Update 2011 - Panama

There are seven indigenous peoples or nations living in the Republic of Panama: the Ngäbe, the Kuna (Guna), the Emberá, the Wounaan, the Buglé, the Naso Tjerdi and the Bri Bri.1 According to the May 2010 census,2 they represent 12.7% (417,559) of the total population of 3,405,813.

When their territories were demarcated, the legal form they were given was the comarca and, within this, their own territory and political/ administrative structure are recognised. There are the following comarcas established by law: San Blas or Kuna Yala in 1953; Emberá-Wounaan, 1983; Kuna-Madungandi, 1996; Ngöbe-Buglé, 1997; and Kuna-Wargandi, 2000.3 The Naso-Tjerdi (previously known as the Teribe) territory still remains to be legalised. There are communities that live outside of the comarcas, such as the Emberá and Wounaan of Darién,4 and the Ngäbe and Buglé in Chiriquí and Bocas, and they are still seeking the legalisation of their lands.

he main issues affecting Panama’s indigenous peoples in one way or another over the last year were: 1) the constant confrontation with government officials and repression of indigenous peoples on the part of the government’s armed units;5 2) the collapse of the government coalition, which led to reprisals; 3) the failure to ratify ILO Convention 169 or implement Bilingual Intercultural Education; 4) the increased strength of the indigenous organisations nationally; and 5) the continued rise in indigenous migration.


Confrontation with government officials over development projects

The government’s outstanding debts to the indigenous Ngäbe people continued along the same lines as in the previous year:6 unclarified deaths, unattended injuries, apathy with regard to the provision of care for indigenous peoples, etc.

Moreover, this situation became even worse following the National Assenbly's approval in January of mining Law (Law 8 of 2011) which, among other things, opens up the Cerro Colorado, in the heart of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, to gold and copper mining. Initial protests were ignored and so demonstations followed, with the idigenous protesters blocking the Pan-American highway for five days. Repression from the forces of law and order followed, resulting in one death, and countless injuries and arrests.7

The Catholic church mediated in the conflict,8 and an agreement was signed to repeal the Mining Law. A committee was established to propose a special law for the comarca that would ban mineral  exploitation and hydroelectric power stations on its land.9 The negotiations lasted seven months and, in October last year, a proposal was presented to the Assembly. This draft bill of law proposes banning mining and hydroelectric  power stations in the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca and adjacent areas.10 The bill had, however, made little progress through the Assembly by the end of the year.

There is one particular case that remains unresolved and which has, in previous years, attracted the attention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. This relates to the lands flooded by the construction of the Chan 75 dam built in 2011, which forced many families to move, some whom have still not received any compensation.11

Another confrontation that was a permanent feature of 2011 was that of the Guna (Kuna) people. The government, supported and encouraged bythe USA, has for some time now wanted to build one or more air-sea bases on the Guna indigenous territory, apparently with the aim of bringing drugs trafficking under control. The Guna, however, are strongly opposed to this construction. Their authorities have denounced the violence meted out to communities in the Guna Yala comarca and in the area known as Takarkunyala (on the border with Colombia) by the public security forces’ militarised unit (Senafront12). This has been denounced by the Guna General Congress and the traditional authorities on many occasions.

The Guna population have also been in dispute with the government over tourism. Because the Guna authorities have control over their territory, a practise of anchoring “floating hotels” off the coast has become common, thus enabling these enterprises to conduct their business without any supervision from the Guna General Congress. Another focus of conflict is the possible construction of the Muladup-Morti highway, which would open up another cattle frontier in the Guna Yala and Guna de Wargandi comarcas.

Problems have continued for the Emberá and Wounaan peoples in the comarca of the same name and in the Darién region. On the one hand, clashes with Senafront continued from previous years. This military unit claims to want to control the border with Colombia and repulse “drugs terrorists” but it exercises control aggressively and despotically over the Embera and Wounaan communities of the comarca and over the lands and rivers close to the border.

To this problem must now be added the conflict with settlers who are logging13 within the comarca and the dangers being posed by the discovery of oil deposits

– apparently substantial – in the Pinogana area. This discovery was noted last year and, although there have been no further developments in this regard to date, the threat remains looming on the Panamanian horizon.


Political reprisals

One of the consequences of the collapse of the government coalition (between the Democratic Change and Panameñista parties)14 was the political reprisals suffered by most of the indigenous communities, whose representatives do not belong to the Democratic Change party. For example, the municipal funds that should have been forthcoming did not arrive,15 projects were hindered and division was fomented within the communities.


Lack of ratification and implementation

The government failed to discuss ratification of ILO Convention 169 last year, despite repeated requests from the indigenous organisations to do so, made both in writing and verbally. A working group was even set up to discuss this issue in October 2010 but no changes were forthcoming and so this has remained another area of dispute with the government.

In addition, Bilingual Intercultural Education remains almost completely unimplemented. Only in the Guna Yala comarca is it being taken forward, under the impetus of the Guna General Congress itself. In other indigenous areas, the programme is virtually non-existent. Despite having received some resources and being a requirement of national legislation,16 it seems the necessary political will is lacking.


