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Community Titles by 2023? Wounaan Feeling Optimistic.

Wounaan representing their people in a nation-wide peaceful protest.
Wounaan representing their people in a nation-wide peaceful protest.

In July 2022, after almost 2 weeks of nation-wide peaceful protests by Indigenous peoples (and others) in Panama, the President of Panama agreed to the formation of a High-Level Commission to address multiple Indigenous rights issues including the collective titling of Indigenous lands, the removal of invaders and settler-colonists from Indigenous territories, and urgent action to end illegal logging. Weekly meetings of the High-Level Commission began July 27th with all twelve of the Indigenous authorities of Panama and Government authorities, such as the Minister of Environment, the National Land Administrator, Minister of Government, and Province Governors. Wounaan Cacique, Aulina Ismare, is feeling very optimistic that Rio Hondo, Platanares and Maje will be titled by the end of the year: here’s why.

High-Level Commission meetings are resulting in action plans and working groups that are moving communities closer to their desired goal - titles! A significant barrier to titling has been the Ministry of Environment’s (Mi Ambiente) approval of community land use plans, a process that has taken years to materialize. Finally, in August and September of this year, Wounaan authorities and coordinators accompanied Ministry of Environment officials to Rio Hondo, Platanares, and Maje to finalize the land use plans with the communities. The official report concludes with compromisos/proximos pasos (commitments and next steps): “That the Ministry of the Environment, through the Forestry Directorate, continue with the process of requesting collective lands before ANATI.” Although there are more steps still to go, it appears Mi Ambiente approval has been cleared.

Meeting of high-level commission on Indigenous rights in Panama.
First meeting of the High Level Commission, July 27, 2022.

Another example: in March, Wounaan learned that the National Land Authority (ANATI) had received six applications by settler-colonists to title land inside the territory of Rio Hondo and Platanares. Promptly, the Wounaan lawyer Leonides Quiroz legally objected to the applications. At the August 3rd meeting of the High Level Commission, ANATI reported to the Wounaan National Congress that all six applications have been archived due to the expiration of time to legally oppose Wounaan objections. Another attempt to take Wounaan lands has been averted.

Meanwhile, the community of Aruza awaits the Panama Supreme Court decision on their collective title application. While the ANATI decision to annul their application stands, their forests are highly vulnerable to invasion. Therefore, to ensure the Ministry of Environment’s agreement to not permit further logging in their territory, approximately 30 community members attended a workshop where they were trained to use monitoring equipment, and to write and present environmental complaints. This situation is on-going; however, this year environmental complaints submitted by Aruza have resulted in the conviction of three violators and another has been fined.

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