The 2010 national census concluded that 438,559 or 12.8% of the country’s 3.4 million inhabitants self-identified as Indigenous. The Gunadule, Emberá, Wounaan, Ngäbe, Buglé, Naso Tjer Di and Bri Bri peoples have all obtained recognition and had their territories demarcated, albeit according to the vagaries of the state’s political-administrative divisions, and are currently represented by 121 congresses and councils.
Indigenous peoples in Panama
There are seven indigenous peoples of Panama. Although Panama adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, its indigenous communities are facing a number of challenges, especially in relation to recognition of and rights to territories as well as forcible eviction.
Moreover, the Government of Panama announced in 2010 that it would ratify ILO Convention 169, an international legal instrument dealing specifically with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. However, no significant progress has been made in this regard.
The indigenous peoples of Panama
The seven indigenous peoples of Panama are the Ngäbe, the Buglé, the Guna, the Emberá, the Wounaan, the Bri bri, and the Naso Tjërdi. According to the 2010 census, they number 417,559 inhabitants or 12% of the total Panamanian population.
There are five regions, or comarcas, which are recognised by independent laws and are based on the indigenous peoples’ constitutional rights. These are the Guna Yala (1938), Emberá-Wounaan (1983), Guna Madungandi (1996), Ngäbe-Buglé (1997), and Guna Wargandí (2000). In total, these comarcas cover an area of 1.7 million hectares.
Main challenges for indigenous peoples in Panama
2016 was markedly different from the previous year in Panama, as the Panameñista Party government curtailed implementation of indigenous rights in various ways. For example, Interior Minister Milton Henríquez stated in front of the leaders of all the country’s indigenous congresses and councils that the state would only recognise the traditional authorities of the five existing comarcas, thus side-lining the authorities of 30 indigenous territories from any future consultations and negotiations. The Minister was consequently declared persona non grata by all the indigenous authorities. Some decided not to participate as beneficiaries in the Indigenous Peoples' Comprehensive Development Plan.
Another challenge relates to Law 37 of August 2016. It establishes the mechanism for indigenous peoples’ prior, free and informed consent and, if applied appropriately, has the potential to prevent many future conflicts. Despite its draft bill having initially been presented by an indigenous Member of Parliament, and having been considered by the Legislative Committee for Indigenous Affairs, the law was not put out to consultation with the indigenous peoples.
On another note, the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project in the Ngäbe-Buglé territory continues to be implemented without consent, with funds from the German Development Bank, a subsidiary of the German public financial institution, KfW and the Dutch Development Bank, FMO. Indigenous communities were forcibly evicted from the project area in order to begin a test fill of its reservoir, which flooded sacred sites, farmland and houses. These apparent violations led the indigenous authorities, in cooperation with activists, to draw international attention to the matter.
Potential progress for Panama’s indigenous peoples
Potential progress for the indigenous peoples of Panama may be found in the alternative way of obtaining the titling of collective lands. Since 2008, Law 72, has set out the special procedure for awarding a collective title to the lands of indigenous peoples, not within comarcas. To date, only five territories have been titled under this law, and these were smaller in size than the actual area of traditional territory claimed.
It is estimated that once the process of collective land titling is completed, a total area of 2.5 million hectares will have been recognized to the indigenous peoples, covering 63% of the country’s forests. A number of protected areas have been superimposed on these territories, without gaining the consent of the indigenous peoples. The titling of 25 outstanding territories is an urgent need given that it has been shown to be an effective way of preserving Panama’s forests, which have been cleared at a rate of around 16,000 hectares a year over the last 10 years.
In 2017, the youth of the Gunayala Comarca held their first Guna General Congress, where they approved a set of resolutions, such as the creation of the Guna youth training school, use of traditional dress, a request to show a greater interest in meeting and conversing with indigenous youth, the creation of a youth commission to support the Secretariat of Territorial and Defence and participate in the activities that are carried out.
In a press release issued on 7 February 2012, the Special Rapporteur urged the Government of Panama and indigenous peoples to initiate a dialogue due to the situation of tension and violence following indigenous protests. In recent days, Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous representatives have blocked different points of the Inter-American highway in protest of proposed mining and hydroelectric activities on their territories.