Latin America & Caribbean

Working Lives Panama

For BBC World News South America business reporter Katy Watson travelled to Panama to meet five very different people and hear about their working lives.

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Media captionAndrea Lino

Andrea Lino is waiting just outside the village of Drua, on a sandy beach formed in a wide bend of the River Chagres, 40km (25 miles) north of Panama City.

Wearing the traditional costume of the Embera people, Andrea is a tribal chief turned trainee teacher who earns a living making traditional crafts for tourists.

Life in the village is simple but not without comfort. The villagers live in palm-thatched huts and cook on open fires, but they have solar panels for electricity.

The Embera are originally from the border Darien region between Panama and Colombia, but some groups moved nearer the capital after the region became dangerous because of drug-running gangs.

Though just an hour and a half by boat and road from Panama City, they can continue to lead a traditional life.

They are permitted to fish in the river but not to hunt game in the jungle around them.

"We do clash with the government in terms of the National Park and the use of land," she says.

"We are conservationists in terms of land. We value our land. The land for us is Mother Earth. We benefit from it and others don't. Some people want to destroy it."

Her house is home to six people - Andrea, her husband, her son and her brother, and the two nieces she is bringing up following her sister's death.

Above the rooms, the roof slopes to a high pitch.

"The higher the ceiling, the fresher it is in the house," Andrea says.

For now, income is limited by the traditional crafts the family sells to tourists, but once she qualifies as a teacher, she can earn about $700 (£415) a month.

The regular income will mean greater security because as one of the more remote villages higher up the river, Drua can sometimes go for months without a visit from tourists.

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Media captionAidy Pesantez

It is early in the morning, and Aidy Pesantez is unloading her car outside a shopping mall in Panama City. Her assistants help by putting packages and bags on the pavement while they wait for the shopping centre to be unlocked.

As they bustle, one of the cloth bags on the pavement moves slightly. Then a small black snake's head pushes out through an opening. Someone gently pushes it back into the sack before it makes off.

The snake is one of the attractions of Aidy's company, Party Pets Panama, which also features Rocky the bearded dragon and Scrappy the crocodile.

Her shows allow people the chance to see a range of animals up close and to handle some of the reptiles she cares for. Many choose to have their photographs taken with them for those all-important status updates.

Now inside and set up, it is not long before a large crowd has gathered around a stage to see Candy, a yellow and white Burmese python, wrap its thick body around a small child.

The girl's father is not alarmed. It is a privilege he has paid for, and he sits with his daughters on a sofa as Aidy takes some photos of the family group with the Burmese python coiling itself around them.

"I want people to realise that there is nothing to fear from these animals," Aidy says.

"When I was a child, my dad used to take me to the lake to go fishing, and we would see crocodiles and catch them and touch them, so he showed me how to handle them."

"Then I got a job in a pet shop. I was the purchasing manager so I did all the paperwork bringing animals in. That's how I started."

Aidy and her marine biologist husband keep the animals at home. Many of them, such as the Burmese pythons, were abandoned by their owners as they grow to such enormous lengths.

"We have a lot of nature in Panama, but most people aren't aware of it so we go to schools and we go to shopping malls, to show people how to be friendly with nature," she says.

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Media captionDionisia Stephens

Dionisia Stephens is tipping pigs tails into a bubbling pot of soup at 07:00 local time, just one of the dishes she offers to her local lunchtime customers who work in Colon, Panama's second city.

"I always wanted my own business, and cooking is what I love doing," she says.

She stands at the stove in the kitchen of her four-bedroom bungalow adding some homemade hot pepper sauce to the mixture.

"She always used to help me cook," says her mother, sitting at the kitchen table adding names to the list of today's customers. "Now I help her."

Dionisia and her mother monitor the phone, their Facebook page and Whatsapp, as people start to place their orders for the day.

The menu for the week is planned and printed up as a flyer, with a different dish every day. Today, Monday, is always a soup.

Until a year ago, Dionisia worked in sales but always harboured a dream to run her own business.

She ladles soup into polystyrene pots while her mother writes a customer's name on the lid and arranges them by workplace so they are easier to deliver.

At lunchtime, Dionisia loads the car and delivers pots of soup and packages of foil-wrapped rice to her loyal clients.

"The food here is totally different from Panama City, it is a different culture," she says.

Colon is on the Caribbean coast, while the capital is on the Pacific coast. Its free-trade area is the world's second largest after Hong Kong. Yet, according to Dionisia, the wealth created here is not spent here.

As she delivers her freshly cooked lunches to the offices and shops in the area, slowly crossing names off the list on her dashboard, she points to the small kiosks on the roadside and talks of her ambitions for her business.

"I will get one of those and increase my business," she says. "Then I will be closer to the clients and I can get passing trade."

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Media captionEric Lew

Eric Lew is a maintenance captain at Gatun locks, one of the vast lock systems on the Panama Canal that enables ships to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

He is responsible for a team that ensures the 100-year-old mechanism works like clockwork. Until 1999, the Panama Canal was run by the United States, but it was handed over to Panama after lengthy negotiations.

As he looks on, a massive container ship glides into the lock with just 15cm (6in) to spare on either side. Other ships queue up in Gatun Lake, waiting for their scheduled slot through the canal.

"These are still the original steel gates - 100 years old - but the whole process now is very different," Eric says.

"When we took over the running of the canal from the US in 2000, everything changed," he says.

"For the US it was a strategic thing. They provided a service to ships going through, but the reason they were here was strategic."

Since the handover, the Panama Canal has made the transition to a fully commercial operation.

"The canal is very important to Panama," Eric says. "For me too I am proud of the people who work here."

"Preventative maintenance is what keeps the whole thing running - 24/7 we're bringing ships through here, so we can't afford to have anything break down."

Eric estimates that every year the canal generates $800m for the government, to be spent on infrastructure.

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Media captionVirgilio Athanasiadis

Businessman Virgilio Athanasiadis is the grandson of a Greek immigrant who ventured out to Panama when the canal was being built, in search of opportunity.

He first went into teaching but then turned to farming. His business interests now span agriculture, shrimp ponds and a helicopter charter business.

Patting the gleaming black coat of his Andalusian stallion, he laughs and says: "We sometimes use horses on the farm, but this is just for spending money."

But Virgilio has a knack for making money too.

His business empire, based in the central Panamanian town of Veraguas, is a shrewdly balanced model of integrated agriculture.

Husk from rice production is burned as fuel or used as bedding in the poultry sheds.

"Nothing is wasted, everything is used," he says. "It's good for the environment, and it's good for business."

As well as rice, Virgilio farms pigs, chickens, cattle and shrimps. But he also controls the entire supply chain - from the animal feed, which he also produces, to the mini-supermarkets selling his chicken, sausages and rice.

The shrimp ponds alone occupy 1,100 hectares (4.2 sq miles) along the Pacific coast.

"It got to the point where my father needed a helicopter so he could visit the different parts of his business," says his son Villo, a pilot.

Not content to own a helicopter however, Virgilio founded a helicopter charter company that caters for hydroelectric construction projects in remote areas.

His two sons and two daughters work for the company, but at 63 years old Virgilio remains very much hands on with the businesses.

While he accepts that he has done well, he thinks those in Panama who complain about unequal distribution of wealth are not looking to create wealth themselves.

"I started here," he says, "and if I can do it, others can do it too."

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