• 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.

The Indigenous World 2021: Panama

The national census was scheduled to take place in 2020 but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had to be postponed. The figure for the Panamanian population is therefore frozen in time at 3.4[1] million inhabitants, of which 417,559[2] (12.28%) are Indigenous.

The Dule, Embera, Wounaan, Ngäbe, Bugle, Naso Tjër Di and Bri Bri Indigenous Peoples are all members of and participate in the umbrella organization the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of Panama[3] (COONAPIP). This year, the 12[4] congresses and councils were further consolidated within the Vice-Ministry of Indigenous Affairs under the Ministry of the Interior. Everyone therefore had a place in the National Council for the Comprehensive Development of Indigenous Peoples.[5]

After more than 40 years of struggle and demands for their ancestral lands, the Naso Tjër Di this year achieved a certain degree of autonomy and recognition of their political-administrative division by adding one more comarca.[6]

Panama has not yet ratified ILO Convention 169 but did vote in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Progress in political and social rights in the midst of the pandemic

Two events were noteworthy in the midst of the year’s death and suffering. Firstly, following their continued efforts, the communal authorities led by King[7] (traditional authority) Reynaldo Santana of the small (small in size but great in maintaining harmony and balance in their relationship and contact with Mother Earth on their territory measuring 160,616[8] hectares) kingdom (village) of Naso Tjër Di became the sixth[9] comarca of Panama on 4 December.

The continued efforts were needed because, before it was finally promulgated in the Official Gazette, Law 656 had passed from pillar to post, from government agencies to the National Assembly of Deputies, from president to president of the Republic, even to radical environmentalists who wanted rid of the communal ancestral home of the Naso Tjër Di altogether. The final word came from the Supreme Court of Justice,[10] which stated:

Article 1 of Law 656 does not infringe upon the content of Articles 4 or 120 of the Political Constitution, one of which relates to Panama's obligation to abide by the norms of International Law, and the other of which refers to the State's duty to protect the environment.[11]

Secondly, the peoples’ right to communication and information was enhanced. On 25 November 2020, the Indigenous Peoples’ digital radio station Voces Originarias Panamá [Native Voices of Panama] was launched on air.[12] One of its promoters, Ariel González of the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of Panama, explains that while there are free radio frequencies in the Indigenous districts, Panamanian legislation limits the opening of formal radio stations for Indigenous Peoples. They therefore opted for this alternative after failing to obtain a space on the airwaves from the National Telecommunications Directorate of the National Authority of Public Services (ASEP).

The station broadcasts programmes in seven of the Indigenous languages of Panama, offering music, an analysis of events in the comarcas, issues relating to collective land ownership and annexed areas, and news.

Medicine and intercultural awareness in a time of COVID-19

It would have helped if the concept and practice of interdependence between the two different types of knowledge: Western and Indigenous, and therefore between Western and Indigenous medicine, had been overcome during the pandemic as this would have enhanced disease prevention in all its proper dimensions. While the former is dominated by a positivist model of knowledge that basically takes the disease and its symptoms into account, the latter operates a model based on a more spiritual vision of the world, related to its physical, social and cultural reality.

From the very start in March – when the first COVID-19 case from Spain was declared – the Ministry of Health and the Indigenous Peoples should have invoked Law 17 of 27 June 2016, which protects the knowledge of Indigenous traditional medicine. Dialogue was already progressing in this regard and all that was needed was to comply with the provision set out in Art. 2.7 of Law 17:

Indigenous traditional medicine is the set of knowledge, songs, rituals that Indigenous Peoples possess collectively, acquired by generations or by some competent body, on the properties and use of biodiversity or biological resources in the prevention, healing and rehabilitation of spiritual or symptomatic diseases of human beings.[13]

An extraordinary and exceptional opportunity to unify the two complementary visions was thus wasted. Official data did not specify the impacts on communities and Indigenous Peoples, nor were they considered a priority sector for prevention and mitigation actions.

The period of the COVID-19 pandemic was extremely difficult for Indigenous Peoples: insecurity and fear reigned, with voluntary lockdowns decreed by the communities’ traditional authorities themselves, among other measures. Although the national government was systematic in its guidance and campaigns through the governors’ offices, district representatives and Indigenous officials, these messages were not transmitted in a culturally-relevant way. Little if anything was done to take into account Indigenous Peoples’ own medicine in the face of the health crisis.

Two million disbursed for COVID-19 prevention and control

As of 10 July 2020, a disbursement to the order of USD 2 million had been announced, in compliance with the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of COVID-19 in the comarcas and Indigenous collective territories. The coordination between the Ministries of the Interior, Health and Economy and Finance to “speed up” the purchase of health supplies and equipment within the framework of the Project to Support the National Development Plan for Indigenous Peoples was met with criticism and demands from Indigenous Peoples.[14]

Should Indigenous authorities take decisions or wait for the Ministry of Health to take them?

