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In Eastern Panama, Land Is the Key to Survival

The Kuna and Emberá people are Indian groups living in the Bayano region of eastern Panama. After the Bayano Hydroelectric Complex was constructed in 1976, they were forced to resettle. Recent events have imperiled what little access to land both groups have today.

The Bayano region, which begins at the town of Cañitas (80 km east of Panama City on the PanAmerican Highway) and extends to the border of Darién Province at the village of Cañazas, marks the starting point of the tropical forest zone that covers all of Eastern Panama. It is home to four different ethnic groups: the Kuna (linguistically and culturally the same as those Kuna who live on the San Blas archipelago), the Emberá (whose original home is further east in the Darién), blacks (both migrants from Colombia and Panamanian descendants of ex-slaves), and Mestizo colonists (peasants from Panama's interior provinces of Cocle, Herrera, Los Santos, and Chiriqui).

The Panamanian government began its construction of the Bayano dam, accompanied by the extension of the Pan-American Highway, in order to expand its control of energy resources and stimulate economic diversification. The project was largely financed by multilateral development banks (principally the World Bank) and private commercial banks. Although plans existed on paper to protect the region's fragile ecology and provide equitable compensation to its residents for their loss of land and livelihood, the government has largely failed to implement them. Instead, more than 12 years after the dam's completion, the region continues to feel its largely negative impact.

One major change has been in the Bayano region's types of economic activities. Prior to the dam and through the early 1980s, the dominant activity, measured by income generation, was horticulture, practiced by all of the region's residents; today, it is lumbering and cattle ranching, controlled by non-Indian entrepreneurs and ranchers. This shift poses a grave threat to the region's ecology - needless to say, lumbering and cattle ranching lead to extensive deforestation - and to people's ability to make a sustained living.

The Kuna

The Kuna of the Bayano, an estimated 2,000 people, live in 10 villages, seven of which have been affected by the dam. In 1934, the Panamanian government agreed to demarcate the Bayano reserve for the Kuna, and sent surveyors and engineers to carry out the task. The boundaries of the 1934 reserve, never recognized through a legal act, were nevertheless given de facto recognition by the government and local residents. The dam flooded 80 percent of the Bayano reserve, some of the most fertile land in the region; on it, the Kuna had planted many groves of coffee, citrus, cacao, and mango. The Kuna resettled on higher ground along the shores of the newly formed lake, and were forced to cultivate on poorer quality, eroded soil.

In various accords signed with the Kuna, the government (specifically General Omar Torrijos, then-president of Panama) recognized the Kuna's right to demarcate new reserve boundaries ceding them land in compensation for what had been flooded. From 1976 (when the dam was completed) on, Kuna leaders have been negotiating with the government to redemarcate the boundaries.

In 1979 and 1980, the Oficina de Asuntos Indigenas in the Ministerio de Gobierno y Justicia reached a tentative accord with the Kuna. These new boundaries included all the old reserve (including the portions now under water) and added new lands extending north into the Cordillera de San Blas. Some of the new land included previous colonist settlements that had been abandoned when the colonists were resettled.

After the death of Torrijos in 1981, the government put the demarcation issue on the back burner; no effective progress has been made since. The Kuna continue to meet with officials and have even developed a legislative proposal for the Bayano reserve, which died in the last legislative assembly. The government has consistently postponed action on the issue.

Despite the tenuous political situation, the Kuna continue to practice slash-and-burn horticulture within the reserve, with staple crops of plantain and corn. Since 1980, tubers (yuca, yams, and taro) have replaced the lost fruit products as the prime cash crop. Only in the last three years have some villages been able to replant fruit trees, and coffee is currently selling for $70 per quintal. One village, Ikanti, also has a communal coconut grove; the coconuts are doing well, but apparently the Kuna have not found a market for them. Kuna leaders have discouraged large-scale cattle ranching within the reserve; only a handful of families own a few head of cattle. In general, then, the Kuna have preserved the fragile ecosystem.

