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Warning Signs for Majé

At the highest point along the dusty road to Majé, there is a lookout next to a cow pasture. From there, you can truly appreciate the natural beauty of this Wounaan land. You can see the mountain range standing proudly in the distance, the rolling hills, and lush forests. The Majé river winds through the mangroves and out to Panama Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Majé is a Wounaan fishing and farming community located on the border of Panama and Darien provinces. Every house has buoys, nets, oars, and canoes stashed under stilted houses or in thatched roof sheds. The men go out to fish at midnight in canoes or in small boats with outboard motors, returning around 4 a.m. with baskets full of fresh fish, crabs, shrimp, and other shellfish. The families farm root vegetables, plantains, and other staple crops close to home. Coffee and fruit trees grow intermingled in the forest. They rotate their farmland, leaving much of the forest in its natural state.

The Wounaan community of Majé is idyllic, but just a 30 minute walk from the center the scenery changes. Illegal loggers and cattle ranchers are invading these lands and cutting down the forest to make a quick profit and raise cattle. It is a call to action for Wounaan. They are losing their land–and their culture–one tree at a time.

This is how entire cultures disappear. It starts small, with the sound of a chainsaw in the distance. A tree falls. Wounaan farmers describe the smell of pesticides sprayed by outsiders on their land, leaching into the rivers and poisoning the waters. Suddenly, 11 more hectares of pristine forest, managed by Wounaan families for generations, have been cleared by settler-colonists and land grabbers, known as colonos in Spanish.

"When the colonos come, it is very dehumanizing," says one Wounaan farmer. "As a human being I should have the right to drink good, clean water. That is the right of Indigenous peoples." In addition to being the home of thousands of Indigenous people, Panama's inland tropical forests are safe havens for biodiversity and bulwarks against the impending climate crisis. Once they have been destroyed, it will take decades for these ecosystems to recover. This is why it is critical to protect Indigenous territory.

The situation in Aruza is a warning sign for other untitled Wounaan communities such as Majé, Rio Hondo, and Platanares. These lands, which have been conserved by Wounaan for generations, are yet to be formally recognized by the Panamanian government, and therefore at risk of being broken up into parcels and sold at any time. That is why collective land titles are a critical step in defending Indigenous communities from incursion by outsiders who are intent on extracting the land’s resources.

Panama’s first collective titling law was passed in 2008, after decades of activism. Since then, Indigenous groups in Panama have been locked in a legal battle to title their lands and defend their land rights. Native Future is assisting the Wounaan National Congress to mobilize an international team of environmental experts and Indigenous rights advocates dedicated to advancing the collective titling of the remaining untitled Wounaan communities.

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