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February 17, 2010

Indigenous Cultures and Protected Areas in Central America

There are no other land use models for the tropical rain forest that preserve ecological stability or biological diversity as efficiently as those of the indigenous groups presently encountered there.

The tropical Mesoamerican region contains diverse terrestrial and marine environments and is inhabited by a variety of indigenous peoples, each of which is intimately linked to the local resource base. Prior to the arrival of the European conquerors, the various indigenous groups, their rain forest environments and adjacent coastal zones made up a rich mosaic of resource uses and natural habitats. After nearly 500 years of the European presence, the once extensive tropical forest of Central America has been almost completely eliminated and, along with it, the indigenous peoples. The transformation of forest lands in Central America is occurring at unprecedented rates and is directly affecting the indigenous peoples living there. Current estimates of annual deforestation rates in Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras are 50,000, 65,000 and 80,000 hectares per year, respectively. Only a few large tracts, remnants of the original forest cover, remain: the Petén of eastern Guatemala and Belize with its lowland rain forests; the Mosquitia Region of eastern Honduras and Nicaragua with its extensive forests, savannahs and wetlands; the Talamanca Mountain Range between Costa Rica and Panama, with its abruptly rising forested mountainsides; the Comarca of San Blas in northeastern Panama, the seacoast and mountain territory of the staunchly independent Kuna Indians; and Panama's Darien Province, a remote area of lowland rivers, wetlands and forested ranges along the Panama-Colombia border.

It is astounding that any indigenous inhabitants of these tropical forests have survived to the present day. Despite the trauma of the loss of their traditional agricultural lands and the decimation of their populations due to contact with the rapidly expanding European societies, many of these groups have continued to practice their cultural traditions within their forest environments.

Today, national development projects for hydroelectric dams, oil pipelines and highways; or commercial logging, farming, cattle ranching and mining; or the immigration of more aggressive colonists has appropriated lands of indigenous peoples and forced them into more marginal and inaccessible sites with more precipitation, steeper slopes and poorer soils. Even so, native peoples have devised sustainable long-term land use practices combining migratory agricultural practices with arboriculture and wildlife management. Each group has developed a distinct subsistence economy that provides their foodstuffs, construction materials, textiles, medicines, utensils and other physical needs. In addition, they have marketed a variety of agricultural, livestock, wildlife and fisheries products to the outside society for decades. Their mixed agricultural and forestry systems produce more labor, more commodity per unit of land, are more ecologically sound and result in more equitable income distribution than other practices currently being imposed upon their lands. There are no other land use models for the tropical rain forest that preserve ecological stability or biological diversity as efficiently as those of the indigenous groups presently encountered there.

The indigenous peoples of the remaining tropical rain forests in Central America are the stewards of some of the most valuable natural real estate their countries possess. For example, the Talamanca Range, territory of four indigenous groups, also holds most of the hydroelectric potential for Panama and Costa Rica. The development of hydroelectric power could substantially reduce the dependence of both countries on imported energy resources. If those watersheds are deforested by inappropriate practices, however, the lost opportunity costs for future generations will be incalculable.

Efforts to establish reserves for indigenous peoples began in Central America in the late 1930s, but it was not until the last decade that serious discussion was directed toward those issues. Indian Affairs agencies and other institutions began taking active roles in developing programs for the improvement of health care, education and other services for indigenous communities, often with unforeseen and negative results. The historical attitude that Indians are wards of the state, separate from the national political and economic structure, yet dependent upon its support, is slowly changing. It is being replaced by an understanding of the cultural pluralism that exists in Central America and the recognition that the ability of indigenous peoples to successfully manage their resources is important in sustaining national development.

Recognition of the complex interrelationship between indigenous peoples and tropical forests in Central America has been paralleled by an increasing awareness of the ecological value of tropical forests and of wildlands in general. Since the late 1960s, much attention has been focused on the need to conserve and properly manage the remaining wildlands in Central America for their natural and cultural values, and for their potential contributions to national development. Eleven of the countries in the region have successfully designed national parks and other protected areas. However, not enough emphasis is put on natural resource management plans for indigenous reserves in the region or protected areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. Until very recently, indigenous reserves were viewed simply as geopolitical divisions, not as a type of wildland or natural resource and land management area. There is a growing understanding that these reserve areas must be planned and managed as such, by the indigenous peoples themselves, in order to effectively integrate indigenous needs for the future with their traditional lands.

A major conceptual change which provides a basic framework for integrating the goals of wildlands management and self-determination by indigenous peoples was initiated at UNESCO's 16th General Conference in 1970, with the creation of the Man and the Biosphere program (MAB). The program set out to "develop within the natural and social sciences a basis for the rational use and conservation of the resources of the biosphere and for the improvement of the relationship between man and the environment; to predict the consequences of today's actions on tomorrow's world and thereby to increase man's ability to manage efficiently the natural resources of the biosphere." Since 1970, the MAB program has grown and changed. Perhaps the best summary was provided by the IUCN/CNPPA in the Minsk Conference of 1983 ("The Biosphere Reserve and its Relation to Other Protected Areas Management"):

The concept of the Biosphere Reserve is one of the major innovations in natural resources management, providing a framework to relate management directly to the needs of the people...Its bold goal is to promote a balanced relationship between people and their environment, and thus to serve human needs by promoting sustained, ecologically sound development...If handled imaginatively, it should provide an excellent opportunity for increasing understanding of the problems of the biosphere and of involving people, especially local people, in the conservation and management having a vital bearing on their future.

