Chocó Indian Relocation in Darién, Panama

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Indian relocation in Central America is a result of the assertion of colonial or national authority over indigenous cultures. In order to avoid violence, native communities have abandoned traditional territories, moving into more marginal areas which are outside the control of the dominant society. Most Indian groups surviving in Central America today have lost much of their traditional territory. The Darién Chocó of eastern Panama, however, are an exception. They have recently resettled into villages, adopting a tribal organization in order to establish a distinct autonomous political region, a comarca, in Panama.

The Chocó Indians are a large, yet little-studied tropical rain forest group occupying the Pacific lowlands from northern Ecuador to the Panama Canal. Primarily agriculturalists, they are also experts at hunting and fishing. Historically, they were largely confined to the Department of Chocó, western Colombia, from whence came their popular name. The ethnic term "Chocó," however, is a misnomer applied to two distinct linguistic groups, the Emberá and Wounan. Roughly 40,000 Chocó Indians inhabit the Pacific lowlands today.

Changes have altered the traditional organization of the Darién Chocó. The Darién, with 16,803 km4, is Panama's largest and least-developed province. As an area still largely outside the effective control and understanding of the national society, it is considered a resource-rich area with potential for settlement. In reality, Darién is abundantly occupied by an expanding population of more than 11,000 Emberá and Wounan speakers (Herlihy, 1985).

Historical Settlement

Prior to the 18th century, the Darién was settled by Cuna, not Chocó, Indians. Cuna populations threatened Spanish hopes for settling the region. To aid Spanish advances into the area, missionaries worked to reduce the dispersed Cuna population to densely settled communities. The natives, however, rebelled against these efforts. In 1725-1726, the Darién Cuna rose against Spanish domination. Cunningly, they collaborated with pirates hiding along Darién's rivers to attack the Spaniards. By 1783, the Cuna so threatened the Spaniards that a Royal Decree called for the "reduction or extinction of the Cuna Indians". The Spanish used Chocó Indians from Colombia, armed with blowguns and poison-tipped darts, to accomplish this. Chocó, along with Black and Spanish soldiers, led attacks against Cuna settlements, pushing them from the interior of Darién, securing the territory for European settlement. By the late 18th century, Cuna settlements had been pushed up into the headwater reaches of the regions along the foothills of the Serrania del Darién. At the close of the colonial period, the Spanish abandoned their settlements in Darién, leaving the forested interiors uninhabited.

Chocó settlement expanded into lands abandoned by the Cuna. The Chocó made early, sporadic advances into the Darién in the late eighteenth century. Settlements spread slowly following a dispersed residence pattern along rivers. The extended family served as the settlement unit. There were no villages or concentrations of dwellings. Rather, thatched-roof, pile-dwellings were scattered along the higher river banks. Population densities varied from one river to another, but houses were generally situated a few hundred meters from one another, hidden by the forests. The longer the river was occupied, the more dense the population became.

As Chocó families occupied uninhabited rivers, they formed loose clusters of related families. These groups - named for a local stream, river bend, common fish, or plant - expanded until all the good agricultural lands were taken. Population growth was normally accompanied by up- or down-river expansion until migration into another river valley became necessary.

Ethnographic accounts and oral history indicate that since colonial times, Chocó social structure has been egalitarian, with no formal tribal leaders, chiefs, councils, or a structure of elders. Certain religious beliefs and ceremonial activities center on the shaman who, with an intimate knowledge of the medicinal, toxicologic and hallucinogenic properties of the surrounding plant and animal world, cures through exorcising malignant spirits. Yet, in terms of political, economic, or interpersonal relationships, no individual holds special leadership status. The head of the extended family is the highest authority who allocates household resources and settles disputes. Occasionally, a group might be guided by the eldest and most respected male.

Western migration of Colombian Emberá and Wounan families into Darién was slow; settlement related to the cultural ecology of the river-margins. Dependent on wild game, the depletion of the hunting resources along an occupied river led to gradual abandonment of game-depleted rivers along the Pacific lowlands. Chocó settlements gradually moved northward in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Contemporary Settlement

In the Darién, indigenous populations have not been forced to relocate away from their traditional lands as is the case in other parts of Central America. There, Emberá and Wounan are involved in their own indigenous relocation scheme where dispersed populations are forming central villages in order to gain rights to their lands, perhaps establishing a model desirable for other areas of Indian settlement in Central America.

Increasing exposure to Western products in the early twentieth century began to alter the traditional organization of the Darién Chocó. Natives began to trade for certain products, initially machetes, axe-heads, pots and pans, then later, rifles, bullets, manufactured cloth and more. National laws also pushed the Chocó further into cash-earning activities. Darién Province serves as a buffer zone against the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease from Colombia into Panama and the rest of Central America. Government restrictions have forbidden the Chocó to rear cloven-footed domestic animals such as pigs, so forest game animals must now supply the bulk of fresh meat. Game animals are therefore reduced or completely removed from all but the more remote areas. Indians now eat canned meat regularly and increasingly depend on other imported foodstuffs and purchased Western products. Most of the natives sell agricultural produce to earn cash and therefore must cultivate more land.

The movement to relocate the Darién Chocó into communities was developed by Indians themselves. An older generation of natives had experienced the gradual, yet persistent, increase in contact with the non-Indian economy of Panama. Parents realized that their children would not be able to deal effectively with outsiders without speaking Spanish. Some of them complained to local government officials asking for teachers to be brought to their communities. The government complied and, in the 1950s, the first Chocó settlements began to form around schools.

