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Wounaan Congresso February 2015

Native Future was pleased to be invited this year to the Wounaan Congreso in the village of Maach P’öbör, located an 8-hour bus ride from Panama City on the banks of the Membrillo River in the Darien. Every 2 years, Wounaan gather with elected leaders from their many communities to share accounts of recent events, while having the opportunity to express the concerns most important to each village. There is much ritual dancing, music, and sports to lighten the agenda.

Wounaan Scholarship Recipients with Sara Archbald at Congreso.

The Wounaan leadership this year met new standards by producing a financial report of the Congreso and its foundation, which was shared with village leaders – transparency is important everywhere! Rising to the top of the community concern discussed at the Congreso: EDUCATION. Elementary and junior high schools in the area seem to be meeting basic needs, although more Wounaan teachers and bilingual education are needed and Wounaan want secondary and university studies for their young people to attain professional standards. Communications, legal, business, and education studies are critical for the next generation to promote their culture and protect their lands.

The Congreso was the first opportunity for “on-the job” training for Wounaan journalism intern Elicina Membache by Native Future-supported communications specialist Guido Bilbao. See what Native Future is doing to support Wounaan communication in the Titles, Then What? article below.

Unexpectedly, the Wounaan bus trip back to Panama City zoomed off the highway into the high brush due to a steering problem. Thankfully, there were no injuries and general calm prevailed. An 8-hour trip turned into a 16-hour trip. Welcome to the Darien of Panama.

Message from the President Julian Dendy

We hope you’re enjoying your summer and we give thanks for your ongoing support and interest in our volunteer mission to help improve the quality of life for marginalized indigenous Wounaan and Ngäbe–Buglé communities in Panama. Unfortunately, we have some sad news to report. We are losing three of our board members (George Place, Soraya Valdez, and Megan Quenzer) and the Universidad al Campo program. UAC encountered some programmatic limitations, and all three members are moving on to new life situations which require their full attention. We will sorely miss their valuable contributions, but certainly appreciate all of the hard work and time they have given us.

On the bright side, our efforts supporting communications seem to be paying off, as there have already been four significant Panamanian newspaper articles this year highlighting the Wounaan’s tenuous socio-cultural situation in Panama (see our website for links). Board member Cameron Ellis has been working with Rainforest Foundation and Wounaan communities to update and correct boundary and land-use planning maps. Program managers Marsha Kellogg and Sara Archbald attended this year’s Wounaan Congreso and plan to return periodically to improve Wounaan secondary school scholarship implementation and continue collaborating with local and international partners.

Native Future Scholarship Program
Leonardo Rodriguez, Ngäbe-Buglé Farmer, El Jacinto, Panamá
Leo is a young man with a full plate. Father of six children, Leo, along with his wife, also cares for elderly grandparents who live with them. Leo is the bookkeeper of the cooperative farm whose 13 families receive our scholarship assistance. He tracks the hours each family works and, with other members, oversees the use of funds they receive. After more than 15 years, the farm still doesn’t produce enough food to sustain the families; their private plots help, but hunger continues to be an issue between growing seasons.

As one can imagine, keeping 13 families engaged in cooperative efforts over many years is a challenge. This past February the officers, led by Leo, presented a reglamiento to the group, outlining who will receive the scholarship in the future. It includes a minimum of hours each family must work, in addition to other criteria that make the farm operate fairly for all. The plan received unanimous approval thanks to trust in Leo’s work with numbers, along with his dedication to family and community. Thanks to this program, Leo’s oldest daughter Neri Marlén just finished her first year in high school in Santiago, living away from her family in a dormitory. There is a high school closer to home, but it offers only a home economics course of study and it has no electricity and therefore no computers. Neri, who is 15, wants more than that, and her parents want more for her, too.

A scholarship fundraiser happens every August in Maine* and two of Leo’s daughters have been featured on the invitation each of the last 2 years. There’s a light in their eyes, and it’s the same light I see in Leo’s eyes. It’s a light that is leading these good folks and others into the 21st century.

*The annual silent auction fund-raiser/party will be held August 2, 2015, at a new location. Please check our website for details. You may also RSVP and get directions via email.

Sara Archbald
Education Coordinator
Titles, Then What?
Once an indigenous community gets its title, then what? This is a question that we have been fortunate enough to address in recent years, as the Wounaan communities of Puerto Lara and Caña Blanca received their official titles from the Panamanian government in 2012. Unfortunately, it’s a hard question to answer. 

The paper titles are just that, paper, and many of the pressures from loggers, ranchers, and other neighbors don’t just go away. Additionally, the Wounaan must think strategically about their future on a finite territory with a limited number of resources. Our colleagues at the Rainforest Foundation US are jumping in to proactively help Wounaan and Emberá communities reach their economic, environmental, and educational aspirations through their Programa de Ordenamiento Territorials (POTs) or Territorial Organizing Programs, which are aimed at helping the communities strategize their land uses and create a viable future for themselves and their freshly titled land.

