The Villages

A Short History of Wounaan Villages in Panama

Throughout most of their history, the Wounaan have lived in temporary dispersed settlements along river courses just above the tidal zone, but they began to reside in more permanent villages in order to improve educational opportunities in the 1950s. The villages formed because a generation of parents who could hardly speak Spanish wanted their kids to be able to communicate with the outsiders with whom they were increasing in contact. These new villages attracted the attention of General Omar Torrijos, who empathized with Panama’s rural poor, and initiated a formal effort to improve the plight of indigenous people in Panama. In 1972 a new national constitution in Panama gave its indigenous peoples a right to participate in the political system and considered reserving lands for the economic well-being of indigenous peoples. An office for indigenous affairs was created, and it worked with Wounaan and Emberá leaders to draft a bill that declared the Embera-Wounaan Comarca. This included 31 of 53 villages inside the comarca, and gave them legal rights to their lands and resources. Apparently, many villages were too scattered to lump into reservations, and presently at least 37 Wounaan and Emberá villages are located outside of the legally protected comarcas. Native Future is helping the Wounaan secure land title to 12 of their villages.

Meanwhile, beginning in the 1970s, Panama began using U.S. funds to extend the Pan American highway, which up until that point had reached a gap of undeveloped forest land between Panama City and the Panama-Colombia border. The highway not only altered the transportation system (previously dependent entirely on fluvial and maritime transportation) of goods in and out of the Darien, it facilitated the creation of additional roads and opened a new colonization frontier. Landless peasants from Panama’s western provinces began arriving with hopes of “improving” forested land (by deforesting forty percent) in order to title it and create new farms and/or raise cattle. These peasants often unknowingly or knowingly crossed indigenous trochas (cut land demarcation boundaries), which has resulted in increased numbers of land disputes, mistrust and even violence between the historical populace and the newcomers. At the same time, forested land not protected in national parks and/or belonging to whole indigenous communities, could not be titled according to current Panamanian law. Hence, nearly all of the Wounaan communities located outside of comarcas found themselves struggling with some kind of land dispute, which they are trying to resolve peacefully and legally by presenting historical evidence of land tenure to the appropriate Panamanian government agencies and authorities.

In 2008, Panama passed “Law 72” that for the first time provides indigenous communities with a mechanism to gain legal title to their communal lands. The Wounaan played a key role in securing the passage of this legislation, which they have been seeking for over a decade. In particular, the Wounaan testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October, 2008 brought significant political pressure to bear on the Panamanian government. Native Future has supported the Wounaan in these efforts, and to develop and submit title applications for three communities – Rio Hondo, Platanares, and Maje.