Land Rights Program

Wounaan Land Rights are at the heart of Native Future’s mission. Since 2004, Native Future has been helping Wounaan of Panama to gain control over their traditional lands and protect their forests from deforestation. Since its inception, a goal of Native Future’s Land Rights Program has been the  collective title of Wounaan communities Rio Hondo, Platanares and Majé.

Río Hondo, Platanares, and Majé are located in the District of Chimán along rivers that flow into the Pacific Ocean – the Río Hondo, Río Platanares, and Río Majé.  For generations, these three communities have claimed, conserved, and used as communal lands the forests within the watersheds of their respective rivers. Much as their ancestors before them, the approximately  1,000 Wounaan who live in these communities live a largely traditional lifestyle that is heavily dependent on the land.  They hunt game in the upland forests; gather fruits and medicinal herbs, plant small fields of rice and plantains, make handcrafts out of forest products, and fish in the streams and mangroves.  Today, Wounaan communities and way of life are threatened by invasion and expropriation of their land and natural resources by non-indigenous loggers, ranchers, and farmers.


Map made with help of Native Future volunteers Julian Dendy and Cameron Ellis, 2008

Over the past decade, Native Future’s support of these three east Panama indigenous communities has helped increase global awareness of the land tenure challenges Wounaan face and  increase Wounaan capacity to address them. Today, Native Future Higher Education scholar Leonides Quiroz, the first Wounaan lawyer, leads efforts to collectively title Wounaan lands. Leonides’s testimony in 2008 to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights contributed to international pressure that led to the passage of Panama Law 72 which allows the collective title of indigenous land. Since then, Wounaan have submitted applications to collectively title eleven Wounaan communities and in 2012 titles of two communities – Puerto Lara and Caña Blanca – were approved.

Despite these gains, the titles of Rio Hondo, Platanares and Majé and six other communities remain elusive. Almost 50,000 hectares of tropical forest are at risk of deforestation. Wounaan are engaged in a daily struggle to protect their forests from illegal logging, from claims to their territory by neighboring communities, and from colonization by poor migrating farmers looking for a place to carve out a living. Cumulatively, these pressures not only break down Wounaan forests but also the fabric of their communities as they negotiate the choices in front of them. Relationships inside and outside Wounaan communities are increasingly strained, and Wounaan regularly face social and violent conflict as they struggle to protect their natural heritage sometimes resulting in arrest and injury, and even in death.

Deforestation advancing on Rio Hondo and Platanares territories. Photo by Christian Ziegler & compliments of Light Hawk, 2013.

Deforestation advancing on Rio Hondo and Platanares territories. Photo by Christian Ziegler & courtesy of Light Hawk, 2013.

In 2008, Native Future launched a two-year project plan that worked toward the land title goal of the three pilot communities – Rio Hondo, Platanares and Majé-Chimán . By 2011, applications for collective titles of these first three communities were submitted to the Panamanian Government. Wounaan still await their approval. While they  wait, pressures on their forests mount; they are being cut down and high value tree species such as the endangered rosewood (Dalbergia retusa) are being extracted illegally.

In 2014, in response to the stagnation in titling and increasing challenges to Wounaan land rights, Native Future launched the four-year Wounaan Land Rights Program to help Wounaan secure their land rights and protect their forests via three strategic areas:

  •  Wounaan Land Rights Defense, to support Wounaan legal assistance needs and increase Wounaan capacity to defend their indigenous rights through legal training.
  • Wounaan Territorial Integrity, to improve their ability to monitor, control, and carry out activities that protect and restore their forests.
  • Wounaan Self-Governance will develop Wounaan leadership and communication, in turn strengthening their governance.

The problems of the Wounaan are not unique. The loss of traditional lands and culture is a plight that nearly all indigenous people face. Yet, this is one place where you can help make a real difference. A small amount of money has already gone a long way, and will continue to go towards helping preserve tens of thousands of acres of neo-tropical forest and the existence and way of life of these indigenous communities. Please consider donating to Native Future’s Wounaan Land Rights Program.

For more information about the Wounaan Land Rights Program please email