Each POTs project consists of several facilitated workshops with the community, a forestry engineer, Wounaan indigenous leaders, and a geographer (me). The goal is to work with each community to identify their resources, threats, and aspirations, and then develop potential strategies for addressing the threats and reaching their aspirations. The POTs workshops are modeled after design charrettes, which have a long and successful history in land-use and urban planning, but have not been applied extensively to tropical indigenous communities. The components vary depending on the desires and needs of each community, but they consistently include: 
  • Territorial management mapping to identify areas where a territory is being invaded or boundaries are misaligned 
  • Resource and threat mapping
  • Community visioning
  • Generating organizing documents
  • Territorial management and planning maps
  • Community rules and regulations about resource use and management, based on traditional structures and decision making

The role of the visiting team is to provide information, technical assistance, and facilitation such that the documents and maps produced faithfully represent the communities’ interests and can serve as useful tools as the community navigates the new waters of communal property ownership.

Rio Membrillo Maach P’öbör.

The first POTs project is currently wrapping up in Caña Blanca, and several other communities are at different stages of the process. Recently, the work being done in Caña Blanca caught the eye of both COONAPIP (the political body representing most of the indigenous groups across Panama), as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In June, in collaboration with COONAPIP and FAO, the Rainforest Foundation launched a project with similar goals and methods, but at the national scale, starting in the Ngäbe-Buglé and Emberá-Wounaan comarcas.

The good news for Native Future and other allies of indigenous peoples in Panama is that those POT’s offer a great framework for identifying and pursuing specific on-the-ground projects, such as reforestation, ecotourism, or signage along the borders of the territory.

Cameron Ellis
Land Tenure Project Manager

Land and Identity: Claims that Revive the Wounaan

The following article was sent to us by Wounaan journalism student Elicina Membache and the Secretary of the Wounaan National Congress Meybi Chamarra and translated into English by Native Future. They have been participating in communications and social media training funded by Native Future that has brought greater press and publicity to their cause.

The month of April found the Wounaan of Panama with renewed strength to continue to make their claims: title of their collective lands, bilingual education, and respect for their identity and natural environment.

Communications student Elicina Membache being interviewed by La Estrella reporter.

Peacefully, Wounaan voiced their issues during the Abya Yala Summit, which united indigenous peoples from throughout the western hemisphere during the Seventh Summit of the Presidents of the Americas, held in Panama the 10th and 11th of April. They also made their concerns heard at their Extraordinary Regional Congress that was celebrated the end of March in the Wounaan community of Majé.

Survivors of colonial extermination, Wounaan retreated into the mountains when the Spanish began their conquest of South and Central America in search of gold. Five hundred years later, in 1983, the State of Panama recognized the Wounaan as a distinct indigenous people and confined them to the comarca, which they share with the Emberá, one of the other seven indigenous groups of Panama.

Despite this recognition, and the new indigenous rights laws that followed, on-the-ground Wounaan rights have not arrived. For this reason, Wounaan continue their fight to preserve their language and for their lands, which the State continues to deny them.

Wounaan have their own language, Woun Meo, which they try to teach to their children. They continue to ask that the Ministry of Education approve a project that would establish bilingual intercultural education in their schools. It is the mandate of Law 88 of 2010, a law that recognizes the languages and alphabets of the indigenous people of Panama and dictates the norms of bilingual education.

The right to title their collective lands has been recognized by Law 72 since 2008, which still has not been effective. In the Regional Extraordinary Conference held on March 27, the representative of the National Authority for Land Administration (ANATI) Pedro Sittón promised to visit the community to make the necessary inspections that will permit the land titling process to advance. The Wounaan people await him.

The fight of more than 50 years for their lands has had its cruel episodes. In 2012, two indigenous died defending their space from advancing colonists from the local town of Chiman. This foreign occupation is intrinsically tied to the logging of commercially profitable trees, like the cocobolo (rosewood) and espave (Anacardium excelsum) These natural riches, sacred to Wounaan, have pre-sale value to those that slip away into Wounaan forests to extract them for commercial purposes.

Wounaan in the Press – Early Fruits of the Wounaan Land Rights Program

Can you care for people you don’t even know exist? We at Native Future think that’s pretty hard to do. So this year we’ve been focused on helping Wounaan get more press and raise their profile inside and outside Panama to help broaden Panamanian and international awareness of the Wounaan people, their culture, and the issues they face. The results of just the past 3 months are very impressive. Since February 2015, Wounaan and their land rights issues have been written about and reported on in Panamanian, Chinese, and South American press, including an internationally televised report on their fight against illegal logging in their communities. In addition, the Wounaan Congress Facebook page has been given a “face-lift” and photos and short reports of their activities are posted. 

In the words of the Secretary of the Wounaan Congress Meybi Chamarra, “Before they told us we didn’t exist; now they know we do”. This media campaign is one of the fruits of your support of the Wounaan Land Rights Program.

For a full report of the results of the communications campaign and training Native Future began supporting this year, please visit our website. Please also visit and LIKE the Wounaan Congress Facebook page.

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