Indigenous movement strengthens

The Guna people continue to be highly organised, implementing projects in areas such as tourism, and publishing their own dictionary last year. They also continue to have a strong presence at different national and international indigenous meetings. The Ngäbe and Buglé people maintain their presence through their struggle to prevent open-cast mining and the construction of hydro-electric power stations on their territories. Steps have been taken to ensure more and better organisation (for example, the election of a Paramount Chief and other authorities in September) and negotiations have continued with the National Assembly with regard to submitting a special anti-mining law.

The Emberá and Wounaan continue to organise and denounce the continual evictions caused by loggers, both inside and outside the comarca. In addition, in July, the Naso went ahead with the election of their principal authority (the King), thus providing them with greater stability in their struggle.

The National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of Panama, which includes representatives from the country’s seven native peoples, has continued its organisational strengthening process, participating in a number of different activities. These include producing a Declaration on Climate Change and REDD+ jointly with the Meso-American Alliance of Peoples and Forests.17 The organisation also demonstrated against the government’s repression of the Ngäbe people in February.


Indigenous migration to urban areas

The rural exodus continues unabated. According to the 2010 census, 40% of the Guna population now live in the comarcas while the figure climbs to 52.3% in the case of the Ngäbe and Buglé. In the case of the Emberá and Wounaan, however, the situation is more serious, with only 24% of the population living in the comarca.

An absence of development programmes, discrimination, the lack of any political will on the part of the government, the marginal zones they live in, the need for cheap labour in the cities and on the farms, their unproductive lands and serious health situation18 all contribute to the continuing situation of extreme poverty amongst indigenous communities and thus to increasing urban migration. The attraction of indigenous labour from Costa Rica19 also has a bearing as this affects the situation of Ngäbe families, the youth culture, the schooling of the children and the health of the people.


Notes and references

1 These are how the names are written in Law 88 of 2010 although there is some disagreement on the part of indigenous linguists.

2 In other words an increase from 8% (2000 estimates) ton 12.7%, according to this Census. Even so, serious deficiencies have been noted in this census.

3 In 1997, when they established the comarca, the officially wrote "Ngöbe".

4 There is a draft Law on Collective Lands for these communities but, in the face of government's apathy, this has lent itself to conflicts with non-indigenous settlers.

5 Panama has no army, as established in Article 310 of the National Constitution.

6 See The Indigneous World 2011, pp. 114-118. Copenhagen: IWGIA

7 For press sources and witness statement on these events see Human Rights Everywhere, 2011: Informe preliminar sobre violaciones a los derechos humanos en las jornadas de protesta contra la reforma minera en Panamá, January-March 2011, Panama.

8 The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples also called for dialogue, see press release at www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/indigenous/rapporteur

9   There were at that time three hydroelectric projects planned but not started in the Comarca and another two in adjacent areas. There were also two mining concessions within the Comarca.

10 See the draft bill of law (14 March 2011) submitted to the National Assembly by the Coordinadora por la Defensa de los Recursos Naturales y el Derecho del Pueblo Ngäbe Buglé y Campesino.

11 See www.treatyconuncil.org: Press release of 30 January 2009, Visit of the UN Rapporteur and www.jamesanaya.org: Panamá la situación de la comunidad Charco La Pava y otras afectadas por el proyecto Chan-75, 15 September 2010.

12 National Borders Agency, created in 2008 as part of the law enforcement services. It is highly militarised, with all kinds of arms and resources. It has even had armed clashes with the Colombian FARC.

13 See newspaper Día a Día, 25 April 2011.

14 The “public” reason for the collapse of the coalition put forward by President Martinelli was the lack of support from the Panameñista party at the second round of elections. A rather lightweight reason given everything that was at stake. There were most likely serious conflicts of economic interests and these led to the breakdown.

15 Each of the country’s municipalities receives a certain amount of money for its works, particularly those with no fixed income. In the Ngäbe- Buglé comarca, the municipalities should receive 1.5 million dollars each year; in 2010 and 2011 they received not even a quarter of this. This was put down to bureaucratic delays resulting from the government’s relationship with the political opposition (first with the PRD party and then with the Panameñista, parties to which most in the comarca belong).

16 See Articles 88, 90 and 108 of the National Constitution; Law 88 of 2010 and Comarca law.

17 See the press release of September 2011, the result of a meeting of both organisations in Panama.

18 See de León R., Ruth G. et al, 2011: ENASSER. Encuesta Nacional de Salud Sexual Reproductiva, Instituto Gorgas.

19 See news item in La Estrella de Panamá, 17 October 2011.


Jorge Sarsaneda del Cid is Panamanian. He has worked for 24 years between indigenous Ngobe Bugle and the people of Panama and K’iche ‘of Guatemala. He studied philosophy, theology and rural sociology. He now lives in Panama and working in various jobs with the country’s indigenous peoples.