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Wounaan Preparing for Panama’s New Administration

On Tuesday, April 8, 2014, approximately 400 Wounaan marched through the streets of Panama City, protesting government inaction and petitioning Panamanian authorities to process their land title applications. After many hours in the streets, high level government officials met with a delegation of Wounaan. The Wounaan presented their issues and demands. The principal demand was the adjudication of Rio Hondo/Platanares and Majé Chiman territories and those of Wounaan communities in the Darien. The 45 minute meeting resulted in an agreement to a second meeting on April 15, at which time they were to schedule boundary verifications of the Wounaan communities awaiting title.

Unfinished Business, Mr. PresidentThis all occurred before Panama’s national elections that took place May 4, 2014. Since the elections, barriers to boundary verification have been erected. No further progress has been made on Rio Hondo, Platanares and Majé Chiman’s titles, nor those of the Darien Wounaan communities. The last five years of working with what is now a lame-duck administration has come to an end. According to Leonides Quiroz, FUNDEPW President, the Wounaan are preparing to develop relationships with the new administration and get their land issues on the agenda of the first 100 days of Juan Carlos Varela’s Presidency.

While, the communities of Rio Hondo, Platanares and Majé Chiman are engaged in the daily struggle to protect their forests from illegal logging, colonization and “land grabs” by neighboring communities, their leadership in Panama continues to pressure authorities to enact and enforce Panama’s laws – those that should grant them legal title to their lands and those that protect them from environmental crimes.

Tractor used to log Rio Hondo and Platanares forestsDespite repeated denunciations and formal complaints filed by Wounaan leaders and lawyers, the illegal harvesting of cocobolo, or rosewood, (Dalbergia retusa) trees in Platanares and Rio Hondo stepped into high gear again between January and April. Loggers from neighboring non-indigenous communities and logging companies with heavy equipment invaded Rio Hondo and Platanares territory to harvest this high-value tree. In Panama, cocobolo has been protected from logging for 15 years. It is an internationally protected species, as well. Supposedly, the only cocobolo that can be harvested in Panama are already dead and down trunks. Yet permits are given out and backs turned on logging practices. It is estimated that 1,500 rosewood trees have been illegally harvested from Rio Hondo and Platanares since 2011.

This year is Native Future’s 10-year anniversary. For 10 years, we have been supporting the Wounaan to defend their forests, lands and way of life. (For the Wounaan, of course, this struggle dates back much further.) In this time period, Native Future’s support has helped to increase global awareness of the challenges the Wounaan face and improve their capacity to address them. In this, our tenth year, Native Future redoubles our commitment to the Wounaan and their land rights. Wounaan land titles have not been attained; therefore neither have our goals. We will continue to support the FUNDEPW communications program, building their capacity to communicate their messages to local, national and international audiences. We will also identify other strategies and resources that will help the Wounaan secure their lands and their futures. Thank you for your continued support!

Message from the President, Julian Dendy

Thank you for your ongoing support and interest in our small NGO, as we volunteer to continue supporting the efforts of Panama’s indigenous Wounaan and Ngäbe-Buglé peoples in their struggles to achieve self determination in a fast-changing landscape. As some of Panama’s most marginalized communities, they need assistance to navigate the dynamic socioeconomic matrix in which they've found themselves to be minority players whose rich and unique inherited cultural and natural resources have been and continue to be destroyed and threatened.

We will continue to help them at least maintain a seat at the negotiating table and have at least a chance at gaining a basic education so that they can better fend for themselves as they fight for food security, their habitat and livelihoods. Thank you and please stay with us!

La Granja Takes Responsibility
What an amazing program this little cooperative farm in El Jacinto has been! Before I came to work with the granja in 2000 as an agroforestry volunteer, there were eight families involved. I’d like to say I made it a success. Not so. There were conflicts over land titles and water rights. Brother was pitted against brother. When I left Panama in 2002, the farm’s future was uncertain. It was forced to move and establish itself on newly-donated land.