The Biosphere Reserve Program has supplied a conceptual link between the movement for the establishment of national parks and protected areas, and the recognition of the lands and traditions of indigenous cultures. It provides a framework for the participation of indigenous people in the decision-making and management process affecting their lands, natural resources and development. The objectives expressed by the program reflect the need to evaluate the shortcomings of existing modern technologies and to proceed toward local, decentralized, long-term solutions to current natural resource crises. The program's proposed objectives are to conserve examples of ecosystems which are ecologically self-sustaining; to promote and facilitate research and monitoring on their appropriate use and management; to provide opportunities and facilities for education and training at all levels; to promote the use of the reserve's natural and cultural resources by appropriate practices, assuring sustained productivity; and to promote appropriate, integrated development in the ecological region via the study, conservation and promotion of sustainable use practices.

The significant progress that has been made in Central America through the attempt to apply the biosphere reserve concept demonstrates the immense importance that this program could have in the resolution of many complex land use issues involving indigenous peoples. In this article I will present three tropical forest biosphere reserve case studies.

La Amistad-Talamance, Costa Rica/Panama

(Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, International Park)

Biophysical Characteristics

The 1,000,000 hectare La Amistad Biosphere Reserve is located in the Talamanca mountain range of southern Costa Rica and western Panama, with roughly equivalent amounts of reserve area in both countries. The Panamanian parameters have yet to be legally established. This extremely rugged range ascends from near sea level on the Caribbean coast to 3,800 meters just ten kilometers inland, and drops just as sharply on the Pacific slope to approximately 1,000 meters of elevation along its southern limit. Its topography combines with an annual precipitation of from 2,000 mm to 7,000 mm to produce the forested peaks and valleys, sphagnum wetlands and Andean alpine scrubland considered to be the most ecologically diverse wildland complex in Central America. A multitude of species are encountered there, among them at least twelve endangered species and many endemic species. There are also various species of migratory birds from both continents that winter in the area, and many species of resident birds, butterflies and other fauna that complete seasonal altitudinal migrations.

Indigenous Cultures

La Amistad Biosphere Reserve has a long history of human occupation. Scores of archaeological sites are still being discovered and excavated. The petroglyphs, burial grounds and residential sites date back thousands of years and provide valuable information about the pre-Colombian residents of Central America, a people unlike the Mayas, Toltecs and Aztecs to the north, or the Incas to the south.

Today the area is occupied by groups of Cabecar. Bribri, Teribe and Guaymi Indians. The Cabecars and Bribris account for the vast majority of Costa Rica's indigenous population, with approximately 11,000 to 19,000 in the Talamanca area. The Guaymis and Teribes account for approximately 30,000 people on the Panamanian side of the reserve. These people occupy a land of steep slopes and poor soils, and although they have become somewhat acculturated to a sedentary lifestyle, they still demonstrate highly adapted migratory agricultural techniques combined with hunting, fishing and gathering techniques.

At one time these groups occupied flatter lands with richer alluvial soils along the Caribbean coast. Banana plantations and other colonists appropriated their traditional lands and forced the Indians to move into the forested highlands, where they are widely dispersed, accessible only by travel on foot. The delivery of health care, education and other services is very difficult, but their settlement and land use patterns are well suited to the ecology of the area.

On the Costa Rican side of the biosphere reserve, there are five decreed Indian Reserves: the Tayni, Talamanca, Telire, Chirripó, and Ujarrás-SalitreCabrega. Recent studies show that most of these reserves contain sizeable non-Indian populations, are owned by non-Indians, or forbid Indian settlements or hunting grounds. On the Panamanian side, the Guaymi nation is actively promoting the establishment of their reserve lands.

Threats to the Area

There are a number of serious threats to the lands of indigenous groups and their cultures in the La Amistad BR, as well as to the conservation of the vast tropical forest. In 1983, a transisthmian oil pipeline and adjacent hard surface highway bisected the previously unbroken forest on the Panamanian side of the proposed BR and provided terrestrial access to the Bocas del Toro Province for the first time. In the absence of strong protection measures, spontaneous colonization and deforestation are occurring along the corridor on traditional Indian lands. Another potential danger is the possibility of an oil spill in the local Caribbean waters, long recognized for their productive fisheries and incredibly diverse coral reefs, mangroves and coastal wetlands. At this time, another pipeline project for Costa Rica is being discussed; one of several alternative routes might cross the Talamanca Range on that country's side of the reserve.

Future mining projects may also affect the indigenous peoples of the BR. On the Costa Rican side, the indigenous tribes have negotiated an agreement with the government to permit petroleum explorations in two of the reserves, with no security that their lands and cultures will be protected (Hartshorn et al. 1982). In Panama, a proposal for a major copper mining project in Cerro Colorado, traditional Guaymi land, has been postponed for the present after a long environmental debate.

Colonizers and land speculators are infringing upon the land along certain borders of La Amistad BR; this trend is increasing and expanding geographically. The results are forest destruction, habitat elimination, loss of indigenous lands and rights, and watershed degradation. Secondary but no less important effects are wildlife poaching and the looting of archaeological sites.