At first, "villages" were little more than groupings of hut-households surrounding a thatch-roofed school, lacking any other features normally associated with communities. A small number of villages also resulted from missionary activities between 1954 and 1960. By 1960, six communities had developed; three around schools and three around missions. While these early initiatives reflected the wishes of some Darién Chocó, relocation into villages was not, at first, widely accepted.

In the 1960s, a mysterious explorer and adventurer, who later worked as a missionary among the Chocó, arrived in the Darién. Nicknamed "Peru" by the Emberá, he adopted certain Indian ways, learning Chocó problems from an insider's perspective. The Chocó say that Peru, an educated man, taught them the importance of educating youngsters and securing land rights in Darién. He advised the Chocó that through the formation of villages, they could ask the government to provide teachers, schools, and medical supplies. Through more effective occupation of their territory, he told them, they could obtain a Comarca like the one of the Cuna Indians of Panama's San Bias Islands, guaranteeing them legal rights to land and resources. After 1963 the Chocó began to relocate into nucleated communities for these more political reasons. The "village model" diffused widely across Darién. During the early stages, Peru played a vital role, travelling widely and instructing the natives of the advantages of village settlement.

The revolutionary government of Omar Torrijos invited the Chocó to define their own political structure within the areas they inhabited. Under Torrijos' administration, the first National Indian Congress was held in 1968. Torrijos appointed a Cuna Chief (cai-que) to aid and organize the Chocó. The Cuna model of caciquismo was subsequently introduced and the first "leaders" or "chiefs" were appointed among the Darién Chocó.

Between 1968 and 1972, twenty-five new communities were established. Another 17 communities have formed since that time. The village settlement model now dominates the cultural landscape of the Darién Chocó. Three-fourths of the population of 11,140 live in 53 communities along Darién's rivers.

Village life has greatly modified Chocó reactions to environmental conditions. Population growth is no longer accommodated by simple up- or down-river migration. Houses are agglomerated into settlements that extend into the surrounding forest. While village size varies greatly, from 25 to over 450 individuals, households are normally clustered in large areas cleared of their natural vegetation. The core of the village usually includes a schoolhouse, teachers' dorm, meeting hall, a village store, basketball court, and sometimes even a health center. All subsistence - agriculture, hunting, fishing, and collecting - is undertaken at considerable walking or paddling distance from the village (Herlihy, 1985).

The Comarca Emberá-Drua

Directed efforts to secure legislative approval for a comarca for the Darién Chocó have been slow to develop. Under Torrijos, an office of Políticaq Indigenista was established in the national government which included representatives from Panama's three Indian groups (Cuna, Guaymí, Chocó). Chocó aspirations for a comarca shifted to a quasi-legal battle through the lobbying efforts of these representatives, but results were slow in coming. When Panama's President Royos went to the XXIV General Chocó Congress in 1980, he heard complaints that the government still did not meet the needs of Darién's Emberá and Wounan population. Royos suggested formal posts be established whereby representatives would be appointed to act as "ambassadors" between the "nation of Chocó" and the "nation of Panama." These individuals would act as representatives in all aspects of social, economic, political, and cultural matters and they would be paid by the National Government. While the acquisition of reserve and comarca lands had long been discussed at many of the Regional Congresses, it now became the dominant focus. These new representatives were entrusted with the work of drafting the bill or Antiprojecto de Ley to establish the comarca of the Darién Chocó.

The first draft of the bill to establish a comarca for the Darién Chocó was presented at the XXV Congress in 1981. By August 1983, this document had undergone its third revision, but it was still not accepted as a formal document by the legislative branch of the national government. Nevertheless, the provisions contained are largely accepted and adopted by the emerging tribal leaders and the majority of the Darién Chocó.

The comarca Emberá-Drua, literally translated as Emberá-land, is confined to part of Darién Province. It is divided into two sections centered on Darién's major river basins. Area One includes most of the Chucunaque-Tuira drainage; Area Two includes the Sambu drainage. Emberá-Drua, if accepted by the government, will be a largely autonomous region established for the cultural preservation of Emberá and Wounan populations. The lands, while including roughly 4,000 km² - about ¼ of Darién Province, do not encompass all lands settled by the Chocó in Darién or the rest of Panama. Therefore the lands contained within Emberá-Drua could not support all of Panama's Chocó population at their present level of development.

Summary and Conclusions

Some recent changes are positive. The Darién Chocó have now developed tribal organization. As the new leaders work to structure emerging political systems, they learn to deal more effectively with the economic and political problems increasingly common in a more accessible Darién Province. The group now recognizes territorial boundaries which are important in their confrontation with colonists from Panama's densely populated western provinces. Most importantly, the Darién Chocó are seeking to solidify their territorial claims, national rights and the right to determine their own social and economic destiny.

There are, however, less-desirable features concerning Chocó relocation. The village model has associated subsistence patterns and changed cultural values of land ownership and inheritance. Agricultural lands are now being viewed as commercial assets compounding the emerging territoriality of the group and complicating efforts at securing a comarca. Population growth and concentration, and increased commercialization of subsistence associated with village life, places more pressure on the region's resource base. The resulting deforestation and wildlife extermination suggests limits to the population size of villages given environmental constraints under the present resource management system.

The ultimate impact of the adoption of the village model and tribal organization by the Darién Chocó remains to be seen. While village life has often meant the acculturation and integration of the Indian culture into the national society, the Darién Chocó are attempting to structure their new tribal organization to maintain features of their traditional culture including language, dance, custom and subsistence. Whether or not the Darién Chocó receive their comarca depends on decisions made far beyond the boundaries of the province and the control of the native population. Yet, at a time when most surviving Central American Indian groups experience settlement relocation as a consequence of military violence and domination by a national political authority, the Darién Chocó have developed an adaptive strategy that may allow them to maintain control of land and resources they might otherwise lose.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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