Sunday, 20 January 2013

Indigenous Peoples of Panama

by Divya Sharma

The last week has involved many lectures, a field trip to Agua Salud, an evening excursion to a pond (replete with fish and capped with a waterfall), a trip to the mall, lunch at the beach, dinner at a tapas bar, a walk up a lighthouse, and a performance by Rubén Blades at the Panama Jazz Festival.

I think we’re settling in nicely.

Yesterday, as Alex mentioned, Richard Cooke gave us our first anthropology talk about the isthmus as a bridge for the migration of early colonists from the strait of Beringia down to the tip of Chile. I found this talk particularly interesting, since my research will consist of working with the Indigenous Peoples of Panama on land use management, as part of the larger project of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). The general idea of REDD+ is that more developed countries pay for reforestation in less developed countries, in order to offset carbon emissions and minimise global warming and climate change. Part of the mandate of REDD+ is the explicit inclusion and participation of local groups in the planning and implementation of reforestation programmes. Nevertheless, much of the adversity facing the project stems from its potential negative impacts on indigenous groups, such as a decrease in autonomy and loss of traditional practices. Alex has already mentioned some of the trials facing indigenous groups in Panama today, but here is some more information about the different tribes on the isthmus.

The three main indigenous groups are the Ngobe-Bugle (population of ~250 000), the Kuna (~50 000) and the Choco or Embera-Wounan (~8000) (MRGI 2008). Panama largely consists of a mestizo population of indigenous, Chinese, African and Spanish origins. According to Richard Cooke, approximately 83% of Panamanians cluster into native pan-American lineages, providing evidence for population continuity (i.e. Panamanians are descended directly from original colonists who arrived in the Americas around 10kya). Various microhabitats across the isthmus enabled the trade of specialised products from the Caribbean to the Pacific. When towns began to form, territories were divided into chiefdoms spreading from the coast to the cordillera.

Currently, five out of seven indigenous groups have officially recognised semi-autonomous territories, or comarcas. The Kuna, who inhabit the San Blas Islands, have the most political power of the three groups, and secured their comarca after a violent uprising against the Panamanian government in 1925. According to Richard Cooke, it is possible that the Kuna were present along the Caribbean coast at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century. The Ngobe-Bugle lack the political clout that the Kuna maintain, given that they live in small communities in the rainforest and are not as widely organised. The Choco live in the Darien province near Colombia, and also lack the political influence of the Kuna. Colombian refugees and mestizo squatters entering their area have resulted in ongoing conflicts (MRGI 2008).

Panama’s strong indigenous traditions have demanded that current REDD+ efforts focus on reconciling the social, political and economic needs of the country’s indigenous culture with the necessity of taking active steps to offset global climate change. While this balance of interests poses a challenge, it is an essential consideration of any environmental endeavour.   

MRGI (Minority Rights Group International), World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Panama : Overview, December 2008, available at: [accessed 21 January 2013]

Low tide at Veracruz beach

Dilapidated lighthouse in Gamboa


View of the Canal from the lighthouse

 Walking along the one-lane bridge in Gamboa

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