Indigenous Peoples

“…other cultures, for example those of indigenous peoples, may be at risk from destruction or radical alteration of ecosystems and habitat by climate change. Such peoples may also face challenges in using migration as a coping strategy as a result of discrimination in receiving locations. Thus the impacts of climate change on vulnerable societies will need to be addressed not only as an issue of sovereignty and stateless but also as a threat to cultural identity.” (UN General Assembly, 2009)

beautiful girls

Panama has a population of 3.400.000 million people, with approximately 12% of them, close to half a million, belonging to one of the 5 main indigenous groups in the country. They are the Ngobe-Bugle, the largest group (65% of all Indigenous in Panama), the Kuna, who are the focus of this study and you can read more about in other sections of this blog, the Embera-Wounaan, the Naso Tjerdi, previously known as Teribes and the Bri Bri.

wounaan mother workingindigenous girls from backwounaan kids

The country has 3 indigenous autonomous territories with provincial rank known as comarcas –Comarca Guna Yala, Comarca Embera-Wounaan and Comarca Ngobe-Bugle- and 2 other indigenous territories with regional rank known as corregimientos –Corregimiento Guna de Madungandi and Corregimiento Guna de Wargandi-.


Although Panama presents an advance legal framework for indigenous rights that covers landownership, self-government and participation, education and health, implementation largely fails. Indigenous groups are in constant confrontation with government officials and repression of indigenous peoples on the part of the government’s armed units is common. Almost all indigenous people in Panama (more than 98%), according to official governmental figures, are considered to be poor or very poor. In 2013, last visit to the country by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reported that living conditions among the indigenous peoples in the country are much worse than among the rest of Panamanians, particularly regarding  poverty levels and access to basic services such as education and health. 68% of all indigenous peoples lives in conditions of extreme poverty, while less than 7% of non-indigenous Panamanians does. Indigenous groups also informed the Special Rapporteur about landgrabbing activities in their territories by outsiders which include operations of private agricultural enterprises, cattle ranching and tourism, mining and illegal logging. The Ngobe-Bugle territory is particularly vulnerable to gold and copper mining due to the recently approval in 2011 of the Mining Law, although efforts to ban mineral exploitation and hydroelectric power stations in Ngobe-Bugle lands are also constant. The Embera and Wounaan peoples in the Darien region bordering Colombia are victims of the brutality of militarized units the government has there to supposedly control drug traficking. The Darien area is also a source of conflict due to the recent discovery of what it appears could be a substantial deposit of oil in Pinogana.

Violations to the rights of indigenous peoples have been denounced in numerous occasions in Panama in recent years, most of them involving hydroelectric or mining projects suspected to have been authorized by irregular processes. Indigenous communities are not consulted for many of these activities taking place or planned in their territories. The same happens with legislative, political and administrative decisions affecting them, including new laws for the expropriation of communal lands. However, although Panamanian Constitution garantees to indigenous communities the necessary lands and the collective property rights of those lands to obtain economic and social well-being, and despite negative impacts such as loss of land or relocation, the Panamanian government communicated to the UN Special Rapporteur that hydroelectric projects are a main priority for Panama and that they will keep building hydroelectric power stations in following years.

It is also worrying that the State of Panama has not ratified yet the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 –Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention- . Panama does not have either any special governmental programs oriented to reduce poverty among indigenous populations. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, there is a lack of any political will on the part of the State.  

protest ngabe bugleResources you may like to check:

Informe del Enviado Especial en Derechos Indígenas (spanish)

Bri-Bri Cosmology (video)

Iriria Niña Tierra

Indigenous World 2012

Click to access 0573_THE_INDIGENOUS_ORLD-2012_eb.pdf

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