The Silent Jungle: Ecotourism Among the Kuna Indians of Panama


In the early 1980s the Kuna Indians of panama set aside a chunk of virgin forest along the southern border of their territory - the Comarca of Kuna Yala - and transformed it into a wildlife reserve. (For more detailed information, see Breslin and Chapin 1984, and Houseal et al. 1985.) The core of the "Kuna park," as it is usually known internationally, encompasses an area of some 60,000 hectares. It is situated about three hours' drive from Panama City along s serpentine gravel road that winds through the foothills up to an altitude of 500 meters. The Kuna effort fell neatly in line with worldwide concern over deforestation in the tropics, and was widely applauded by conservation groups. In 1983, with substantial combined funding from the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), the Agency for International Development (AID), the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Kuna formally launched the Project for the Study of the Management of Wildland Areas of Kuna Yala (Pemasky).

The project center, at Nusagandhi, is located at the point where the El Lano-Cart road cuts across the Continental Divide and begins its descent to the Atlantic coast 21 km away. It consists of a large dormitory/office, a dining area, and a deposit for equipment and materials. During the first years, project staff developed a management plan for the park, demarcating the limits of the Kuna Indian homeland (which runs along the Continental Divide east to the Colombian border), and helping outside specialists with a series of studies and inventories of the natural resources of the region. At the same time, the Kuna were making contact with conservation groups abroad, and several members of the project staff traveled to conferences and workshops in England, the United States, and several countries in South and Central America. All of this movement stimulated considerable interest in the activities being developed by the Kuna, which included an environmental education component, agroforestry and other forms of "sustainable" agriculture, and the design of nature trails and field stations at strategic points throughout the jungle.

Initial Plans for Ecotourism

There was also talk of using the Nusagandi camp as a research center for scientists carrying out long range studies and as a site for nature tourism. From the beginning, the Kuna had been working closely with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (which has its offices in Panama City) on a series of inventories of the flora and fauna of the area, and the Smithsonian served as a conduit for biologists interested in field work in the Kuna park. This arrangement worked relatively well for everyone involved. On the one hand, the scientists were given entry to the park, and could hire Kuna assistants for their work. On the other hand, if any of the researchers went astray and bruised Kuna sensitivities, the Smithsonian was quick to put them back in line. To assist in this matter, the Kuna themselves produced a detailed etiquette guide for all visitors that explained the dos and don'ts of carrying out research in the area.

The second kind of tourism was to involve groups of "nature tourists" interested in no more than a few days' visit in the rain forest. As far as anyone had thought the matter through, the conceptual model for this was, in a very rough sense, the Audubon birding tours, as well as the ecotourism business that has been booming in neighboring Costa Rica over the past few years. Indeed, in 1984 Audubon magazine ran an article on the Kuna Park in which the tourism aspect was covered; the Kuna technical team had visited Costa Rica that same year and made a tour of hotel facilities in several of the better-known park areas. Beyond this, there was talk about how the Kuna park would provide an added dimension: traditional specialists would supply ethnobotanical information to complement Western scientific observations. This sort of tourism was seen as minimally disruptive. Amateur naturalists tend to respect the areas they visit, and they are less demanding about material comforts than "traditional" tourists. It was also seem as a potentially lucrative enterprise, one that might help cover the costs of a small permanent staff at Nusagandi.

Tourism in Kuna Yala

The Kuna are no strangers to tourism. (For a more comprehensive discussion of the history of tourism in Kuna Yala, see Byrne Swain 1989 and Falla 1979.) Since the 1960s, several aviation companies in Panama City have been sending small planeloads of tourists regularly to the island communities, the nearest of which can be reached in half an hour; for several years during the 1960s and early 1970s, DC-3s loaded with as many as 30 tourists each were landing in the Cartí area. At that time there were small hotels in several parts of the region, most of which were owned and managed by Americans; the only hotel in Kuna hands was a cooperatively run operation on the island of Ailigandi, located about a day's journey to the east by boat from the Cart region.

As the tourism industry in Kuna Yala expanded throughout the 1970s, the Panamanian government was quick to see the potential for business. In the mid-1970s, the Panamanian Institute of Tourism (IPAT), working with money from private investors and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), attempted to build a $38 million hotel complex in the Cartí region. The hotel, which was to be built on an artificial reef near the cost, was to be complemented with an international airport. As envisioned by IPAT officials, the Kuna were "one of the principal tourist attractions [of] the country," and conservation measures were to be taken to "avoid any possible transculturation of the indigenous elements." In return for their services as tourist attractions, the Kuna were to be given employment as service staff. They would also be able to earn money by selling artifacts (especially the well-known mola blouses) to hotel guests.

