• Indigenous peoples in Panama

    Indigenous peoples in Panama

    There are seven indigenous peoples of Panama. These are the Ngäbe, the Buglé, the Guna, the Emberá, the Wounaan, the Bri bri, and the Naso Tjërdi. Although Panama has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, its indigenous communities are facing a number of challenges, especially in relation to recognition of and rights to territories as well as forcible eviction.

Indigenous World 2020: Panama

The 2010 national census concluded that 438,559 or 12.8% of the country’s 3.4 million inhabitants self-identified as Indigenous. The Gunadule, Emberá, Wounaan, Ngäbe, Buglé, Naso Tjer Di and Bri Bri peoples have all obtained recognition and had their territories demarcated, albeit according to the vagaries of the state’s political-administrative divisions, and are currently represented by 121 congresses and councils.

This assessment becomes less positive when framed in the context of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and development, however, as only three comarcas (regions)2 have been established at the provincial level, and it is only these authorities that are able to implement public policy without reservation. Although the Kuna de Wargandi and Kuna de Madungandi peoples are recognised by law, the legislation created a category of “corregimiento” (sub-district) for them and so they receive virtually no government support. As for the communities that remained outside of the comarcas, they are organised on collective lands. The government accepted and recognised the existence of 25 Indigenous territories for titling in 2019.

Panama has not ratified ILO Convention 169 but did vote in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Electoral year in Panama

The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) won the 2019 elections with its slogan of “Joining Forces” and will be in office for a five-year term (2019-2024). Its leader was sworn in on 1 July 2019.

Indigenous Peoples’ participation in the elections was solely through the political parties but they hoped that the president would appoint Indigenous professionals to key posts relating to territorial rights, lands, natural resources, forests and so on. After only a few days in office, the president appointed Ausencio Palacio from the Ngäbe people3 to head up the Vice-Ministry of Indigenous Affairs within the Ministry of the Interior and then, not long after, Alexis Oriel Alvarado Ávila from the Gunadule people4 to run the National Department for Indigenous Lands and Municipal Assets at the National Land Administration Authority (ANATI). The Director of Indigenous Lands was unanimously ratified in the National Assembly while the Vice-minister was signed in at the Presidency of the Republic.

In addition, the Panamanian government created comarca-level departments within the ministries that were lacking them, with 13 departments being established for the Gunayala, Ngäbe-Buglé and Emberá-Wounaan comarcas, including the Institute for Human Resource Training and Use (IFARHU), the Ministry of Agricultural and Livestock Development (MIDA), the Ministry of the Environment (MiAmbiente), Health and Education, the National Institute for Professional and Human Resource Training (INADEH), and the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES), all with local staff.

Setting the legal criteria for allocating collective lands

Conversations and exchanges commenced in August 2019 between the Indigenous and national authorities with regard to the previous government’s decision not to grant approval for the titling of the collective lands of Indigenous communities that remain outside the comarcas, above all when these lands have protected areas superimposed on them, citing Law 72 of 2008 and national and international environmental laws as justification.5

The National Coordinating Body of Panama’s Indigenous Peoples

(COONAPIP) and the Indigenous territories that are still not legally recognised, represented by their traditional authorities,6 managed to get the newly elected officials at MiAmbiente to reconsider their position and issue Resolution No. DM-0612-2019 of 29 November 2019. This resolution establishes the legal criteria to be applied by MiAmbiente to determine the viability of granting approval for Indigenous communities’ requests to allocate collective lands when submitted through their recognised traditional authorities and when their lands are partially or totally covered by protected areas or state-owned forest.7

This resolution resolved four fundamental issues in Law 72 of 2008 by which MiAmbiente was maintaining its ban on authorising the allocation of collective lands to the 25 Indigenous territories whose local authorities were continuing to demand it:

  • An exception may be made for Indigenous territories that partially or totally overlap with areas protected as state public property8 or lands of Indigenous communities protected as state-owned for9
  • MiAmbiente undertakes to communicate officially and in writing to the Vice-Ministry of Indigenous Affairs to ascertain, by means of a technical report, whether the occupation of these lands actually began before the creation of the protected area in question or the entry into force of the law declaring state-owned Forest
  • Once proven that the occupation of Indigenous territories is traditional, the order will be given to continue their processing. ANATI will resolve any problems through the National Directorate of Indigenous Lands and Municipal Assets.
  • And, lastly, the Indigenous communities will draw up a plan for sustainable natural resource use and community development, to be approved by MiAmbiente. This plan will form the specific environmental management tool applicable to overlapping areas and will be fully incorporated into the conditions by which ANATI allocates the collective

Leadership of Indigenous authorities

Traditional authorities played a clear and notable role in getting Resolution No. DM-0612-2019 issued, thus making MiAmbiente’s titling of collective lands possible in protected areas and state-owned forest. This leadership can be traced back to three main epicentres: the general chief of collective lands (representing COONAPIP), the highest authority of Tagarkunyala (representing the Gunadule) and the National Congress (representing the Wounaan). Other forces also had a significant influence, however, such as the Emberá Ẽjuä So, Bri Bri and Naso Tjer Di communities from the hydrographic basin of the Panama Canal.