El Jacinto Co-op MembersI cared about the farm, but more about the farmers who commit themselves and their families to the greater good of their community. How were these families going to thrive? For the past 12 years the Basilio Perez Scholarship Program has helped buy uniforms, shoes, supplies, tuition for elementary and high school students of these farm workers. Every February, leaders accompanied me to the city with long lists to buy everything the kids needed.

During a visit this past February, it became clear that buying for these (now) thirteen families wasn't working. Every family has different needs and they wanted to make their own choices! We bought high quality leather shoes – families would return them for cheaper shoes so they had cash for another purchase. Though sizes for each child were listed, uniforms often didn't fit.

This year each family active in the farm received a stipend for the education of their children. In February 2015, I’ll be reviewing with each family how it was spent and working with them to make good choices for their families and community. With our support and guidance, it is time for La Granja families to take responsibility for managing their family budgets so that their children’s education is a priority. This is a key step toward our ultimate goal of making the program sustainable.

Sara Archbald
Education Coordinator

This is just one of the five Scholarship Programs that native future supports for the indigenous in Panama. Visit our website to learn more about other projects.
Native Future Welcomes Universidad al Campo
Universidad al Campo (UAC), a Peace Corps initiative that needed to transition to a nonprofit, non-governmental agency in order to be sustainable, has joined Native Future’s Education program. Its work on behalf of Ngäbe-Buglé students transitioning from high school to a college agricultural program is critical to the improvement of food security in this impoverished region of Panama. UAC objectives include:

(a) ORIENTATION of teachers, students and parents at nine high schools in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé about the University of Panama admissions process, financial aid and professional opportunities for college graduates in agriculture;

(b) SELECTION of 20 applicants each year to attend workshops focused on leadership, professionalism and computer skills, including a 3-day orientation to assist students in the university application process and help prepare for the three entrance exams;

(c) ASSISTANCE WITH TRANSITION to the dormitory in January to begin a science review and introduction to university life, connect to campus work opportunities to offset fees and focus on student retention with a family member attending a 2-day family support workshop.

This is clearly a WIN-WIN situation for Native Future and UAC. And there’s more! Go to our website and click on the Education link to receive a more complete description.
Enfoque: Soraya Valdez Place and George Place
Soraya was born and raised in El Salvador; her widowed mother struggled to make sure her five children received a college education. Soraya received her degree in special education in 1998 and worked as a speech therapist and teacher before meeting George, an agroforestry Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador 2001 to 2003. They married and moved to the US to study at North Carolina State University. Soraya quickly perfected her English. She received her Master’s degree in foreign language and literature in 2008 and taught Spanish at NCSU through 2011.

George and SorayaGeorge was born and raised in Kansas City and received his degree in biology from the University of New Mexico. After returning from his first Peace Corps stint in El Salvador, George received his PhD in Crop Science in 2009 at NCSU. He continued as a faculty member there until the end of 2011.

George and Soraya joined the Peace Corps in 2012 as Sustainable Agriculture Volunteers in Panama. Living in an area of extreme poverty in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé and witnessing the educational injustices suffered by community youth, Soraya and George, with three other volunteers, started the Universidad al Campo program (see story above). Soraya is committed to extending her mother’s value of education to others.

Soraya is a yoga freak and world traveler, loves keeping tabs on the toucans around her house, and somehow manages to be elegant and fashionable on a Peace Corps volunteer’s budget. In his free moments, George loves to farm, backpack with buddies, eat pancakes and laugh way too loud!

Yes, I want to invest in Wounaan and Ngäbe-Buglé futures, today!

Yes, I want to donate to help protect Wounaan culture and forests and to help ensure Wounaan and Ngäbe–Buglé students continue their education.


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Please make checks payable to Native Future and send to Native Future, 34 Taylor Street, Portland, ME 04102, or donate online at

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