The Planning and Management Process

The La Amistad BR was established through the incorporation of various categories of protected areas. Costa Rica has successfully obtained both the biosphere reserve and world heritage site classifications for its side of the reserve. On the Panamanian side, the classification project has not yet been submitted for the BR and WHS nominations.

Although Costa Rica established the first indigenous reserve in the Talamanca Range in the late 1940s, it was not until ten years ago that effective management actions were taken. One of these was the First Central American Meeting on the Conservation of Natural and Cultural Resources (San José, C.R., Dec. 1974, sponsored by IUCN, FAO, OAS and UNESCO). The six countries represented resolved to promote the development of international parks and reserves in areas where wildlands cross international borders, and the Talamanca Range was given high priority. Between 1975 and 1984, both Costa Rica and Panama decreed and began managing a complex of adjoining national parks, indigenous reserves, forest protection zones and areas for the production of water and biological reserves; much of the area is consolidated under a protected status.

The planning effort to establish these areas and integrate them into a BR provides a good example of a sustained, interdisciplinary, inter-institutional and international approach to resolving resource management issues. Considerable work must still be undertaken to establish adequate protection for each reserve, to define management guidelines, to provide recommendations on limit revisions and to prepare an overall biosphere reserve resource management scheme. In addition, more consideration will be given to the complex marine ecosystems in the adjacent Caribbean waters, upon which many of these indigenous groups depend.

There has been little contact with the various indigenous peoples of the Talamanca Range on either side of the international border during the planning process to establish the BR complex. This is due primarily to three factors: the difficult terrain in the area, which impedes access to the scattered indigenous villages; a limited amount of social and political organization beyond the extended family unit of each group; and suspicion of outsiders per se, based on long years of negative experiences. Nevertheless, the planning teams have made concerted efforts during field visits to present themselves to the indigenous people in the immediate area and discuss the implications of the project.

At the local reserve level, a variety of activities are being implemented to resolve management problems. Approximately forty-five forest rangers have been employed throughout the individual protected areas to discourage invasions and control other illegal activities. (Unfortunately, this number is woefully inadequate in such difficult terrain, and funds for uniforms, field equipment and mobilization are very limited.) Aerial photography and catastral studies are being undertaken to identify and evaluate affected areas. Environmental educators are employed who present the biosphere concept to the Indians and attempt to alleviate suspicions about reserve personnel, as well as to discuss solutions for local employment and service needs. Whenever possible, attempts are made to hire rangers, guides, porters and field assistants from the indigenous communities.

At a national level, the agencies involved with indigenous affairs, national parks, agrarian reform, and health and education advise and assist indigenous community leaders in obtaining national and international support for priority programs. The governments of both countries pay salaries for health promoters, teachers and approximately fifteen resident wardens who try to prevent invasions by non-Indian colonists. Actual decisions regarding internal affairs are made by the community councils in each reserve.

Darien, Panama

(Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, National Park)

Biophysical Characteristics

The 575,000 hectare Darien BR covers about 80 percent of the Panamanian border with Colombia. The extensively forested area varies from sea level to 1,500 meters and contains sandy beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, major rivers, fresh water wetlands and mountainous terrain with cloud and elfin forest. Mean annual temperature is 26°C and rainfall varies from 1,800 mm on the Pacific cast to 3,500 mm at higher elevations. Only a few studies of the flora and fauna of the region have been undertaken, yet those indicate great ecological diversity. The region serves as a refuge for many endangered species and numerous migratory birds, as well as endemic and resident fauna, and probably many plants new to science (IUCN 1982).

Indigenous Cultures

The Darien BR has been occupied by humans since pre-Colombian periods. Although the archaeological record is vague, the area may have been inhabited initially by a Cuevas-Coiba group. They were displaced by the Kunas and later by the Chocos (or Embera and Wainan, as they call themselves) who now constitute the majority of the area's residents (Arauz 1974). The Embera population is approximately 1,500; the Wainan population is 500 or less; and the Kuna number approximately 200 people. There is also a sizable population of approximately 500 black Colombian immigrants and Panamanian mestizos (Dalfelt and Morales 1978).

The majority of the indigenous groups of the Darien BR live in small, dispersed villages or single-home sites along the numerous navigable rivers and streams, where they practice traditional migratory agricultural techniques, as well as hunting, fishing and gathering practices. The Embera have a very loose tribal organization, based more upon family members than the larger cultural group. The Kuna, however, are concentrated in two main villages and have a greater degree of social unity.

Threats to the Area

At this time, the most serious threat to the integrity of the Darien BR and its indigenous peoples is the presence of logging concessions on the borders of the reserve. Landless colonists and speculators have migrated along the forest roads and opened land to cattle rearing.

Although not yet inside the reserve, the Pan American Highway will eventually bisect the area. In the absence of adequate protection, ecological calamity and the elimination of the indigenous cultures along the Tuira River valley as a result of massive immigration can be expected to ensue.

As little as a decade ago, studies for a sea level canal in Panama evaluated the impact of nuclear cratering excavation techniques through the present Darien BR. An exclusion zone was to be created in over 75 percent of the reserve and all human occupants were to be removed to other areas. Last year, the Darien route option came under serious reconsideration (Engineering News Record 1983). It is questionable whether the status of "biosphere reserve" status is protection enough against worldwide commercial interests.

