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The Dream and the Reality: Tourism in Kuna Yala

At 5 a.m. every morning, in a corner of Panama's Allbrook Airport, chaos reigns in a riot of color. Kuna men and women, dressed traditionally in their bright red headdresses and intricately embroidered mola blouses, mill around, while a handful of tourists wait in line looking bewildered. At 6 a.m. the first of the small planes leaves the highrises and traffic jams of Panama City to fly over the rainforest of the Continental Divide and down the Caribbean coast. In 40 minutes, the early morning mists clear, revealing the coast below and the sea scattered with tiny islands. The small plane flies over one island crammed with thatched huts, another with only coconut palms. The plane then lands on a small airstrip on the edge of the rainforest to discharge some of its cargo. Then it takes off again, heads out to sea, and lands on an island so small the airstrip runs the length of the island and ends on a coral infill. This is the island of El Porvenir, the administrative center of the San Blas Comarca, or Kuna Yala, the land of the Kuna. The San Bias islands stretch for approximately 226 kilometers, from Punta San Bias in the northeast of Panama, to Puerto Obaldía, near the Colombian border, in the southeast. Today an estimated 40,000 Kuna live in the Comarca, the great majority on 40 islands, generally those situated near to the coast allowing easy access to agricultural lands, fresh water, firewood, and construction materials. The Panamanian Tourist Institute (IPAT) has described San Bias' 370 tiny coral islands as extraordinary. However, all is not perfect in paradise. Of the 40 main inhabited islands only about 10 have running water, and five electricity. Population growth is high and inhabited islands are overcrowded: There are high incidences of malnutrition among children and of diseases linked with contaminated water; clinics are permanently faced with a shortage of drugs; and schools lack basic supplies such as books and paper. Uninhabited islands are covered in coconut palms tended by one or two families. In 1967 the commercialization of coconuts accounted for 70 percent of the Comarca's total income. However, the coconut trade is now in decline, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Kunas to earn a living. The younger men fish for lobsters which are sold to Panamanian companies, but the lobsters are being over-fished and the activity has been banned between March and July. Many young men, finding life hard on the islands, are leaving to work in Panama. They are unwilling to go to their families' farmland in the rainforest every day, often a journey of several hours, and some are now involving themselves in the drug trade between Colombia and Panama. Tourism is, therefore, seen by many Kuna as an answer. A representative of the Kuna newspaper, Barsoged, told me: "There are a few options, but tourism is the most important."

Tourism in Kuna Yala

The Kunas living in the west of the Comarca are no strangers to tourism. Here the water depth allows cruise ships to enter, and since the 1940s tourists have visited the islands to walk around the Kuna villages and buy the colorful molas of the Kuna women. The first small hotel on the islands was opened in the 1940s by a North American on the island of El Porvenir, but it was not until 1962, when IPAT was formed, that the Comarca was promoted in a systematic fashion. Around this time aviation companies in Panama began flying small groups of tourists to experience life on the islands first hand, and other small hotels began to open on the islands next to El Porvenir.

In 1973, IPAT presented proposals to the Kuna's governing body, the Congreso General Kuna (CGK) (see box), for the construction of a 686-room resort hotel in the west of the Comarca near Río Sidra, a proposal which was to cause deep divisions within the Comarca, and a serious conflict between the government and the Kuna. The plan was eventually abandoned in 1977, partly because of the Kuna's threat to use violence, if necessary, to prevent the hotel from opening. The incident left the Kuna with a deep suspicion of IPAT and relations remain strained. The Kuna also reacted strongly against non-Kuna involvement in Islandia and Pidertupu, two resort hotels were opened in the 1960s by North Americans. In 1969, and again in 1974, Islandia was burnt to the ground, and in 1981, one of the hotel owners was shot in the leg during a violent attack by islanders and two Kuna national guardsmen were killed in the confusion. Both Moody and Barton were barred from returning to Kuna Yala, and these events did much to shape today's tourism policy in the Comarca.