In the first few months, the Guna general congresses of the Gunayala comarca decreed sanitary cordons and the closure of major entry points, especially at the ports of Niga Kantule and Dibin in the Gardi sector, to prevent the virus from reaching the region. As the months progressed, as was the case for all Panamanians, the companies began to suspend the jobs of Indigenous people. Although the government decreed that no forced evictions should take place, owners took action in their own hands, leading the general congresses to request that the Ministry of Health help those Guna with financial and food problems to travel back to Gunayala comarca. After sending letters to the competent central government authorities and receiving no response, the Guna authorities sought alternative channels through the Vice-Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.

These concrete actions by the Guna (sagladummagan) authorities, aimed at safeguarding the health and lives of their people, were not seen as appropriate, however, either by the Regional Health Director of Gunayala or the Mayor (Governor) of the region. In this context, the Indigenous authorities sent a note accusing them of “wanting to interfere with the actions of the highest bodies in an emergency situation”[15] and considered them to be acting in a party-political manner that was bureaucratic and disrespectful to the local and regional authorities, who had worked so hard to combat COVID-19.

Government officials had to accept their mistake. As of 31 October, that is, in just two and a half months, 3,364 people, including men, women and children from the 50 communities, had been transferred back to Gunayala.[16]

Mask or face-covering incident

Gunayala comarca is home to a Dule people with two traditional institutions: the Guna General Congress with political-administrative functions, and the General Congress of the Guna Culture, which serves to safeguard the cultural and spiritual heritage and acts as the custodian and transmitter of Guna knowledge, practices and wisdom. In this context, the saglagan (spiritual authorities) gathered in their General Assembly in the community of Aggwadub, from 20 to 26 October 2020 to analyse a number of health measures that the Ministry of Health and the national government were decreeing without free, prior and informed consultation, such as: COVID-19 community health committees in each of the 51 communities, the use of masks or face coverings, social distancing, and so on.

With regard to the COVID-19 community health committees, the spiritual authorities felt that, by giving these bodies a leadership role, they were also taking other decisions that did not correspond to them. This situation of overlapping powers created unease among the leadership. They therefore decided that “the use of masks in the communities is banned” and ruled that “our medicine shall prevail”.[17]

Other actions in a time of COVID-19

On 29 November 2020, Gunayala municipality received a donation from the Embassy of the People's Republic of China[18] comprising: 15,000 surgical masks, 120 packs of liquid soap, 120 packs of 70% alcohol, 240 packs of antibacterial gel and five infrared thermometers, all as part of a strategy to assist the most vulnerable communities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In conjunction with the Office of the Comptroller-General of the Republic and the Ministry of Health, the National Health Survey of the Gorgas Memorial Institute[19] came to the following conclusion in its report: “The Indigenous area relied on a greater proportion of family help, bank loans and donations to cover their healthcare costs.” The same report explained that 53.9% of families in the Indigenous area stated that they never or almost never had enough income to cover health expenses.

Another situation that made the headlines in the Panamanian mass media was an outbreak of COVID-19 that was reported on 17 April in the Indigenous community of Koskuna, in the township of Veracruz (West Panama) within the Metropolitan Health Region. The Ministry of Health set up a COVID-19 testing centre and installed a sanitary cordon around this community. There was loss of life but, within a month, things were back to normal.


Heraclio López Hernández (Surub). Philosopher by profession. University Expert in Indigenous Peoples, Human Rights, Governance and International Cooperation. Postgraduate in Mediation. With proven knowledge in political advocacy, and the titling of the collective lands, territories and natural resources of Indigenous Peoples. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Geographical Distribution and Internal Migration in Panama. 2010 Census. Office of the Comptroller-General of the Republic, National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC). Panama, 2014. Demographic Analysis Unit. Table 1: Total population in the Republic, by area. Census 1950 - 2010. P. 2. Accessed 2 December 2020. Available at https://www.inec.gob.pa/archivos/P0705547520200925152431Distribuci%C3%B3n%20Territorial%20y%20Migraci%C3%B3n%20Interna%20en%20Panam%C3%A1-Censo2010_F.pdf

[2] Assessment of the Indigenous population of Panama based on the 2010 Population and Housing Census. 2010 National Census: XI of Population and VII of Housing. Table No. V.3: Area, population of Indigenous comarcas: 2000 and 2010 censuses. P. 40 Accessed 2 December 2020. Available at: https://www.inec.gob.pa/archivos/P6571INDIGENA_FINAL_FINAL.pdf

[3] See: https://www.coonapippanama.org/ Accessed 27 December 2020.