Unfortunately for IPAT, the Kuna did not see things through the same lens. After a good deal of questionable maneuvering by government officials, the Kuna rose up in unison, threatened the prefeasibility team with violence, and brought the program to an abrupt stop. Shortly thereafter, the entire project was abandoned.

Given confidence by their success in this standoff, the Kuna began flushing all of the foreigners in the hotel business out of the region. A group of American entrepreneurs was cut short in its plans to open a resort and casino on Toucan Island (Werwertuppu) in Cartí in the late 1970s. (The Kuna claim that the plan included a disco with prostitutes.) A travel guide named John Mann, who had been working in the Cartí area for years, had his tour boat confiscated. And another long-time American named Tom Moody, who had run a successful resort on the island of Pidertuppu (also in the Cartí area) since the late 1960s, was driven from Kuna Yala in 1982 by a group of Kuna youths who first wounded him in the leg with a shotgun, then attempted to set him on fire with gasoline. They next tried to hand him from a palm tree, and finally pummeled him with sticks. Although Moody escaped with his life, his tenure in Kuna Yala was over, and he was the last foreigner in the hotel business in the region.

Today the several small hotels in the Cartí area, all run by Kuna, are relatively successful. They are linked to travel agencies in Panama City, and small planes bring the guests to a nearby island that has a landing strip. The Kuna see this as manageable and appropriate: the hotel owners are subject to Kuna law and the benefits remain in the region.

Ecotourism at Nusagandi

It was initially thought that project staff at Nusagandi could benefit directly from the experience already gained in Kuna Yala and link their nature tourism in the jungle with the "ethnic" tourism on the islands. Unfortunately, this has nor occurred. Neither individual scientists nor groups for ecotourists have arrived in any significant numbers. In the six years since Pemasky was founded, a few scientists have done studies in the area, but the number coming through has been scanty and irregular. Their field reports can be found stacked next to a varied assortment of dust-covered animal crania in the Nusagandi office. Although the dormitory building has space for as many as 40 people, it has no facilities for storing collections of specimens or equipment and no office area for scientists to work.

Several groups of nature tourists arrived more or less at random during the early years, but then the flow trailed off and finally atrophied altogether. Nothing systematic along these lines was ever established. The Kuna never managed to set up any arrangements with tourist agencies in Panama City or the United States, and none of the conservation groups that promote this sort of business with their members (such as the Audubon Society) sought a permanent relationship with the Kuna. At the present time, the Nusagandi camp is inhabited by two Kuna guards who spend their days doing odd jobs around the camp and patrolling the nearby jungle along the border markers. The cool mountain air is occasionally filled with the deep rumblings of howler monkey colonies, the chatter of parrots, and the rasping calls of toucans, but there are no nature tourists to hear them.

What Went Wrong?

The first difficulty came with the condition of the road that leads up to the Nusagandi camp and then down through a series of irregular valleys to the Cartí area along the Atlantic coast. Visitors to the camp must first journey along the Pan-American Highway in the direction of the Darièn (the Darièn Gap, which separates Panama from Colombia), then take the El Llano-Cart fork heading north just past the town of Chepo. Several miles out of Panama City, the highway turns to gravel. In recent years stretches of the gravel-covered section have been periodically transformed into mud holes, passable only with powerful, four-wheel drive vehicles. The El Llano-Cart road is more or less gravel as far as Nusagandi, a distance of about 25 km; due to a series of steep hills and occasional patches of treacherous mud, this road ban only be navigated by an experienced driver with a sturdy vehicle. The 21-km piece of road between the camp and the Cart coast, however, was never entirely finished off with even a cap of a gravel; it is mostly unprotected earth that converts rapidly to slippery mud during the wet season, and recent erosion has rendered the road passable only to vehicles equipped with powerful winches.

Scientists working through the Smithsonian generally rely on its vehicles to carry them to and from Nusagandi. However, few tourists - especially those traveling in groups - can make the journey. They could take a bus along the Pan-American Highway to the fork that heads north into the mountains, but they would have to walk the additional 25 km up to the camp. Until this past year Panama City did not have any four-wheel drive vehicles available at rental agencies. Even those available are quite expensive, especially for people who simply want to look around for a few days; with the road beyond the camp impassable, there is no place to drive except back to Panama City.

With the road connecting Nusagandi and the Atlantic coast in such sorry shape, there has been no possibility of linking the ethnic tourism of the island communities with the nature tourism of the jungle. Although situated just a short physical distance from Panama City on one side and Cart on the other, the camp is in reality very isolated. Given Panama's present political and economic situation, chances that the road to the coast will be rebuilt are slim. The stretch linking the camp with Panama City will doubtless continue to deteriorate - perhaps to the point where even four-wheel drive vehicles will find the going difficult.

