Where do the Wounaan live?

Historically the Wounaan have inhabited the forests and traveled the streams and rivers of the Choco-Darien, a critically important biogeographic region that includes Eastern Panama, Northwestern Colombia, and Northwestern Ecuador. Because of the formation of the Panama land bridge approximately 3 million years ago, new habitats were created and a great interchange and diversification of North and South American organisms occurred. As a result, the Choco-Darien is considered to have one of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet.

The Choco-Darien is primarily a lowland ecoregion characterized by very high rainfall (4-9 meters or 13 – 29 feet per year) and large rivers with associated riverine forests that lie within great basins of famously formidable lowland forests. The basins are bordered by isolated mountain ranges up to 1,800 (5,800 feet) meters high, which are home to mixtures of Central American and Andean montane plants and animals. The rivers flow out into the ocean through large, complex estuaries and extensive mangroves. The mountains are covered in a mosaic of wet forests cloaked in fog and draped with dense layers of moss and tangles of lianas, vines and orchids. The lowland and montane forests both have high bio diversity and endemism, meaning that the biological species composition differs at just about every locale and many forest locations are home to organisms that don’t live anywhere else in the world. Luckily, relatively large areas of the ecoregion are still blanketed with forest and there are still many forested corridors connecting lowland and montane forests, which allows for the long-range movements of some larger animal species and altitudinal migration of others, like the jaguar and the Bare-necked Umbrella Bird respectively. Many scientists consider it to be the last place and best opportunity to conserve representative lowland tropical ecosystems of Northwestern South America.

Biologically, the Choco-Darien is outstanding and distinctive. Although the whole region remains relatively poorly studied, it is thought to contain at least 8-9,000 species of plants, with about 20% of them occurring only in this region (Gentry, 1982). Cocobolo, or the rosewood tree (dalbergia retusa) which holds both spiritual and economic value for the Wounaan, is one of the many trees listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species.

The list of recorded animals in the region is also impressive, including 127 species of amphibians (Roa and Ruiz, 1993), 97 species of reptiles (Sanchez and Castano, 1994), and 577 species of birds, 60 of which are restricted range species (Roda and Styles, 1993). In addition to being a major center for unique birds, it is also home to many vulnerable and endangered animal species, including the Choco tamarin, the tapir, the giant anteater, the spider monkey, the puma, the ocelot, the jaguar and the Harpy Eagle. Approximately 30% of the ecoregion in Panama lies within Darien National Park (a Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Kuna and Emberá-Wounaan comarcas, while 30% is devoted to agriculture. The Choco-Darien is also culturally rich, as numerous indigenous forest peoples still persist here and maintain strong traditional ties to their land.