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Panama’s Indigenous Groups Wage High-Tech Fight for Their Lands

Panama’s Indigenous Groups Wage High-Tech Fight for Their Lands

On a blazing February morning, the Indigenous Wounaan territorial monitoring coordinator, two forest technicians, and a local farmer climbed into the mountains outside the fishing and farming community of Majé, near Panama’s Pacific coast. As they crossed the river, the farmer stopped and pointed up at an anteater in a tree. It was unusual to see this type of anteater here, he said — anteaters generally live higher up in the mountains, but deforestation has pushed them out of their natural habitat.

The Indigenous men were out to map a recent, illegal clearcut that had spread through the forest adjacent to the farmer’s land. The 27-acre cut was an encroachment on Wounaan territory by cattle ranchers originally from the Azuero Peninsula, a once-forested area now decimated by cattle ranching. Seeking fresh pasture, the ranchers were moving into traditional Wounaan lands.

The community had heard the buzz of the chainsaws. They had smelled the smoke from the burning land and the reek of chemical herbicides sprayed by the invaders. Wounaan technicians had used mapping software on their smartphones to pinpoint the site of the illegal land clearing they were now investigating. With this data, the Wounaan of Majé submitted a complaint to the Wounaan National Congress, which then filed a complaint with Panama’s environment ministry, known as MiAmbiente.

The use of GIS mapping, GPS, and satellite tracking of Indigenous lands has grown markedly over the past decade.

“I have hope,” said one of the technicians. “The way we monitor is more advanced now. We have monitoring technicians in the community now, and GIS specialists. We’re getting good at this.”

Obtaining reliable, on-the-ground information turns out to be the easy part, however. Although the deforestation monitoring technology of the Wounaan and other Indigenous groups in Central and South America is rapidly improving, getting governments to act on land-grabbing and deforestation is a major challenge. Indigenous leaders say that in Panama, for example, the national government frequently sides with businesses, ranchers, loggers, and colonizers, despite ample evidence that they are illegally clearing Indigenous land.

Since early 2021, the Wounaan have submitted eight complaints, or denuncias, to the Panamanian authorities, covering more than 300 acres of clearcuts in and around the Wounaan communities of Rio Hondo, Platanares, Majé, and Aruza. MiAmbiente quantified the damage at around $44,000. To date, three denuncias have proceeded to the point where MiAmbiente can serve summons and issue fines to colonizers. But, much to the Wounaan’s frustration, MiAmbiente has yet to take action.

“The government is corrupt, and they don’t understand or care about the Indigenous people,” says a community leader in Majé, who asked not to be identified.

Wounaan forest technicians review maps showing areas of fires and deforestation.

Wounaan forest technicians review maps showing areas of fires and deforestation. Cullen Heater

Around the globe, the use of GIS mapping, GPS, and satellite tracking of Indigenous lands has grown markedly over the past decade. In Peru, a monitoring program allows Indigenous people to receive real-time alerts about potential deforestation on their lands. The Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project enables Indigenous monitors to use satellite data to track incursions across Brazil, Bolivia, and other countries.

Panama has seven recognized Indigenous groups with a total population of about 420,000 — roughly 10 percent of the country’s 4.3 million people. Most Indigenous Panamanians live in one of six special Indigenous territories, or comarcas, which are recognized by federal law and based on the Indigenous peoples’ constitutional rights. Totaling 6,500 square miles, the Comarcas make up about a quarter of Panamanian territory.

By far the majority of the 7,000 Wounaan live in Darién, a heavily forested province in southern Panama that borders Colombia. These communities tend to be small and reliant on the surrounding lowland tropical forests, rivers, and coastal mangrove estuaries, where they hunt, fish, gather wild foods, and raise forest gardens. But the Wounaan’s land-based culture has increasingly been threatened by the outside colonizers, known as colonos, who have illegally logged, mined, and grazed cattle on Indigenous land. Indigenous territories, such as Majé, that fall outside the comarcas are especially vulnerable.

“When the colonos come, they make us feel like we aren’t even people, just animals,” says a Wounaan farmer.

Recently, however, with the support of U.S.-based volunteers and the creative use of satellite data and smartphone technology, the Wounaan have pushed back, mapping and documenting illegal incursions. “The technology has helped us a lot,” says the Majé community leader. “It gives us evidence that we are able to present to the government.”

Last fall, farmers and fishers near the Wounaan community of Aruza, also located outside of comarca boundaries, heard chainsaws in the forest. Wounaan monitors followed the sounds of the machines downriver to a fresh clearcut. There, a logging company had felled 35 acres of valuable tropical hardwoods such as the cocobolo and caoba. They had also cut down jagua trees, whose fruit is used for medicinal purposes and black dye for ceremonial body painting.