Their efforts, however, are threatened as more and more young Kuna men seek wage labor employment - for logging firms locally, in Panama City, and in the banana plantations of Bocas del Toro Province. The growing dependency on the cash economy is due in part to the fact that the Kuna are no longer able to earn income through horticulture because of the poor quality of the remaining soil.

As a result of this growing dependence on cash, the Kuna have granted concessions to logging firms to operate within the reserve. To date, they have managed to control carefully the operations, dictating the quantity extracted and the sites for operation, and setting relatively high prices for the lumber. If they find themselves unable to make a living from horticulture, however, the pressure to expand lumbering within the reserve will mount.

The Kuna political system in the Bayano remains strong. Each village has a ranked hierarchy of leaders (chiefs, spokespeople, and police) and a secretary. In addition, there are two reserve-level caciques (a third cacique will be elected in the next few months), comisionados (who work on the reserve demarcation), and secretaries. Each village meets almost nightly to discuss village affairs, assign work parties for communal tasks, and resolve disputes. The reserve also holds a general congress every three months attended by representatives of each village. This congress is the ultimate decision-making body on the reserve, and has authority over reserve-level projects. The Bayano reserve acts independently of the San Bias comarca, although each sends delegates to the other's general congress.

Between 1981 and 1987, while negotiations with the government were stagnating, the Kuna were able to enforce respect for the old reserve boundaries. They diligently kept the boundary-marker path clean, maintained their own patrols, and even took concerted action, by blockading the Pan-American Highway for three days in April 1984, in order to draw attention to the issue.

In 1987, however, the situation began to break down due to mounting pressure from colonists; attracted by the availability of land, they migrated into the region in ever-increasing numbers. Their arrival was facilitated by the eastward extension of the PanAmerican Highway and by a growing number of feeder roads carved into the forest by logging entrepreneurs and firms.

Although the government officially purports to discourage colonist migration, in reality it has done little to control it. In fact, in 1988, the Bayano Corporation - the regional semiautonomous government authority created to spur economic development - granted select colonist families permission to return to their previous settlements, including those within the projected Kuna reserve. About 10 families now live within the reserve boundary near the village of Ikanti, and an unknown number live along the road between Ipeti and Torti on designated reserve land.

For the first time, the Kuna are confronting an outright threat to the territorial integrity of their reserve. As deforestation accelerates, their reserve will represent the only ecologically intact stand of tropical forest in the region. If it is not legally redemarcated soon, colonists will trespass in ever greater numbers to settle, clear, and convert forest to pasture.

The Emberá

The estimated 500 Emberá arrived in the Bayano region in the 1950s and 1960s. Before the completion of the dam, most of the families lived in dispersed settlements. In 1970, a few families formed a village called Majecito, which was later flooded by the dam's reservoir. The Emberá were then resettled into two villages, Piryati and Ipeti Chocó, and were promised land around each village. Because the Emberá received access to prime land close to the PanAmerican Highway, theoretically they were in a better position than they had been before the dam. Again, however, the government failed to make good on its promise. Faced with uncertainty over land tenure, the Emberá actually planted and harvested less despite their access to more land. By the end of 1980, colonists were encroaching on their land, and lumber operators who had contracted to extract lumber were not paying the full amount.

The Emberá have remained largely horticulturalists; a few families also own cattle. Their principal commercial crops are corn and rice, and they grow plantains, yams, taro, and yuca for autoconsumption. Almost all members are bilingual, and the younger generation is fast losing its native language. Although many young men attempt to find wage labor locally or in Panama City, few seem to leave their roots. As one young Emberá put it: "Here, we have a home and we have families to support us. We cannot find work in Panama City now, why should we go there? We want to stay here."

Although forced resettlement and greater dependence on the market economy have led them to become more assimilated than the Kuna, the Emberá today are engaged in an incipient ethnic revitalization movement. The younger generation has shown a renewed interest in Emberá music; some people have been studying herbal and magical lore, hoping to eventually become shamans; and parents have expressed concern that the Emberá youth retain knowledge of the traditional language.

