Panama: Rainforest Indigenous Fight Ranchers, Loggers Over “Best Use” of Land

by Carl Proper

Blockading the Highway.  No pasarán.

Blockading the Highway. No pasarán.

July 17, 2013 At 4:00 a.m., indigenous dwellers in the Darién rainforest, Republic of Panama, barricaded the Inter-American Highway near the community of Arimae, about 100 miles east of Panama City. Truckers and other travelers were unhappy. Indigenous leaders demanded a meeting with a government Minister and enforcement of the policy against non-indigenous squatters occupying their land. The next day, the Minister appeared. Native control of the land was acknowledged, and the immediate crisis was resolved, but permanent legal recognition and indigenous communal ownership of the land is still pending.

According to Planting Empowerment, a business supporting sustainable forestry in the Darién, “from 1969 to 1981, the community lost 64,000 hectares of its reserve to loggers, migrant subsistence farmers from other provinces, and the Inter-American Highway expansion. Today, Arimae communally manages just over 8,000 hectares of land.i

What century are we in? What have we learned? And has it made a difference?

As a study of descendants of Panama’s pre-Colombian population puts it: “Indigenous peoples throughout the world have been losing their lands to outsiders and newcomers for many generations. It is a trend that continues to this day.”ii

But why should we care? What basis could there be for solidarity between trade unionists in modern society and traditional peoples confronting powerful agricultural interests in the jungles of Central America?

A shared commitment to communal, rather than merely individual rights, might be one point in common. The desperate need for all progressive forces to stand together against predatory capital could be another. A common interest in preserving a livable climate might be a third.

Wounaan indigenous leader Osorio speaks to former Peace Corps  Volunteers visiting Darien province,  June, 2013

Wounaan indigenous leader Osorio
speaks to former Peace Corps
Volunteers visiting Darien province,
June, 2013

What first struck me, as I heard an indigenous leader speaking to a group of ex-Peace Corps Volunteers in Panama a few months ago, was the similarity in strategy and tactics between the sometime victims of capitalism in our two countries. The combination of self-organization, alliance-building and legal, political and direct action that once worked for us – and which we must now re-invent – is also showing results in the forests of Panama. Though our situations vary, history has shown that large numbers of people united behind a cause can defeat large amounts of money – but it takes purpose, solidarity and courage.

U.S. unionists should also consider some more specific common interests and responsibilities. Panama could be a natural meeting point for global union-building north and south of the U.S. border. The country was born when warships sent by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt “liberated” the Isthmus from the nation of Colombia to facilitate construction of the Panama Canal. As Teddy put it, “I took Panama.” If every U.S. hotel chain, two separate Trump towers, and regional offices for U.S. business of every kind now rule the Panama City skyline – what holds poor and working people in our two countries back from common endeavor? After centuries of capitalists allying to extract land and wealth from the people of Panama and the world, is it not time now for us to support the struggle for communal space, common wealth and ecological sanity for our planet — and to build bridges to the progressive allies we badly need ourselves?…

So who are the indigenous in Panama, and how do their lives touch us today?For hundreds of years, the Wounaan and Emberá people, and members of other tribes, lived in the “undeveloped” jungles of the easterniii Darién region and the eastern Chimán (Pacific) coast district by fishing, hunting with bows and arrows, and gathering. They wore few clothes, spoke indigenous languages, and were largely undisturbed by modern society. The Inter-American Highway, which otherwise stretches unbroken from Alaska to Patagonia, ended at the beginning of Darién province, not starting again until beyond the Colombian border.

But, beginning in the 1970’s, well-off cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers from Panama’s developed interior, after years of land disputes with each other, began pushing to open up the jungle. The activist Omar Torrijos administration began extension of the Inter-American Highway into the Darién, while also establishing a number of reservations (“Comarcas”) for native residents. As in the United States, however, indigenous who did not happen to live in the areas set aside for them, did not wish to move from their native land. In eastern Darién province, where the Highway is still being built; and in the eastern Pacific coast area, separated from the Highway and the rest of Panama by a mountain range on one side and miles of mangrove swamps on the other, conflicts began between natives and “colono” (colonist) squatters.

The colonos themselves are divided between agribusiness loggers (some from Korea and other countries), large-scale cattle ranchers connected to Panama’s leading families, and subsistence farmers pushed out of depleted land in the western interior, who may combine farming and cattle-raising as they are able. The loggers are primarily interested in the valuable native rosewood trees scattered throughout the forests.

Over time, the indigenous themselves have adapted increasingly to some aspects of the modern world as well, sending some children to Panama schools, and earning income from the sale of palm-frond baskets, rosewood carvings and other crafts to Panamanians and visitors from around the world.

But the indigenous and the interlopers deal very differently with the land.

The colonos generally engage in clear-cut farming, logging or ranching – clearing whole swathes of rainforest in order to pluck out one valuable rosewood tree from among many and various species; or turning forests to pastures that support one cow per hectare. (The typical local measure equals about 2 ½ acres.)

By contrast, the native forest dwellers, as one study has showniv, now “engage ina [much more] diverse mix of geographically intensive income-generating strategies, such as Fishing, Clamming,and Artisanship. Wounaan artisans rely on dozens of forest resources in their rosewood, tagua nut (“vegetable ivory”),and vegetable-dyed woven baskets, but their income comes from the high value they add to these resources through their skilled labor, not from the extensive input of land into their ‘production function.’v
To the extent they engage in clear-cut farming, “the Wounaan [eventually] allow the land used for agriculture to re-grow to secondary forest, [while]the Colonos convert their crop fields to cattle-pastures. As a result, the Wounaan’s subsistence land use also>results in less long-term>deforestation than the Colonos subsistence land use.”vi
Unsurprisingly, the indigenous forest-dwellers differ from the colonists in that they act to preserve their forest homes.