[4] The Gunadule, for example, live in four independent autonomous territories: the Gunayala Comarca, the Kuna Comarca of Madungandi, the Kuna Comarca of Wargandi and the Tule Ancestral Territory of Tagarkunyala. The Emberá and Wounaan followed the same path when the Emberá Comarca was created in 1983 on two plots of land known as Cémaco and Sambú. Forty-three Embera and Wounaan communities were left out of this process in Darién Province and so they created their own governance structures. We therefore have the General Congress of Collective Emberá and Wounaan Lands, the Wounaan National Congress and the General Congress of the Upper Bayano Embera. Meanwhile, in western Panama, we have the Naso Tjer Di General Council, the Bri Bri General Council, the Ngäbe-Buglé and Peasant General Congress and the Buglé General Congress.

[5]“Consejo Nacional de Desarrollo Integral de los Pueblos Indígenas abordan avances de proyectos” [National Council for the Comprehensive Development of Indigenous Peoples makes progress with projects]. Ministry of the Interior, Government of Panama, 5 April 2020, accessed 2 January 2021. Available at: https://www.mingob.gob.pa/consejo-nacional-de-desarrollo-integral-de-los-pueblos-indigenas-abordan-avances-de-proyectos/.

[6] Law No. 188 (4 December 2020) creating the Naso Tjër Di Comarca. Official Gazette No. 29170-A, 7 December 2020.

[7] Article 9 of Law No. 188 of 2020: “The State recognises the traditional regime of government and administration of the Naso comarca, formed by the Naso General Council, which will have as its highest authority the king and his deputy.”

[8] Article 1 of Law 188 of 2020.

[9] Daniel M. Alarco. La Estrella de Panamá. 4 December 2020

[10] Official Digital Gazette. Year CXVIX. Panama, R. of Panama, Wednesday, 2 December 2020. No. 29167-A. Supreme Court of Justice. Ruling No. (none) (of Wednesday 28 October 2020) “Whereby it is declared that Articles 1 and 8 of Bill of Law No. 656 ‘Creating the Naso Tjer Di comarca’ are not unconstitutional.” Available at: https://www.gacetaoficial.gob.pa/pdfTemp/29167_A/GacetaNo_29167a_20201202.pdf

[11] Ibid. 2020. pp. 4, 7, 8, 11, 32 and 33.

[12] Dimitry Díaz. “Pueblos Indígenas de Panamá ya tienen su radio digital” [Indigenous Peoples of Panama now have their digital radio station]. Mi diario.com, 25 November 2020. Available at https://www.midiario.com/ciencia-y-tecnologia/pueblos-indigenas-de-panama-ya-tienen-su-radio-digital/#:~:text=Los%20pueblos%20ind%C3%ADgenas%20ya%20cuentan,para%20tener%20una%20m%C3%A1s%20formal.

[13] Republic of Panama. Ministry of Health. Executive Decree No. 39 of 12 February 2019, regulating Law 17 of 27 June 2016, protecting the knowledge of Indigenous traditional medicine.

[14] “Coordinan acciones para el desembolso de 2 millones de dólares para controlar pandemia en Territorios Indígenas” [Coordinated actions for the disbursement of USD2 million to control pandemic in Indigenous Territories]. Ministry of the Interior, 10 July 2020, accessed 5 January 2021. Available at https://www.mingob.gob.pa/coordinan-acciones-para-el-desembolso-de-2-millones-de-dolares-para-combatir-pandemia-en-territorios-indigenas/

[15] “Aclaración sobre gestiones de Congresos Generales en medio de la crisis sanitaria” [Clarification on General Congress management in the midst of the health crisis]. Gunayala General Congress, 20 August 2020. Available at: https://www.gunayala.org.pa/comunicado_aclaraciones_sobre_gestiones_congresos_generales_gunayala.htm

[16] “Comunidades que han recibido a su gente” [Communities have welcomed their people]. Gunayala General Congress, 31 October 2020. Available at: https://www.gunayala.org.pa/lista_traslado_a_gunayala.htm

[17] Resolution N° 4. Onmaggeddummad Namaggaled / General Congress of the Guna Culture, meeting in its General Assembly in the community of Aggwadub from 20 to 26 October 2020.

[18] “Gobernación de Guna Yala recibe donación” [Guna Yala Government receives donation]. Ministry of the Interior, Government of Panama, 29 November 2020. Available at: https://www.mingob.gob.pa/gobernacion-de-guna-yala-recibe-donacion/

[19] According to Ismael Gordón Guerrel's note published in La Estrella de Panamá, 22 November 2020. Available at www.laestrella.com.pa/nacional/201122/panama-cuatro-hogares-cuenta-ingresos



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

 instagram social icon facebook_social_icon.png   youtuble_logo_icon.png  linkedin_social_icon.png twitter-x-icon.png 

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand