags were filled with trash that included a number of items identifiable as belonging to MTV with MTV-related information on them. There were copies of script, giving us an "advance" notice of what participants would be saying to each other and to the camera when the show was aired. Obviously this "reality" show was going to be a carefully scripted piece of work rather than a candid look at life on a "deserted" tropical island. Anyway, that aside, it was fact that trash had been left on the side of the road in a beautiful and pristine tropical rainforest. Our students had picked it all up and carried it in to be disposed of in an appropriate fashion. So not only were they being very unfriendly, they were displaying no regard for where they were and what was being done with their trash.

Encounters with some of the folks who reside out in Grigolandia revealed the information that there was indeed a lot of activity at the "remote" and "deserted" site of the show. One resident of the area, who lives only a few hundred yards from the site was able to watch the activity from his lawn chair and reported regularly on all the "goings-on". However, anytime this person took a walk down the beach in the direction of the activity, there would be security people to stop him. It should be noted that in Panama all beaches are, by law, considered to be public and that this was in violation of that idea. Another resident, who has property on the other side of the action, was also stopped from walking down the beach.

Not only are the beaches public but there are laws that are "supposed" to keep people from building structures within a certain distance from the beach. It was reported that a number of structures, including some bamboo tiki-type huts, had been constructed right at the high-water mark on the beach. All of this was done in an area of previously undisturbed tropical rainforest along a pristine Caribbean beach. Even though much of the property in the area is privately owned, including the spot of the MTV scenario, the property owners have done little to disturb the tranquil and wild quality of the surrounding rainforest and beachfront. MTV's presence and activity showed no respect whatsoever for this idea.

The vehicles continued to come and go as the summer passed and we heard stories of events taking place at the site. We were told that quite a bit of forest had been cleared in order to accommodate the activity. Large generators had been brought in to provide power, pads for the generators had been built, lighting had been installed along the beach, an access road had been built, and quite a bit of bamboo and other wood had been cut for building the tiki huts.

Several times during all of this activity, a helicopter would fly back and forth over the forest and above the site. We were told that they were doing aerial photography of the event. I was personally offended by the noise generated by the helicopter. It is rather hard to experience the tranquil quality of a wild and remote forest while a mechanical eggbeater is constantly flying back and forth only a hundred feet or so above the treetop in which I was hanging out. The birds and the monkeys were no happier.

Then there was the "airdrop" performed by one of the local Panamanian airline planes, during which a load of "supplies" was dropped into the water for the participants to recover and claim. I suppose this was necessary in order to ensure their having enough supplies to survive, although I can't fathom why that same load of supplies could not have been brought to the site in one of those vehicles that was constantly going back and forth along the road. Go figure!

A couple of miles "out to sea" from the spot of all the activity along the "deserted" tropical beachfront sits Bird Island, or as some call it, Swan Cay. This small island is a sanctuary and rookery for colonies of sea birds. It is a protected area and we have been told that it is unlawful to set foot on the island, although a lot of tour boats take visitors out to float around the island to allow their clients to observe the avian activity without going ashore. MTV, however, had no reservations at all about placing a "treasure chest" of trinkets on this little island and then "challenging" their participants to construct boats to take them out to this island to raid their treasure chest.

Finally, toward the end of July, we were told that the "show" was over and that the crew and the participants were gone. One of our students and I took a walk out toward the area to see what was to be seen. The security was gone, the gate on the road was closed, and life seemed back to normal. We found the "new" driveway that had been made to access the site and we took a cautious walk down toward the beach. All was quiet; nobody stopped us. Down the hill we went toward the beach and began to see just what a crew of TV people could do when they decided to make a production. The place looked like a trash dump and there was an area of devastation inconsistent with the surrounding forest. MTV had packed up and gone and there was nothing left behind that could be compared with what had been there before. Refer to the photos at the start of this article in order to get a visual idea of what I am talking about here. I have seen the aftermath of a tornado and this was almost as bad. The area had been deserted with little attempt at any sort of cleanup of the mess.

In addition to what took place at this site there was also a lot of activity at another site near an area referred to locally as Starfish Beach. This spot had also been made secure from the public during MTV's presence there, even though it is a popular spot for visitors to hike out to for swimming and sunbathing. This place had been left comparatively clean although trash had been piled up and left behind for removal.

Now, it can legitimately be argued that all of this, being on privately owned property, was subject to the whim of the property owner and any agents to whom the owner might have given permission to do whatever they wished. Nevertheless I can assure all of you that had this been done in any urban/suburban neighborhood, almost anywhere else, the neighbors would have been justified in entering a legal complaint against the landowner. A large plot of rainforest had been cleared, a pristine Caribbean beach had been trashed, and the creators had simply packed up and left. A family of what appeared to be "squatters" had already moved into one of the buildings left behind.

So just what have we had here?

First, a crowd of people that have shown no respect at all for local culture and custom, their attitude proclaiming the idea that "We are more important than any of you, don't need you, and can do whatever we want. We don't even have to acknowledge your presence."

Second, a TV entity that wants to fool the world with a reality show supposedly taking place on a deserted and remote tropical island, that, in fact, has houses within several hundred yards on either side of their production site, and is on an island that is the hottest tourist spot in almost all of Panama.

Third, a group that leaves its trash on the side of the road with no regard for the natural beauty of the place.

Fourth, a group that will indiscriminately cut down whatever part of the forest is necessary in order to accommodate its objective, whether for construction or simply because it might be in the way.

Fifth, A group that set foot and conducted activities on a small and protected island without regard for the fact that the island has been declared "off-limits" to human visitation.

Sixth, their low-flying helicopter and airplane was a serious interruption of the tranquility of the forest. There are a lot of monkeys and birds inhabiting this part of the forest and every time the helicopter would come over, these local residents would become seriously agitated. I doubt that MTV knew, or cared, that these animals were there.

Seventh, they left without cleaning up the mess they had created.

Eighth, they did all of this with the obvious cooperation of the Policia Nacional.

Ninth, MTV's behavior in this situation has been rampantly inconsistent with their self-proclaimed "MTV Green Crusade". I sense a bit of hypocrisy and I question their commitment toward being "green".

Since coming home I have done a bit of research on MTV's website, but have not been able to find much information relating to this production. I will be watching carefully in the future for the airing of this production to see what they have done with it. Perhaps I have been unjustified in my criticism and, if so, I will offer my apologies whenever it becomes obvious that I have been unfair. In the meanwhile I will continue to show my irritation for what I perceive MTV to have done to a beautiful area of rainforest and beach.

It must be remembered that everything that I have talked about here was part of a "secret" project. A lot of the information here is, admittedly, hearsay. A lot of my comments are nothing more than my own opinion of things. The exact details of the event have been unverified, and, except for the information found in those trash bags that were mentioned, I have no proof that MTV was, indeed, the perpetrator of anything mentioned. I await the airing of the program to give credibility to everything stated here.

Update: After a bit of further research on the web I have discovered that MTV will be airing this show on September 17 and that it will be titled "The Island". My information was found at http://vevmo.com/f187/. The best single piece of information was at this same sight at http://vevmo.com/f187/real-world-road-rules-challenge-island-preview-trailer-1900/.

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