The Emberá, like the Kuna, had been negotiating with the government for firm title to their land. Their claims were based partly on the position that, as indigenous people, they had a right to land, and that they would not destroy it because they intended to practice traditional horticulture.

The government, however, continued to neglect these pleas. Finally, in 1985, the two villages decided to join forces, and they now hold a joint congress every five or six months, attended by two caciques as representatives. Because both villages lie outside of the planned Emberá comarca (a semiautonomous political territory) in the Darién, they cannot get a comarca or reserve designation; instead officials in the Agrarian Reform Agency have said that they can receive "collective title" to the land. The two villages are also working with six other Emberá villages located further east along the Pan-American Highway, in Darién Province. Although their political organization has been weak (having only begun to organize in the early 1970s), the Emberá seem committed to obtaining the title.

In January 1989, an Emberá cacique told me that the Agrarian Reform Agency indicated that it was favorably disposed to giving the Emberá title to the land, but on the condition that the Emberá must pay for the official measurement of the land - some $4,000-55,000. Since the Emberá don't have this kind of money, negotiations have reached a stalemate, and colonists and lumber operators continue to threaten the lands' territorial integrity.

Competing Interests

The construction of the Bayano dam has presented the Kuna and Emberá with the grave problems of subsistence, powerlessness, and lack of services. Meanwhile, some Panamanians are using the increased access brought by the dam and the road to control land and economic activities in the region: large-scale cattle ranchers, who are quickly buying up tracts of land from poorer colonists; intermediaries, who purchase the regional produce for resale in Panama City; and lumber entrepreneurs. The intermediary buyers, who own the trucks that carry the produce (chiefly corn, and also tubers and plantains) to the city, control all transport in the region. They also sell the inventory to the small store owners and own some of the big stores. The lumber entrepreneurs yield tremendous profits from extracting and then selling the region's valuable hardwoods. Small-scale entrepreneurs supply the local market, and larger ones sell to an international clientele. None of these people are Indians.

Another major beneficiary of the dam and road construction has been the Panamanian government itself, through the Bayano Corporation. The corporation operates a large-scale logging enterprise, which has proven to be its chief source of revenue, and thousands of hectares of land between Pacora and Chepo, on which it maintains farms that had originally been stated for peasant resettlement. The corporation, by law, also controls all settlement patterns in the region, the nature and extent of its economic activities, and the provision of some social services.

Since 1980, the Bayano Corporation has been directly under the control of the National Defense Forces. In the past eight years, the military presence has become even more visible in the Bayano region, with military outposts at the Bayano Bridge, at Ipeti, and at Cañazas.

It is not in the interest of any of these business and state enterprises to have the Kuna and Emberá gain secure control of the land; needless to say, both indigenous groups are opposed to extensive cattle ranching and lumbering within their reserves. The military and its supporters are consolidating control over large chunks of the region. One slim hope for the region's indigenous people is in the government agency IRHE (Institute for Hydraulic Resources and Electrification), which supports autonomous secure reserves for the Indians. Because IRHE's primary concern is in maintaining and operating the dam and protecting the reservoir, IRHE officials privately oppose the Bayano Corporation's lumbering activities and the decision to allow some colonists back into sites near the lake shore. Supporting the redemarcation of the Kuna reserve would help IRHE to preserve the forestal buffer zone around the lake. It remains to be seen, however, if the internal power struggle between IRHE and the Bayano Corporation will result in some recognition of Indian rights.

Another possible avenue of action exists with the recent arrival on the scene of a few non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Eight years ago, the region's inhabitants had virtually no social services. As more people migrated and as problems became more complex, however, this began to change. In 1985, the Lauritas Sisters, a Catholic order that seeks to assist Indians and poor peasants, established a mission in Ipeti with the aim of focusing on small development schemes, training, literacy, and evangelization.

Since 1971, the Gorgas Memorial Laboratory has maintained a research station in the Bayano region on the island of Maje, in the Bayano Lake near the Bayano Bridge, which spans the lake at its narrowest point. This research institution has been searching for an understanding of tropical disease, and has carried out the only base line studies on the health of the Bayano population before and after the dam. The research doctors have sometimes offered residents free medicine and physical exams.

