‘To have your thesis come alive into a movement — that is something’

Ruth Metzel smiles as she lowers a plant into the ground.
Courtesy of Ruth Metzel ’10
When she was in high school, Ruth Metzel ’10 saved up all her babysitting money to go to the Amazon with her biology teacher. On the trip she became fascinated with the region of Latin America, her experience inspiring the essay that got her into Princeton.

As an ecology and environmental biology major, she studied abroad in Panama and got to know the landscape of the Azuero peninsula. In her thesis, she wrote about the dynamics of forest cover change, and after graduating she decided to turn her research into reality. 

With Princeton’s Henry Richardson Labouisse ’26 Prize, she took $25,000 of fellowship funding, her entrepreneurial spirit, and her vision to help protect the biodiversity of Panama back to the Azuero peninsula. 

The peninsula, along with many other parts of Latin America, had been suffering for centuries from deforestation, mainly due to cattle ranching and agriculture. This was causing many species, including the Azuero spider monkey, to be critically endangered. Metzel’s vision was to map and build out an ecological corridor that would connect fragmented habitats and enrich and restore the degraded deforested landscape of the region.

Figuring out where to strategically place the corridor was one thing, but how do you go about convincing owners of nearly 400 privately owned properties to help build the corridor out with you, on their properties?

Before a single tree could be planted, Metzel and her team took five years to educate, engage, and build out the movement that would become Fundación Pro Eco Azuero.

To win the trust of these rural communities, Metzel and her team first identified a key leader and change agent: elementary school teachers. By partnering with teachers, schools, and students, they were able to gamify the restoration, inventing Twister-esque games where children acted as monkeys and dots symbolized the trees that monkeys would need to survive. By teaching students and their families to recognize the importance of the land and understand its ecology and biodiversity, Metzel and her team were able to gain trust from the community and start the conversation with allies, early adopters, and eventually all the local landowners.

To further convince landowners to take action, Metzel and her team sought to align with their individual goals. By planting trees along this corridor, landowners would see productivity increases with better soil, land management, and water management — all crucial in a region with a six-month dry season. Many landowners also wished to ensure that the younger generation would still be able to enjoy the beauty and connection that they had to the land. 

For 10 years Metzel stayed in Panama, growing not just the land that would become Pro Eco Azuero — the restored habitat along an 80 km biological corridor covering nearly 25,000 hectares — but also the organization and movement behind it. Eventually she handed the baton to Sandra Vasquez, a local Panamanian and the organization’s current executive director. Along the way, Metzel became a National Geographic Explorer, helped the organization to win numerous environmental awards, and even starred on a Panamanian reality TV show. 

As a permanent resident of Panama, Metzel still returns “home” a few times a year. 

Metzel is most proud of how the seeds of change she planted have flourished. “The movement is like a tree,” she says. “You grow it, you nurture it, and eventually it flowers and grows on its own. And to have your thesis come alive into a movement — that is something.”