More surprisingly, combining their hunter-gatherer skills, and their skill-intensive craft production, “the average Wounaan household earns annually US$ 5,365 from sale of goods which compares to a value of US$2,545 for Colonos.”

The argument for “best (economic) use” of the forest land may favor indigenous development.…

Legal, Political and Physical Struggle

But the forty-year struggle for control of the rainforest land has been hard, and it continues.

Throughout the 1990’s and up to the present day, indigenous communities have made a series of requests to national government Ministries for protection of their land from what they perceive to be illegal colonization. In the mid-1990’s, seventeen Emberá / Wounaan communities formed a unified “Congreso,” and petitioned the National Assembly to pass legislation under which indigenous communities outside of the comarcas could establish legal title their land.

At times, the government has responded to indigenous petitions with promises, and at other times with simple neglect.

And neglect has sometimes led to violence.

On November 12, 2000, armed colonos appeared in the indigenous community of Río Hondo to menace the Wounaan with a show of force. One year later, Wounaan indigenous in the Chiman district took matters into their own hands and burned the houses and storage sheds that had been built by colonos on Wounaan lands. After a short respite, the colonos returned, and the government did not take action.

In 2004, Wounaan brought several reporters into Chiman community of Río Hondo to do a story on incursions into their lands. When reporters and community members hiked up to colonos’  settlements,they were attacked. “This led to a massive and bloody confrontation between Wounaan and colonos,with some two dozen participants injured.”vii

In 2012, a struggle in Chimán left one logger and the chief of the indigenous community of Platanares dead. (See the trailer to a video in process on this tragedy at http://www.nativefuture.org/)

Along the way, however, there has been progress, much of it in response to actions of the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In 2001, the Court of Human Rights found that the Nicaraguan government had violated international agreements by depriving the indigenous Nicaraguan community of Awas Tingni of rights to communal property and judicial protections. Nicaragua was ordered to provide a mechanism for the indigenous to title their lands. The precedent is relevant to the Panama situation.

In October of 2008, Panama was forced to defend itself as the Wounaan joined with other indigenous peoples to testify at a hearing before the Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C. A few weeks later, the Panamanian Assembly approved “Law 72,” finally creating a legal process for titling communal land.

And in 2013, the first two indigenous communities in the Pacific coast area – Puerto Lara and Caño Blanco – received communal land titles.

Consistent with past practice, however, twelve other indigenous communities in the Darién / Pacific coast area remain without title to their land, about 50,000 hectares of rainforest. And on at least three occasions, in 2011 and 2013, indigenous Wounaan and Emberá in Arimae have resorted to blockading the Inter-American Highway, to get the government’s attention once again.

Two groups founded by former Peace Corps Panama volunteers – Planting Empowerment  and Native Future are working today in their former communities with Panama indigenous.

Planting Empowerment is organized as a business, with funding from Kiva and other small lenders. They own a small amount of land in the Darién, near the Arimae community, where they train both indigenous and colono small-holders in sustainable tropical forestry – selective, rather than clear-cutting, mixing native and existing “invasive” species in preference to monoculture, harvesting and replanting on a schedule that retains the forest, selling 25-year leases to keep small-holders from literally “cutting and running” to another forest site – and in marketing of their products.

Native Future’s provides education and legal training, finances legal cases, and supports community organizing aimed at gaining definite land tenure for the indigenous.

Both groups also coordinate with the Rainforest Foundation  in their efforts to protect rainforests and their indigenous residents, and to promote ecological best practice.…

European intervention in the Americas began in mistrust and conflict with native peoples, often including slaughter or enslavement, and moving on to the seizure of the continents’ land and resources, with reservations, raids and roundups for the indigenous. Today, there is growing recognition that Euro-Americans have much to learn from the sustainable lifestyle they supplanted. Organized and unorganized labor has no less to learn and contribute to a sustainable future than do our corporate adversaries.

In the “battle of Seattle,” in the year 2000, labor reached what now looks like a high point in our power to resist the global destruction of our rights, as labor and environmentalists (“Teamsters and turtles”) fought together for democratic participation in international trade agreements. For a brief period of time, President Clinton was impressed, appearing to believe he would need our willing cooperation to achieve his own global ambitions. We let that opportunity, and that cooperation, slip away.

In Panama, and in other parts of the Americas, indigenous people are now fighting in the way we have fought, to protect their rights – and also to protect natural resources we all rely on.

Which side are we on?

i Planting Empowerment, “75% of their forest is gone. Time for some new approaches.” http://www.plantingempowerment.com/arimae/
ii “Forest Dwellers with No Forest: the Economic and Ecological Consequences of Panama’s Land Tenure System for the Wounaan People,” Martin Philipp Heger, Zachary McNish (unpublished, c. 2010)

iii A traveler from North to South America through the S –shaped Republic of Panama actually moves mostly from west to east.

iv Heger and McNish, op cit

v ibid

vi Ibid

vii Ibid

Carl Proper was a working member, then staff member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, then UNITE, then UNITE HERE from 1972-2011. He is now retired.Carl Proper was a working member, then staff member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, then UNITE, then UNITE HERE from 1972-2011. He is now retired. He blogs at CarlProper.com. He served as a Peace Corp volunteer in Panama from 1968 to 1971 abd recently visited Panama with a group of former Panama Peace Corps volunteers on the 50th anniversary of the first Peace Corps program in that country.

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