In 1985, the Gorgas Laboratory, realizing that its research station and the island itself were being threatened by colonists, solicited and received funds from international environmental organizations for developing a management plan for the island so that it would be maintained as a forestal preserve. As part of the plan, researchers worked closely with the Kuna community and contracted Pemasky (a San Bias Kuna-controlled forestal reserve and scientific park within the San Bias Comarca) personnel to train two Bayano Kuna as guards (or forest rangers) for the island. The arrangement has cemented a close relationship between laboratory staff and the Kuna.

In order to better protect the island, the laboratory also joined the newly formed Bayano Commission, not to be confused with the Bayano Corporation. An interagency group composed of representatives from several government agencies, the commission's objective has been to initiate projects and carry out studies aimed at protecting the forestal buffer zone around the Bayano Lake. The commission has recruited a team from the Costa Rica-based tropical forest research institute, CATIE, to assess the situation in the Bayano.

The Bayano Commission is divided into seven subgroups, each of which is responsible for a different project. Most of the subgroups are conducting studies into possible environmental protection measures, the current status of the ecology, or socioeconomic conditions in the region. Two are actively working with Bayano residents, and have initiated some pilot education and demonstration projects with the colonist group.

Although these NGOs are all potential intermediary groups, each has weaknesses. The Bayano Commission, even if it attains independent status, will continue to have strong ties to the government and particularly to the Bayano Corporation. This presents a real conflict of interest, and could lead to inevitable military control over its agenda. The Gorgas lab has established good relationships with Kuna, colonists, and government officials, but it remains an agency primarily devoted to research on tropical disease and, along with the Lauritas Mission, does not have the personnel not the expertise to carry out applied "development" work.

The Kuna and the Emberá, then, remain extremely threatened by the destructive processes unleashed on the Bayano region. The combined entrenched interests of the Panamanian military, the lumber firms, and the large-scale cattle ranchers militate against any action in the near future on Indian claims to land and resources. The best chance for the Indians lies in their ability to demonstrate that the practice of traditional horticulture within secure reserves is the best chance for sustainable yet productive development in the Bayano. The Kuna are already working on getting international financial support for possible agroforestry projects and for the continued struggle to demarcate the reserve. The Emberá too, are seeking financial aid to get their land titled.

If the two groups can attract international support and become "visible," positive models for development in the region, there is a chance that those with vested interests in exploiting their land will be overshadowed by those with an interest in preserving the regional ecology. Given the extremely unstable political situation in Panama today, however, it is difficult to judge how events will unfold. In the meantime, the Kuna and Emberá show every sign of struggling on to regain their land.

The First Inter-American Indigenous Congress on Conservation of Natural Resources and Environment

In 1983, the Kuna Indians of Panama created the Project de Estudio para el Manejo de Areas Silvestres de Kuna Yala (Pemasky). Working with institutional support from the Inter-American Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, the Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Enseñanza (CATIE), the Agency for International Development (AID), the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and the MacArthur Foundation, the Kuna designed and managed one of the most important conservation programs in Latin America. The centerpiece of their work is the field center at Nusagandi and the surrounding forest reserve of approximately 60,000 ha. Pemasky is the only park of its kind run entirely by indigenous people. It is also one of the most noteworthy programs of its kind in all of Latin America.

Since the project began, the Pemasky technicians have carried the environmental message to other indigenous groups in Latin America. Three of the project's technicians are now in Ecuador assisting Amazonian groups in setting up management plans in their areas. Now Pemasky has organized the First Inter-American Indigenous Congress on Conservation of Natural Resources and Environment, which will bring together Indian peoples from throughout the hemisphere to discuss common problems and possible strategies for protecting the natural resource base through environmentally sound management practices. The congress, which will be held in Panama in November 1989, will focus on finding technical and practical solutions to problems encountered by groups throughout the region.

Details of the congress can be obtained by writing to:

Sr. Guillermo Archibold

Director Tecnico


Apartado 2012

Paraiso, Ancon Panama


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