The Planning and Management Process

In 1966, an inspection zone twenty-five miles wide was established with USDA financing along the Panama-Colombia border by the Commission for the Prevention of Hoof and Mouth Disease (CGPFA) to control the potential spread of the disease from Colombia. Shortly thereafter, OAS and FAO studies indicated that the Darien watershed and wildlife merited further protection. In 1972, the National Directorate of Renewable Natural Resources (RENARE) established the 700,000 hectare Altos de Darien protected forest zone. In 1978, a planning team composed of COFA, RENARE and CATIE prepared a management plan that led to the creation of the 575,000 hectare Darien National Park in 1980. In 1981, the park was classified as a world heritage site due to its spectacular natural resources and indigenous populations; in 1983, it was approved as a biosphere reserve. An important addition to protected lands in the Darien region was the 1984 creation of the Embera I and Embera II Indigenous Reserves. Their combined areas, totalling approximately 300,000 hectares, adjoin and overlap parts, of the Darien BR; they will be considered for possible consolidation with the biosphere reserve. Equally important are the recent efforts of the Kuna Indians in the Darien BR to obtain protected status for the proposed Bayano, Ipeti, Piriati, Uala, Morti and Nura reserves (Houseal 1984).

Throughout the process to establish the Darien BR, and even in the creation of the Embera Indigenous Reserves, there has been little consultation with the indigenous peoples of the region. National government agencies have played a main planning role for a variety of reasons: difficulty initiating and maintaining communications with indigenous groups in remote areas; lack of sufficient numbers of qualified technicians on both the part of government agency representatives and indigenous leaders to engage in a participatory process of natural resources planning and management; a limited degree of political awareness and organization among geographically dispersed indigenous groups; and a lack of sufficient funds to sustain planning efforts at a local or regional level. But perhaps the greatest impediment was the general attitude that the government "knew what was best" for the indigenous groups. For example, the management plan for the Darien National Park recommended the transfer of certain indigenous villages out of the strict conservation zone and prohibited hunting and fishing activities (Dalfelt and Morales 1978). (Note: The existing management plan is being revised under UNESCO funding as a biosphere reserve management plan in order to better incorporate indigenous concerns.)

Neglect of indigenous practices in other government policies has also had severe impacts on the Darien indigenous groups. One of COFA's first actions in 1966 was to prohibit free-roaming, hoofed animals in the twenty-five mile inspection zone along the international border. Hence, the Embera's pigs, their main export commodity and source of hard currency, were abruptly eliminated with no viable alternative provided to these people. The effect of the policy has been to induce the Embera to become lumbermen, a lucrative occupation encouraged by the national government, but one which would jeopardize the remaining Darien forest and the survival of the Embera culture (Alvarado 1983).

Another government policy has been to encourage the voluntary relocation of certain Embera groups to more centralized sites where better health and education services could be offered. This transition was accomplished by imposing a Kuna political system upon the Embera to better organize their communities. However, the result has been-a serious breakdown of the village leadership and social structure. The younger generation is not learning the native language and traditions; they learn only Spanish and a nationally prescribed curriculum in the schools. The concentration of village sites around modern schools and health clinics leads to the depletion of natural resources in expanding concentric circles around the settlement, a pattern contrary to their previous migratory movements along the rivers.

Despite these problems, various tactics are being used to encourage participation of the indigenous residents in resource management activities. The title of voluntary forest guard is bestowed on local village chiefs. This has been particularly effective in providing and guiding the community in forest protection. At the same time, these individuals become valuable contacts for the design and implementation of future extension programs. The Darien BR also attempts to train and employ the local indigenous residents as salaried park guards, guides, craftsmen, laborers and porters, whenever possible. An already active tourist trade is expected to provide more employment opportunities for the local villages and to stimulate regional development.

Rio Platano, Honduras

(Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site)

Biophysical Characteristics

The 500,000 hectare Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, located in the Mosquitia Region of northern Honduras, covers terrain from the Caribbean coast to 1,326 meters in elevation. The reserve encompasses sandy beaches, salt water lagoons, mangroves, savannahs, oxbow lakes, rivers and mountainous terrain with extensive evergreen hardwood forest. Within its boundaries are remarkable geologic formations such as the exposed granite peak of Cerro Dama and a waterfall 100 meters high. Annual precipitation is approximately 3,000 mm and the average annual temperature is 26.6°C. The majority of the reserve is humid tropical forest, with about 10 percent in the very humid subtropical zone (Holdridge). About 39 species of mammals, 377 species of birds and 126 species of reptiles and amphibians find refuge in the area, as do many endangered species (IUCN 1982).

Indigenous Cultures

The Rio Platano BR has long been a site of human occupation. It is rich in archaeological materials including petroglyphs and burial sites; the fabled "white city" has yet to be rediscovered (IUCN 1982).

At present, three principal groups inhabit the reserve. Approximately 2,000 Miskito Indians live along the Caribbean coast and in lower river settlements where they practice their traditional migratory agriculture and hunting, fishing and gathering. In remote locations up river, there are two villages of Miskito and some pure Paya Indians; the latter number only about seventeen. Also along the coast is a single settlement of Garifunos (Afro-Caribbeans) and a settlement of mestizos (Glick and Betancourt 1983).