Present Day Problems

More recently non-Kuna involvement in the model ecoresort, Hotel Iskardup, has led to four years of confrontation and debate. In 1994, Iskardup opened on an uninhabited island near Playón Chico. A consortium of Panamanian businessmen financed and marketed the hotel through the shareholders' company, Jungle Adventures. Conflicts between the island's owner and Jungle Adventures led to the matter being discussed in the CGK in 1995. There it was decided to close the hotel because of foreign involvement, the Kuna citing the cases of Islandia and Pidertupu as examples of foreigners seizing lands for themselves and provoking confrontations. During 1996 the hotel was closed for most of the year. In 1997 shares in Jungle Adventures were purchased by Panamanian businessman, George Novey Jr., who is the only non-Kuna to operate in San Bias with the apparent blessing of the CGK. However, the problems continued, and although a contract was signed, it was canceled by the CGK, on grounds of non-compliance with CGK rules. Three months later the hotel closed again. At this point some members of the village of Playón Chico, eager not to lose the income from the hotel, objected and offered to run Iskardup themselves. Lacking the experience to do so, the operation has not been a success. Although the hotel is currently open, there are concerns over its future.

In 1996, the CGK ratified laws to prevent outside entrepreneurs investing in their lands. The laws expanded on existing legislation forbidding any non-Kuna from involvement in tourism projects. Under this law any Kuna wishing to exploit tourism within the Comarca has to present a formal petition to the CGK for its approval, together with written authority confirming the general consensus of the community concerned. Background on the financing of the project, together with copies of any loan agreements, must be provided, and property in the Comarca cannot be offered as collateral for any mortgage or loan. The infraction of this law can lead to the official confiscation of the assets by the Congreso and the community.

Present Day Realities

The reality of life in Kuna Yala makes investment in tourism projects impossible as there is little capital available. A representative from Barsoged said: "They say that only Kuna capital can be used, but this practically doesn't exist!" This was reiterated by a member of the Institute for the Integral Development of Kuna Yala (IDIKY): "We have no capital! How are we going to develop tourism or any other business?" Although the role of the caciques and the CGK is to unite the Comarca, it now appears that the Kuna communities are ignoring their maximum authority and taking matters into their own hands. In the battle to survive, the Kuna are secretly seeking the help of outside investors. In an August 1996 letter to American friends an elderly Kuna man wrote:

"You...know well the reality of our life. My family is poor, we are living, all the Kunas, inside of this inflation world impossible to move back. You know it. Sad to speak of the children malnutrition. On front of this reality, we are looking for a way to move forward, to survive. As we are not rich or have no plenty money we need advises of planes [sic], ideas, including we will receive gladly partner, support or sponsor."

The writer of the letter talks of possible ways a non-Kuna could invest in the Comarca. He describes a hotel, perceived as being completely Kuna owned and managed, which is successfully operating with foreign investment, the Kuna manager acting as lawyer and "screen" in the presence of the CGK and the local Congreso. The human screen is careful to maintain good relations between his Panamanian partners and the Kuna people, while the true, non-Kuna business owners send the tourists; this would comply with Kuna law as the CGK does not prohibit Kunas from dealing with Panamanian hotels, travel agencies or tour operators. Today there are 13 hotels on the islands, the largest with 22 cabins. A few are relatively successful, many are not: the Kuna owners have little access to markets, communication is difficult between the islands and Panama City, and they have little business experience. There is a lack of overall planning which could maximize the benefits of tourism. At present the hotels import most of their food from Panama, although much of it could be produced locally. Gilberto Alemancia, a Kuna working with IPAT, says that the Kunas need training, not only administrative and financial, but also in understanding the tourists' needs and expectations. In 1997 a training course was organized by IPAT for the staff of Iskardup, but no such course has taken place in any of the Kuna-owned hotels. In the Kuna community there are those who feel that outside investment and expertise are needed, but with guidelines to protect their land and property. A member of IDIKY says:

"From my personal viewpoint we can't close ourselves in if we want to develop tourism or any other business. I, as an individual, would go into business with a Panamanian, but with clear conditions...The CGK should make conditions for the owners of the islands, but this still doesn't exist."


On El Porvenir the tourists step down from the small plane to be taken by motorized canoe to a neighboring island. The beauty of their surroundings and the Kuna's way of life enchants them, but they are unaware that behind the scenes the Kunas are straggling to maintain this way of life and the ownership of their land. Many Kunas think the time has come to allow business links with non-Kunas in order to make life on their islands economically viable. But for this the Kunas need the guidance of their own governing body. If this is not forthcoming there is a real danger that alliances will be forged which will undermine the Kunas' control over their own lands.


This article is based on research undertaken in Kuna Yala during the summer of 1997. My thanks go to all who helped me then, and to Gilberto Alemancia, Jesus Alemancia and George Novey Jr. who helped me update my research.


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