The transportation difficulties have also made construction of the basic infrastructure of tourism at Nusagandi nearly impossible. Over a period of several years, project staff labored to drag cement, lumber, and other materials by truck from Panama City to build the dormitory, the dining hall, and the deposit - an expensive and frustrating process since the trucks were small and often broke down or slid off the main road. After all this work they still do not have the basic facilities even for nature tourists, who demand a certain minimal level of comfort and attention. Until the end of 1989, visitors to Nusagandi had to bathe themselves in a small pool formed by runoff from a swamp located several hundred yards from the sleeping quarters ( a more convenient cement bath house has just been built). Toilet facilities consist of a makeshift latrine, and there is no electricity generator. With no steady flow of tourists, it would be uneconomical for the Kuna to keep a service staff at the site or to keep a variety of food in stock.

Beyond this, neither the Kuna nor any of the outsiders promoting ecotourism realized the importance of the wider national context in which this kind of tourism, which caters to a select crowd, flourishes. The Panamanian Tourist Institute has always focused on its hotels and casinos, its light life, and its shopping centers, which hawk electronic and photographic equipment. It has never emphasized its natural beauty despite the fact that Panama boasts some stunning tropical rain forests just a short trip from the capital city. Ethnic tourism has been present in a low key; but as already noted, among the Kuna it is not in Panamanian hands and is therefore minor in comparison with other sectors of the industry.

The result of this bias is that there is no tourist infrastructure developed around natural areas in Panama. Although they are close by, Panama's jungles and even its beaches are difficult to reach, and they have virtually no facilities for tourists. Therefore, no travel agencies in Panama City are equipped to handle ecotourism, and Panama does not publicize its natural beauty on a national or international scale. This sharply contrasts with the climate for nature tourism in neighboring Costa Rica, which over the past five years or so has launched a massive campaign around its rain forests and beaches. Costa Rica has become the nature center of tropical America, not only to North Americans but also to Europeans. Tourist facilities abound there, and vehicles of all sorts can be rented with a minimum of inconvenience. Agencies offer a tremendous amount of variety: all manner of package tours to wilderness areas, where tourists can hike about, view animals, take photographs, scuba dive, and fish with relative ease and appreciable comfort.

Furthermore, Costa Rica is peaceful - a fact Costa Ricans are constantly (and correctly) pointing out to visitors - and has taken great pains to stay that way. By contrast, Panama and its National Defense Forces have been less attractive to any sort of visitor for the past two years - least of all tourists in search of a restful vacation. It has been difficult for all North Americans to secure tourist visas, and although recent events might signal a change, the near future does not augur well for the tourism industry as a whole.

A Failed Venture

Despite good intentions, a history of experience with (successful) tourism, a beautiful piece of virgin rain forest, and close proximity to Panama City, the Kuna Indians have been unable to make a go of the nature tourism business. In part their failure is due to a lack of easy transportation to the park center at Nusagandi. Of greater importance, however, is the wider national context. Despite the fact that Panama has within its borders a large number of magnificent rain forests and wildlife areas, it has never promoted tourism to these parts of the country. It has no nature tourism infrastructure that might simultaneously attract foreigners with a wide variety of ecotouristic options and provide them with transportation and hotel facilities. In this unfavorable environment, the Kuna park lies solitary and unvisited at the crest of the Continental Divide, the silence broken only by the occasional cries of the wild animals form the surrounding jungle.


1 Kuna Yala literally means "Kuna territory," and is now the preferred name for the comarcas ("homelands," a Panamanian legal entity) belonging to the Kuna people. The region is also known as San Blas.

2 Quoted in Falla 1979 (p.83). Falla's book contains a through discussion of events surrounding the proposed IPAT "turicentro."

3 After arriving in Panama City, Moody created something of a stir in the Department of State in Washington, DC, by claiming to embassy officials that he had been attacked by "communist elements" among the Kuna.

4 On the islands, the real attraction (aside from the coral reefs and clear water) is the insular - and very colorful - Kuna way of life (see Byrne Swain 1989).


Breslin, P. and M. Chapin

1984 Conservation, Kuna Style. Grassroots Development 8(2):26-35.

Byrne Swain, M.

1989 Gender Roles in Indigenous Tourism: Kuna Mola, Kuna Yala, and Cultural Survival. In V.L. Smith, ed. Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. 2nd ed. pp. 83-104. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Falla, R.

1979 El Tesoro de San Blas: Turismo en San Blas. Panama City: Centro de Capacitacion Social, Serie El Indio Panameno.

Houseal, B., C. MacFarland G. Archibold and A. Chiari

1985 Indigenous Culture and Protected Areas in Central America. Cultural Survival Quarterly 9(1):15-18.

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