Threats to the Area

The indigenous residents of the reserve have long understood the fragility of their environment and they relate the intrusion of outsiders to the degradation of the local ecosystem and social structure. Increasingly acculturated through the introduction of outside influences, the Indians are experiencing a loss of self-sufficient skills and knowledge. For example, the lobster industry, which hires young men away from agricultural work to become divers, has had a significant impact by introducing cash payment into what is basically a barter economy. As a result, in some coastal communities there has been a proliferation of bars and brothels with the related breakdown of many social mores.

As the largest remaining tract of wildlands in Honduras, there is significant pressure on the Rio Platano BR. From the south side of the reserve (Olancho Province) mestizo colonists have slowly begun immigrating into the headwaters of the Rio Platano, deforesting the land and dynamiting the river's fish, an important resource to the Miskito and Paya residents downstream. On the eastern border of the BR, 4,000 Miskito refugees from Nicaragua are being considered for permanent relocation by the Honduras government refuge commission with the support of the U.N. High Commission On Refugees, a decision which would certainly affect the BR as the Miskitos, subsistence farmers and hunters, migrate into the reserve. At present, there are insufficient funds to prevent these immigrations (Barborak 1984).

Another, perhaps more serious, threat is a proposed road that would cross the buffer zone along the BR's eastern border, thereby encouraging commercial logging and large scale colonization. Originally financed by USAID, environmental outcry from Honduras and the U.S. caused its reconsideration. Now, however, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in collaboration with the Honduran Army, has begun the project again as part of joint military maneuvers. The U.S. Dept. of Defense is not subject to the same type of environmental requirements as USAID, and if the road is completed through the reserve, fewer resources would be allotted for its subsequent protection (Barborak 1984).

Planning and Management Process

In late 1960, Honduras established the Ciudad Blanca Archaeological Reserve of approximately 500,000 hectares. In 1980, the country created specific legislation to establish the Rio Platano BR, which superseded the initial designation, protecting the Rio Platano watershed as well as its opposing slopes, thereby becoming Honduras' only large, protected area (IUCN 1982).

The planning process is a good example of how a MAB committee can function with inter-institutional participation. Agencies that would play a role in the conservation and development of the BR were involved in the planning process at an early stage under the supervision of the General Directorate for Renewable Natural Resource (DIGERENARE). UNESCO funds were provided to prepare the management plan and draft legislation. In this way, conflicts were resolved early in the management process and the funding was an inducement for successful implementation of the project. Valuable technical assistance was supplied by CATIE, UNESCO/MAB and the Peace Corps.

From the initiation of the project, the local indigenous groups were viewed as a user group within the BR and not as members of the planning team. However, their input was always solicited through numerous meetings to determine the reserve boundaries and permissible uses within the cultural zone. In essence, the BR reserve ensures long term protection for the local indigenous groups, who lack their own decreed reserve lands. A Miskito anthropologist was included as a member of the planning team to assist in cross-cultural communication with specific target groups such as mothers' clubs, school teachers, church groups, and especially, the sensitive Paya villagers. The BR management plan also made a strong commitment to hire and train local people as reserve administrators, guards, extensionists, guides, porters and craftsmen. The success of incorporating the local communities into the management process, and how well the BR is addressing local problems and needs, is evaluated yearly.

Kuna Wildlands Project, Panama

Indian Reserve

Biophysical Characteristics

The proposed Kuna Project is 60,000 hectares of protected wildlands located in the Comarca of San Blas (Kuna Yala Indigenous Reserve) on the northeastern coast of Panama. With a variation in elevation from sea level to 950 meters and an annual precipitation of between 2,500 mm and 3,500 mm, the area contains three life zones from low-lying wetlands and very wet tropical forest to wet premontane forest (Holdridge). The average annual temperature is 24°C (Institute Nacional Geografico 1980).

A wide variety of pristine marine and terrestrial associations exist here, including coral reefs, islands, mangroves, coastal lagoons, gallery forest, mixed agricultural plots and evergreen hardwood forest. An equally impressive fauna includes several endangered species of felines, the giant anteater (Myrocophaga tridactyla), harpy eagle (Harpia harpjia), Baird's tapir [Tapirus bairdii), crocodilians (Caiman crocodilus fuscus and Crocodylus acutus) and various marine turtles, including Dermochelys coriacea and Eretmochelys imbricata. Many migratory species are known to winter over in the area. Initial studies also indicate there are probably many plants new to science indigenous to the reserve.

Indigenous Culture

Kuna Yala has a population of approximately 30,000 people, the majority of whom live in some thirty-eight communities on a coral island within a kilometer of the coast. There are also nine coastal settlements and three villages inland along navigable rivers. Outside Kuna Yala there are about 1,500 Kunas in the Bayano and Tuira River basins and three villages inland from the Gulf of Uraba in Colombia (Chapin 1982).

Typical Kuna villages are densely populated and have organically derived settlement patterns. The island communities were established in historical times to avoid the pests and plagues that afflicted the mainland communities (Howe 1984). The island villages are strategically located to use both terrestrial and marine resources. Some have become so populated that landfills are used to create new land to build on. In a few cases, new communities are being started on the mainland coast or other islands.