Relations between state authorities and Indigenous Peoples

In addition to relations with MiAmbiente, ANATI and the Vice-Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, 2019 also saw conversations initiated with the Ministry of Education with regard to producing the implementing regulations for Law 88 of 22 November 2010,10 as these are still pending. Talks were also held with the Ministry of Health on Indigenous medicine. On 20 November 2019,11 a Care and Learning Centre was inaugurated: Ina Ibegungalu, promoted by the General Congress of Guna Culture and its Institute for the Cultural Heritage of the Guna People of the Comarca of Gunayala.

Youth, women’s and Indigenous authorities’ participation in national and international events

World Youth Day

2019 began with World Youth Day in Panama.12 This was a major event involving Indigenous youth representing 40 native peoples from 12 countries around the world. This event was particularly noteworthy for the depth and clarity of its messages. The Indigenous youth reflected on issues such as:

  • The living memory of Indigenous Peoples,
  • The importance of living in harmony with Mother Earth, and
  • Playing a leading role in the construction of another possible

10th Vulnerable Central America: United for Life Forum

In October 2019, Dionilda Gil Carpio, an Emberá woman, participated in the 10th Meeting of the Vulnerable Central America: United for Life Forum13 in Costa Rica, a group that is coordinating the efforts of civil society and 150 social and governmental organisations from Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama and Chile. A Civil Society Position Paper was drawn up in the context of the Pre-COP25, calling on the international community to take heed of the human rights violations being committed against environmental defenders and those defending the territories of Central America.

Gunayala Youth Congress

One of the most important aspects of the organisational rights process in 2019 was the formal establishment of a Youth Congress14 in Gunayala comarca. Their general assembly considered issues such as territorial defence, drugs and agricultural production, ensuring that young people are involved in resolving these problems in Gunadule communities.

Participation in national projects

Emberá juä So Territory and non-carbon benefits

The Emberá Ẽjuä So Territory, in the hydrographic basin of the Panama Canal, has since April been participating in the initiative to institutionalise non-carbon benefits (NCB). The aim15 of this initiative is to establish NCB in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies for forests. This has taken its starting point in the Emberá Ẽjuä So Indigenous Territory where the collective title to 88,225 hectares has been requested for the Emberá Puru, La Bonga, Emberá Drua, Parara Puru and Tusipono communities.

The intention is to close the communication and knowledge gap between local communities whose lives depend on the forests and decision-makers who are trying to stop deforestation and thus encourage climate change mitigation and adaptation. It is important for the Indigenous communities to be able to develop and advocate for practical adaptation measures in the local communities.

This year, together with an adviser, 13 young people from Emberá Ẽjuä So collected, analysed and systematised NCB-type experiences and practices, validated the issues and prioritised them into a rough list. The first task was to define the concept in order to help identify NCBs and establish an outline of the concept. This field work has been of great value in the search for better practices, both in terms of a practical evaluation of the model as a tool for identifying already existing NCB and to promote new activities.

Panamanian Indigenous Peoples’ Comprehensive Development Plan

The USD$80 million loan approved by the World Bank16 to support the implementation of the Panamanian Indigenous Peoples’ Development Plan, an historic milestone at the time of its approval, appeared to drift aimlessly throughout 2019. Neither the previous nor the current government has managed to agree on a date to start project implementation with the Indigenous traditional authorities, who are beginning to lose hope. The aim of this project is to improve infrastructure and service quality in health, education, water and sanitation in the 12 Indigenous territories of Panama, on the basis of priorities established by the communities themselves and their traditional authorities.


