Shipping Plants and Seeds into Panama
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Michael Ducharme
Posted on: April 07, 2006

My apologies for the long delay in replying. Your query arrived when I was bedridden with a nasty flu. Then I recovered to find my mailbox jammed with email which I am now going through.

I have placed a small order of seeds to my mailbox in USA that forwards to my home in Panama City, Panama.

I’m planning to eradicate poverty in this small but extremely fertile country. The root of poverty here is ignorance. And the stem of the weed is malnutrition.

The solution is transfering the information that they most desperately need, and this relates to our most basic biological needs for good nutrition.

I need your help. Please share with me (and with all of the impoverished people in Panama) all of the information that will help me plan to bring sustainable balanced nutrician and natural herbal medicine to thousands of indiginous people 7 degrees north of the equator.

I’ll appreciate any help you can offer, whether it is detailed or even if you simply point me in the right direction.

If you happen to know which plants and seeds can be shipped freely into Panama, please let me know.

Each country has its own rules for the importation of seeds and those rules change often. It is impossible to be current with each country’s rules, so our standard procedure is to request our customers to consult with their country’s department of agriculture for details on seed importation. In most cases, the importer needs to apply for an import permit. That import permit will spell out the rules that apply to the importation; so we ask our customers to send us a copy of that import permit so that we know what is required. In some cases it is impossible for us to comply with the import requirements.

The trouble with going through the official route and getting the import permit is that most countries require phytosanitary certificates issued by the Canadian government. This is not practical for seed packets; we generally only get them for bulk seed shipments consisting of, say, 100 grams or 1 kg of seed per variety. There is a cost ($20) for the certificate, plus the cost of the sample of each variety of seed that must be submitted, plus our time (as this can be a time-consuming process).

For small orders of, say, a few seed packets that fit in a small bubble-pack envelope, sending seeds without all of the official paperwork often works. Of course, there is no guarantee, and there is always the chance that the shipment will be stopped and either returned to us or destroyed. The decision to try to send seeds without official documentation is the customer’s, and by necessity the customer assumes all risk for possible seizure or other problems when the seeds arrive. This is a trial and error process to see what works. We have not shipped seeds to Panama previously so we cannot tell you how easy or difficult it is ship there.

Shipping to your U.S. mailbox may have some special advantages. All our seeds are pre-cleared to enter the U.S. In fact, we attach a phytosanitary certificate sticker on each parcel going to the U.S. This sticker is not officially valid in other countries, but we believe that small shipments sometimes have an easier time entering other countries when they pass through a U.S. mailbox.

If you are contemplating a large order of seeds, or if you want us to ship by means other than mail (such as FedEx or UPS) then there is really no choice but to go the official route and apply for an import permit.

Please comment on the types of plants that can grow on a tropical caribbean island. (If there is no appropriate soil we plan to create this using organic waste and worms.) But I lack general knowledge of how deep the soil needs to be for fruitful crops.

A classic problem in tropical areas is the relative lack of fertility of the soil. In the tropics, biological activity is so high that most of the available nutrients are taken up by living matter, leaving the soil to be relatively poor nutrient-wise. That is why land cleared of jungle vegetation for farming is only good for a few years before the soil is so depleted nothing will grow. It takes a lot of effort to keep the soil fertile in tropical areas. Throwing chemical fertilizer at the problem only works for a while; better approaches are classic organic growing methods such as crop rotation, green manure crops, including nitrogen bearing crops such as legumes, and organic amendments such as farmyard manure and compost.

In addition, tropical areas present problems such as 1) high humidity which can cause diseases, 2) excessive rainfall which can damage the roots of many herbs and food plants, 3) pests to which the plants have no defenses such as termites, and 4) excessive heat and lack of a cool winter season for some herbs and food plants. In some cases, some of these problems can be compensated for. For example, excessive moisture can be partly controlled by improving drainage using raised beds. But whether a crop will succeed or not is difficult to predict, and in a lot of cases it is very dependent on the skill of the grower and his or her effort and determination to succeed.

Please recommend an economical plan for feeding more people with the same money. I.e. focusing first on perennial plants or buying bulk seeds at a discount, then the first crop of plants will produce more seeds for phase two of the project...

Any other details you care to discuss, I am all eyes and ears.

There are several possible approaches you might take. First I would look at what the local people are growing already. The plants they are growing are ones that have been proved to survive the local conditions. Poverty reduction may simply be a matter of providing more resources to the local people to do what they are already doing.

Second, I would look at alternative crops that are commonly grown in neighbouring countries. Costa Rica has an increasingly sophisticated agricultural economy, growing and exporting many temperate plants and plant products to North America. Of course, Costa Rica’s success with temperate plants probably has much to do with the mountainous terrain throughout the country, a very different climatic zone compared to what you have on your Caribbean island. But no doubt there are lessons to be learned from what is grown in the coastal regions of Costa Rica.

Finally, I would conduct small trials of alternative crops that have promise as food plants in tropical settings. We occasionally get reports from customers in tropical areas that plants that seemed to be slam-dunk winners in a tropical setting turn out to be dismal failures for unexpected reasons, while other plants that we never expected would grow successfully turned out to be just fine. If I were you I would look at this as a long term project, starting with a research phase where you enlist a few growers to conduct trials growing alternative crops on a small scale. Small patches the size of a home vegetable garden will tell you a lot about which crops will work and which will not. The long term aspect is important because often pest and disease problems don’t show up for a few years: you can have great success with a new crop for a couple of years only to have crop-destroying pests and diseases break out in later years.

For more information on herbs that are known to grow in the tropics, please see the previous questions we have answered on the topic:

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