The Kunas derive their principal protein from seafood although they also raise livestock (pigs and chickens) and occasionally hunt. Alluvial soils along the mainland coasts are used for cultivation. A recent study of just one small area of the reserve identified seventy-two agroforestry combinations, utilizing forty-eight species of tree and sixteen crop plants. The main systems include some combination of plantain (Musa spp.), coconuts (Coco nucifera) and avocados (Persea americana). In addition, a wide variety of species are used to build boats (thirty-six species, e.g., Anacardium excelsum), for firewood (thirty-two species, e.g., Rhizophora spp., Byrosonima spp.), in house construction (forty species, e.g., Manilkara achras), and scores of other applications in medicine, handicrafts and utensils (Castillo and Beer 1983).

The Kuna are unique among tropical forest dwellers in Central America for their unusually well organized and cohesive society; this social cohesion enables the Kuna to retain their cultural identity while confronting outside influences. Throughout their history, they have maintained strong principles of autonomy and self-reliance, although they have been able to successfully integrate economic and technological innovations into their lives.

The traditional Kuna political system is based upon democratic principles. Each community has a congress hall. Nightly meetings are held to discuss the village's social, economic, political and spiritual life. The local congress is presided over by at least one village chief (sahila). There is active participation by the village teachers (neles) and various village project leaders (dirigentes); the congress is an open forum to hear individual commentaries, as well. In turn, the principal village sahila represents his community at the Kuna General Congress, which meets every six months to discuss the Kuna nation's affairs and is presided over by three national chiefs (caciques) who speak on behalf of the Kunas to the Panamanian society.

In recent decades, the Panamanian government has attempted to impose its national political structure on San Blas, treating it as a political province with a system of community organizations (juntas comunales), representatives, legislators and with a superintendent as the executive representative. This imposition has been assimilated by the traditional system of the Kunas insofar as it must derive all its political power from the Kuna congress, not vice versa.

Today, the Kunas can be recognized by the traditional clothes and jewelry of their women and the symbolic mola, a double appliqué needlework that depicts natural or cultural themes. They are a well educated people who insist upon having Kuna teachers in their schools and often send their children abroad to study and train for professional careers. Their rich oral history of songs, chants and allegorical stories transmits their social mores, spiritual beliefs, medicinal cures and agricultural methods. The overriding theme is their intimate relationship with the tropical forest.

Kuna traditional belief teaches that the primary forest (neg serret) is the sacred home of the spirits. As a result, they have maintained vast tracts of unaltered forest. The dense tropical forest cover of Kuna Yala contrasts sharply with the denuded hillsides in the immediately adjacent province of Panama, where the increasing deforestation by slash and burn agriculturalists followed by the introduction of cattle is rapidly degrading the natural resources base.

Threats to the Area

The Kuna wildlands project has many obstacles to overcome. There is no funding to maintain their first access road and encroaching colonists have been only partially stopped; several boundary disputes remain to be resolved. At this time a Kuna commission is studying the land tenure situation along the reserve borders; it even seems likely that in some sectors the reserve lands will be expanded.

Another important issue will be the rights of the Kuna to their traditional lands versus the national government's right of eminent domain. Determination of management authority over the forest, mineral and marine resources are yet in the early discussion stage. One thing is certain: the Kunas will actively participate in all aspects of these issues and will only advocate a course of action that will enhance and fulfill their cultural development.

The Planning and Management Process

The Comarca of San Blas (Kuna Yala) was established in 1938, after the Kuna confronted the Panamanian government in 1925 in an effort to manage their traditional lands in an autonomous manner. (Non-Kuna are prohibited from holding lands under that law.) Since that time the Kuna have exerted a strong influence over all government and societal affairs affecting their culture. This characteristic distinguishes the Kuna from the more passive role of many other Central American indigenous groups vis-à-vis outside societies.

Much of the recent effort to protect and manage the wildlands of Kuna Yala is a response to the all-weather Llano-Carti road in the western sector of the reserve, which opened the first terrestrial connection to Panama. The road was financed by USAID and is now nearing completion; the project did not fund an environmental impact assessment or the subsequent rehabilitation, maintenance and protection activities so necessary for any rural road that penetrates primary tropical forest under such extreme environmental conditions.

The Kuna have been actively involved in planning from the earliest stages of the road project. They have become increasingly concerned with the potential adverse impacts on their land and culture, particularly by the type of spontaneous colonization and deforestation that has already occurred along the completed road corridor immediately adjacent to the southern boundary of Kuna Yala. In 1975, a group of young men from the Kuna Youth Movement moved onto a site where the road entered the reserve to begin an agricultural settlement and create a permanent presence to control immigrations by non-Kuna. In 1976, the group received support from the Kuna Workers Union (UTK, now known as the Kuna Employees Association, or AEK) and received the approval of the General Kuna Congress. The agricultural experiments did not succeed, due to a variety of environmental limitations, and in 1979, the Kuna asked for technical assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture (MIDA). MIDA studies concluded that the site was unfit for permanent agriculture or cattle. In 1980, a CATIE team was asked to advise upon viable long-term use alternatives, and in consultation with the Kuna, they developed the concept of a forest park. CATIE has continued as the technical advisory group to the project and has been instrumental in obtaining financial support from USAID, the Inter American Foundation (LAF), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and other sources. With the support of the binational and multinational funds, as well as a significant contribution by the Kuna, the Kuna Yala Wildlands Investigation Project (PEMASKY) now has a twenty-person Kuna staff who are being trained to undertake all aspects of the natural resources management and protection in Kuna Yala. In addition, the various islands contribute important manpower by sending fifteen to twenty volunteers every other week to protect the border area or the reserve.