Heraclio López Hernández (Surub). Adviser/consultant on Indigenous Affairs. Philosopher by profession. University expert on Indigenous Peoples, Human Rights, Governance and International Cooperation. Post-graduate qualification in Mediation. Specialist in project design and management. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 34th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is from the Peruvian Amazon inside the Wampis territory, taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2020 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here

Notes and references

  1. For example, thus far the Gunadule have been living in four independent autonomous territories: the Gunayala comarca, the Kuna de Madungandi comarca, the Kuna de Wargandi comarca and the Ancestral Tule de Tagarkunyala Ancestral Territory; the Emberá and Wounaan suffered the same fate when the Emberá comarca was created in 1983 on two plots of land known as Cémaco and Sambú in Darién Province; 43 Emberá and Wounaan communities remained outside and created their own governance structures, and so we therefore have the General Congress of Emberá and Wounaan Collective Lands, the Wounaan National Congress and the Alto Bayano Embera General Congress. In the west of Panama we have the Naso Tjer Di General Congress, the Bri Bri General Congress, the Ngäbe-Buglé and Peasant General Congress and the Buglé General Congress.
  2. The Gunayala comarca, the Emberá-Wounaan comarca and the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca have been given the category of province.
  3. Ministry of the Interior Panama, Vice-Ministry of Indigenous Affairs. Accessed 6 February 2020: http://www.mingob.gob.pa/viceministro-de-asuntos- indigenas/
  4. National Land Administration Accessed 6 February 2020: http://www.anati.gob.pa/Transparencia/Planilla/GASTOS_DE_ REPRESENTACION%20_NOVIEMBRE_2019.pdf
  5. “Los pueblos originarios retoman su lucha por las tierras colectivas.” Panamá América. 14 December 2019: https://www.panamaamerica.com.pa/sociedad/ los-pueblos-originarios-retoman-su-lucha-por-las-tierras-colectivas-1151843.
  6. The Panamanian Indigenous authorities who supported the advocacy work with the Ministry of the Environment were the Tule de Tagarkunyala Ancestral Territory in Darién Province, the Emberá Ẽjuä So Territory in the Panama Canal hydrographic basin in Panamá Norte district, the Emberá de Bijibasal and Bajo Lepe Territory on the Tuira River in Darién, the Wounaan de Majé Chimán Territory in Panama Province and the Bri Bri Territory in Bocas del Toro Province.
  7. Gaceta Oficial Digital No. 28912-A, Monday 02 December 2019, signed by Milciades Concepción, Minister for the Environment. Accessed 6 January 2020: https://www.gacetaoficial.gob.pa/pdfTemp/28912_A/75936.pdf
  8. Second paragraph of Article 51 of the Single Text of Law 41 of 1 July 1998 by which protected areas are publicly owned by the state
  9. Article 12 of Law 1 of 3 February 1994. Article 12. “State-owned Forest is inalienable. Those state lands of forest aptitude on which agricultural or other activities are being carried out for the well-being of the population may be excluded from this declaration and it will be for the National Directorate of Agrarian Reform of the Ministry of Agricultural Development in line with INRENARE (now Ministry of Environment) to establish mechanisms for achieving this”. https://www.mida.gob.pa/upload/documentos/librosdigitales/ PIDCAC/ley_1_de_3_de_febrero_de_1994_anam/ley_1_forestal-anam.pdf.
  10. Law 88 of 22 November 2010 recognising the languages and scripts of Panama’s Indigenous Peoples and issuing regulations governing Bilingual Intercultural Education. Accessed 6 February 2020: https://www.gacetaoficial. gob.pa/pdfTemp/26669_A/GacetaNo_26669a_20101126.pdf
  11. Centro de Atención y Aprendizaje: Ina Ibegungalu. Accessed 21 February 2020: http://gubiler.blogspot.com/2019/11/centro-de-atencion-y-aprendizaje-ina. html?m=1.; https://duleina.org/
  12. International Press Conference. Conclusiones de la JMJ Indígena, 22 January 2019. Areópago Comunicaciones. Accessed 6 February 2020: https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlEPa0rZMd4
  13. X Foro Centroamérica Vulnerable, ¡Unida por la Vida! Accessed 21 February 2020: http://accssgt.org/actividades/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Foro-CAV- CR.pdf
  14. Argar, Nº 4. Year Boletín Informativo de los Congresos Generales de Gunayala de Gunayala. Inanii (November 2019). P.1 Accessed 17 February 2020: https:// www.gunayala.org.pa/ARGAR%20Informativo.Argar%204.Noviembre.%20 2019%20(2).pdf.
  15. EuroClima+. Beneficios no relacionados con el carbono. Accessed 6 February 2020: http://euroclimaplus.org/proyectos-bosques/beneficios-no- relacionados-con-el-carbono.
  16. World Bank. “Banco Mundial aprueba innovador proyecto para pueblos indígenas de Panamá”, 15 March 2018: https://www.bancomundial.org/es/ news/press-release/2018/03/15/banco-mundial-aprueba-innovador-proyecto- para-pueblos-indigenas-de-panama

Tags: Land rights, Women, Youth



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