The forest monitors mapped the clearcut using GIS technology. They then forwarded the coordinates to volunteers at Native Future, a U.S.-based nonprofit working with Indigenous Panamanians on their land claims. Native Future volunteers were able to connect data points from the Wounaan with satellite images of the Aruza region using a satellite monitoring system devised by the University of Maryland’s Global Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) lab. Volunteers discovered that additional clearcuts and fresh roads had been carved into Wounaan territories.

This map shows where fires, typically used to clear land, occurred in Panama in 2021. Fires are marked in red; indigenous lands are shaded in green.

This map shows where fires, typically used to clear land, occurred in Panama in 2021. Fires are marked in red; indigenous lands are shaded in green. Native Future

Wounaan volunteers also download data on forest canopy change and fire alerts from the Global Forest Watch website, an online tool used to monitor forests worldwide. All this data is then verified by Wounaan technicians, who collect additional evidence, such as photos, for complaints to the environment ministry.

The Majé farmer, who went out to map the clearcut, lives outside a designated comarca and grows ñame, a purple yam that is an important component of the local diet. From his ranchito, a thatched roof with no walls, he can hear the chainsaws of the colonos. At one point, a fire started by the colonos to clear land got out of control and burned his entire crop of ñame.

“When the colonos come, they make us feel like we aren’t even people, just animals,” says the farmer, who asked not to be identified. “This year they will try to put pasture on my land for their cows. But first they are going to spray it with chemicals, and we are going to be drinking that contaminated water. As a human, I should have the right to drink clean water.”

Panama’s government frequently sides with businesses and colonos over Indigenous people. In 2015, for example, the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project in the Ngäbe-Buglé territory began a “test-fill” of its reservoir without tribal consent. Ngäbe-Buglé communities were forcibly evicted from the project area before the dam flooded sacred sites, farmland, and houses.

“Indigenous lands comprise some of the country’s only mature forests, making [them] vulnerable to land-grabbing,” says one expert.

MiAmbiente has a mixed record when it comes to protecting Indigenous lands. Reports from NGOs, journalists, and academics have called out the agency for failing to protect Indigenous territories. But MiAmbiente says its hands are often tied, citing its limited charge to protect natural resources and manage hunting and logging. Still, MiAmbiente has had some minor successes, such as helping protect a swath of Tortí lands in eastern Panama in 2016 that had been illegally logged.

Native Future, however, points to a deeper problem — the apparent unwillingness of MiAmbiente to grant land titles to Indigenous communities, which would give them greater legal power to protect their ecosystems. Currently, nearly two dozen territorial claims await resolution.

The Wounaan have scored some victories. In 2021, monitors in Aruza discovered nearly 29 acres of forest loss in satellite images provided by Native Future. Wounaan volunteers visited the area, photographed the logging damage and related river pollution, and filed a report to MiAmbiente. Within days, officials arrived to investigate. The logging stopped.

Such victories are rare, however, and brief. While the logging was almost immediately stopped, the Wounaan lost the fight. Last December, the National Land Authority of Panama cited a technicality to decide in favor of a group of 72 colonos who had opposed Aruza’s claim of collective title to their traditional land. Aruza’s title application for the land was annulled, and the deforestation resumed.

Wounaan community members discuss recent incursions into their territory.

Wounaan community members discuss recent incursions into their territory. Cullen Heater

“The Wounaan are getting overrun by loggers and colonos who are moving in to harvest trees and take Wounaan territory,” says Marsha Kellogg, the executive director of Native Future. “Everyone worries that things could get violent.” Indeed, in 2012, two people were killed in a confrontation over rosewood logging. Wounaan environmental activists face constant threats of violence.

“From that killing over rosewood, the Wounaan learned from loggers that their lives are not as valuable as their trees,” says Julie Velásquez Runk, an American anthropologist at the University of Georgia who has spent decades working with the Wounaan. “Indigenous lands comprise some of the country’s only mature forests, making Wounaan lands vulnerable to land-grabbing.”

Recently, the Wounaan’s monitoring coordinator obtained a direct line to the Indigenous Affairs officer at the MiAmbiente intelligence office. This, he says, has streamlined the process of filing complaints, and MiAmbiente inspections are occurring more promptly.

“What the Wounaan need now is for the [complaints] to make their way through the entire process and for violators to be charged and fined,” says Native Future’s Kellogg.

Back in the mountains near a spreading clearcut, the forest monitors continue their work.

“Our ancestors lived along these rivers, among the forested mountains,” says the farmer from Majé. “We feel the Earth is something that speaks to us, because we live from her. And that is what conservation means to us. The beauty of nature, walking in the cool mountain air and being able to see far. There is so much to see.”

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