The Kuna themselves are planning, implementing and managing the entire wildlands project. Outside technical advisors have been asked to assist primarily in training a Kuna technical team and ranger staff, but under the strict understanding that the Kuna make all project decisions.

Foremost among the project's immediate priorities is the physical demarcation and protection of the entire reserve boundary; initial attention will be given to the areas most affected by potential (and existing) invasions by non-Kuna in the western sector of the reserve. A boundary is being marked along the continental divide through some of the most rugged terrain in Panama, and patrol stations are being installed at strategic intervals. Protection efforts are being coordinated with the National Directorate of Renewable Natural Resources (RENARE) through shared patrols, facilities and training. Surveys are also being conducted. Unfortunately, preliminary information indicates that the National Directorate for Agrarian Reform may have inadvertently ceded some lands to non-Kuna within the reserve, an error caused by lax field verification and lack of aerial photography to substantiate the border description. The Kuna have sent two of their topographers/cartographers into the terrain for two years to provide the national government with proper map information, which will then be reviewed and approved by the Ministry of Government and Justice.

A second important project component is scientific investigation. Initial findings indicate that the proposed wildland contains many botanical species and perhaps fauna new to science. With STRI's active support, two full-time scientists with Kuna counterparts are preparing a description of the flora and fauna of the area and its potential for scientific investigation, nature education and tourism. Other scientific groups working with the project include the Tropical Science Center (CCT) and the University of Panama. They are studying the carrying capacities of the soil and forest inventories.

The interests of the Kuna and the scientists converge. The Kuna recognize the need to maintain their intimate relationship with the tropical forest. Kuna shamans use medicinal plants and teach that they are living things that think, feel and hear, friends of the Kuna that exist for their mutual preservation, the death of one spelling the extinction of the other (Archibold 1983). The scientists are "looking over the shoulder" of the Kuna to obtain valuable ethnobotanical, agricultural, forestry and chemical knowledge, as well as a better understanding of the fragile tropical forest ecosystem.

A third component is natural or scientific tourism. Viewed as a source of income to assist in the operation of the forest park, the tourism component will educate visitors about the tropical forest and the Kuna's relationship to their lands. Facilities will be installed at the "Nusagandi" site on the continental divide to house protection personnel, scientists and visitors. The facilities will be designed by a Kuna architect and use native styles and materials; special attention will be given to demonstrate the potential of this infrastructure for energy self-sufficiency and sustainable resource uses.

The Kuna Forest Park has great potential for environmental education. It will be one of the first stages by which the public enters Kuna Yala via the new road. There they will be oriented to the forest and the people whom they encounter there. It will serve to teach appropriate land use techniques to the non-Kuna colonists who are living adjacent to the reserve. The park will be a useful experiment and a demonstration for the Panamanian government and public of protection techniques that can be used to conserve Panama's system of national parks and protected areas. The site will also be a learning center where young Kuna can better understand the cultural significance of their forest resources. But perhaps most importantly, it will serve as a model to demonstrate the benefits of natural resource management and the necessity of effective political action to protect the lands and rights of indigenous peoples in other areas of Panama and Central America.

Given the outstanding natural resources encountered in the Kuna wildlands, as well as their unique relationship with the Kuna culture and the excellent opportunities for investigation and training, it can be anticipated that this area might be nominated for both biosphere reserve and world heritage site classifications. Of course, this decision depends upon the understanding and acceptance of the Kuna General Congress.

Discussion and Recommendations


This paper has presented short case studies of three Central American biosphere reserves and the Kuna Forest Park, all of which are extensive tropical wildlands with indigenous inhabitants. Although these areas are geographically distinct, and as a consequence, the indigenous cultures have unique characteristics, there are several issues common to them all.

1. Until recently, these wildland areas were considered isolated and inaccessible, marginal lands with limited development potential due to various environmental constraints. Today, however, as natural resources have been depleted in other areas, there are increasing demands upon these remaining wildlands and renewed interest in their hydroelectric potential, genetic resources and ecological functions. National development, projects, commercial interests and spontaneous colonization are putting tremendous pressures on these superb examples of tropical forest and upon the indigenous peoples who have been their traditional residents.

2. Each of the indigenous groups encountered in these wildlands has very different, culturally defined land use practices to assure the sustained use of its natural resources, representing an immense store of knowledge about the ecology and appropriate management of tropical resources. With the exception of the Kuna, these groups live in spatially dispersed sites. Unfortunately, this impedes their participation in their respective countries' natural resources planning and management process. Consequently, valuable information about tropical agriculture, forestry and wildlife management techniques is not being incorporated into national economic and political affairs, further jeopardizing the future of these tropical forests.

