Updated: Nov 15
Indigenous territories and their natural resources receive the best degree of protection when they are legally recognized by the government; when communities hold collective title to their lands. The best evidence of this argument is Panama’s forest cover map.
Last year, Rio Hondo, Rio Platanares and Maje cleared a long-standing hurdle toward collective titles; Ministry of Environment approval of their land use plans. Today, Wounaan Cacique, Aulina Ismare reports, Maje is on the verge of government approval of their territorial map; the property lines in their title and on the ground. But, approval of Rio Hondo and Rio Platanares’s map has been obstructed by a potential overlap with a decades old (and poorly documented) forestry company.
While titling is in progress, the Territorial Monitoring Program aims to decrease the destruction of the forests and ecosystems critical to Wounaan survival. Although the community of Aruza has been displaced from more than ⅔ of their original territory, monitors continue to document and report illegal logging to Panama’s environmental authorities. One result: Panama’s Attorney General office has begun indicting people for their crimes. However, to intimidate Aruza, leaders are being legally persecuted by the accused. One leader is facing jail time if not properly defended in the court of law.
In the Maje Mountains, 132 hectares of deforestation in Wounaan territories have been reported by Wounaan monitors to Panama’s environmental authorities. In the past year, they have seen unprecedented results. As reported in June, twenty one individuals have been cited for environmental violations by the Ministry of Environment. Since then, eleven of them were fined for their ecological damages, and ten are under further investigation for environmental crimes. One, who had a previous warrant out for his arrest, was sentenced to 9 years in prison. It is refreshing to see Panama’s environmental authorities take Wounaan complaints seriously.
The objective of the Land Rights program is to protect 160,000 hectares (350,000 acres) of Indige
nous territory. Our work focuses on four of the most threatened Wounaan communities: Rio Hondo, Rio Platanares and Maje in the Maje Mountains, and the community of Aruza which borders Darien National Park. The number one need, in 2024, is a fully funded legal team and communications specialist working with the Wounaan National Congress to defend their people, territories, environment and Indigenous rights.