3. In contrast to the other indigenous groups, the Kuna are more socially and culturally cohesive. They demonstrate a high degree of interdependence within each densely populated island, and strong solidarity as a people. This factor appears to be the key to their autonomous stance against outside influences. The other indigenous groups, however, have been much more permeated by acculturating influences. The lack of interdependence, a factor related to their spatially dispersed settlement patterns, and strong reliance on the extended family group rather than the larger social organization have thwarted more effective political action.

4. It could be argued that these indigenous groups are best left alone and require no integral resource planning or management. However, with the introduction of improved health care, indigenous populations are increasing; at the same time, they are being forced onto more marginal land or otherwise adversely affected by external forces. The probable result is that within one generation, even with considerable emigration out of the reserves, the traditional agricultural systems will have to be modified due to the depletion of soil or other natural resources. An increased number of indigenous people will have to rely on other economic activities such as forest exploitation or artistry. Equally important is the need to analyze the natural resources and existing use practices of indigenous lands to be able to determine their carrying capacities and define management strategies in order to confront the increasing external and internal pressures upon their resource base.

5. If a process is established to assist in the management of tropical resources within the geopolitical boundaries of indigenous reserves, it must be a participatory process that involves local indigenous groups. In the unique case of the Kuna, an educated technical team has successfully bridged the gap between the needs of the indigenous group and important natural resources management concerns by taking advantage of the national educational, economic and political system. The other indigenous groups discussed in this paper stand outside the national economic and political systems. The benevolent participation by outside agencies has been the leading force in protecting and managing the traditional lands and natural resources of these groups. At the same time, they provide the tools for the people themselves to continue the planning and management process. In the future, it will be necessary to assist these indigenous groups to obtain the political support necessary to ensure long-term land protection and resource conservation.

6. The Kuna wildlands experience provides a useful model for indigenous reserve natural resource management and protection. The forest park concept rests on a framework of traditional religious beliefs grounded in the Kuna's intimate, ecologically sound relationship with the forest. Indeed, there is little difference between Kuna objectives for their natural resource management and cultural development and those of the biosphere reserve program. It can be expected that the Kuna Forest Park will develop and maintain programs for resource protection and management, for monitoring, training and education. The park programs will provide a demonstration of ecologically sound land use through a dynamic combination of traditional cultural practices and the appropriate adaptation of new techniques.


The following specific recommendations on protected areas and indigenous peoples in Central America are presented:

The Planning Process

A. There is a need to establish a planning process for the protection and management of the natural resources of indigenous lands in Central America. At present, indigenous reserves are viewed as geopolitical divisions; this does not adequately take into account the tropical resources they encompass. The biosphere reserve planning process can serve as a useful model of an integrative approach that involves the residents of various reserves and their resources at a local level. A useful document to assist this ongoing effort might be an expanded version of the IUCN's Directory on Neotropical Protected Areas to include indigenous reserves and their natural and cultural resources.

B. It is recommended that any governmental resource management activity that involves or potentially affects indigenous lands or resources consider the indigenous peoples' right to self-determination and make every possible effort to ensure their participation from the earliest planning stages. Specific components that should be included in the planning process include:

1. A clear explanation and understanding of the planning process by all participants;

2. Clarification of the values of all the groups involved at local, regional and national levels;

3. The definition of goals and objectives to satisfy specific local human needs and resource management concerns;

4. Analyses of natural resources and socioeconomic factors that lead to locally derived solutions that maintain ecological stability and fulfill human potential;

5. The use of conflict resolution techniques to devise mutually acceptable solutions;

6. Establishment of a process for local participation in continued project monitoring, evaluation and if necessary, redesign.


It is recommended that national and regional level institutions in Central America that are involved in resource management issues provide effective mechanisms to increase the numbers of indigenous people in training programs for natural resource management and protection. Such programs must be prepared in a manner that will accommodate indigenous participants with little or no formal education.

At the same time, it is recommended that additional emphasis be placed in training programs on cross-cultural communication for resource management specialists at all levels.

Investigation and Monitoring

Improved mechanisms are required to encourage basic research and monitoring that will serve to provide baseline data on the relationship between indigenous groups and the tropical forest. By the same token, additional investigation is needed into the impacts of hunting, fishing and agroforestry practices on local ecosystems in order to determine land use capacities for sustained development.

It is recommended that researchers in biosphere reserves attempt to encourage and strengthen the participation of indigenous inhabitants in the actual implementation of the investigation. The use of indigenous researchers and assistants is proving successful in the Kuna project. Explaining research to establish long-term relationships between scientists and indigenous peoples. This will surely encourage the future exchange of information and assistance.

Resource Management and Protection

Legally established boundaries, physical demarcations and frequent patrols are some methods to successfully ensure the protection of biosphere or indigenous reserve lands. It is recommended that appropriate assistance be given to obtain national a local recognition of traditional indigenous lands and to gain the authority to protect them against illegal activities. Every attempt should be made by natural resource agencies to establish cooperative agreements for adequate resource management and protection within those areas.

An important parallel activity is a well-balanced program of public relations and environmental education at the local, regional and national levels in order to ensure correct communication and to garner support for the program. At the local level, serious consideration must be given to the appropriate information and the way in which information is relayed to the rural, uneducated and poor people who usually border on indigenous lands.

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