Indigenous People of Panama
Panama like most Latin American countries has an indigenous population. In Panama there are roughly 285,000 indigenous people living in Panama. When you consider that only 3 1/2 million people live in Panama, you will note that the indigenous portion of that population is large.
There are five tribes that are living in comarca indigenas. In the United States we would consider these places reservations. Here they are provinces that are specific places for the tribes to live. The tribes are Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, Kuna Yala, Ngöbe-Buglé, Kuna de Madugandí and Kuna de Wargandí. The first three have larger populations and therefore larger provinces.
The Comarca Embera-Wounaan live within the Darien province, in eastern Panama. This area is rarely visited by anyone, due to its inaccessibility and closeness to the Columbia border. Most of these people live in small villages and live as they have done for hundreds of years.
The Kuna Yala, which number about 31,000, live further west of the Comaraca Embera-Wounaan. In recent times, Panama’s tourism has made these people and the place they live a tourist destination. The San Blas islands are considered one of the most visited places for tourists. The Kuna women are famous for their handcrafts of “Molas.” Besides making Molas, they make money by fishing , agriculture and tourism. You can see a video I found on you tube here.
The Ngöbe-Buglé tribe is the largest tribe and their territory is quite extensive. They live close to the Costa Rica border on the Carribbean side of Panama near Bocas del Toro and across the mountains into the Chiriqui province. Their last population estimate was 154, ooo. They live in the mountain regions in small villages. Many are malnourished. They do not have access to good health care , drinking water or proper food. Most do not speak Spanish. They have their own language which also adds to the problem of communication with the rest of Panama. Many volunteer groups from around the world are concerned for the Ngobe-Bugle and their deterioration. They are coming here helping the Ngobe with finding clean drinking water, education of the children and helping the tribes anyway they can.
Most are subsistence farmers, meaning they eat what they grow and that is how they survive. Some of the tribe now are earning cash by harvesting coffee in the Chiriqui region. As a side note, we see the Ngobe daily here in Boquete and David. The women and men work in the coffee fields and come into town to shop at the local stores. The women are always dressed in their lovely colorful dresses with the children at their sides.
Recently the Ngobe have been highly protesting the potential mining that may begin in their region. The largest copper mine in the world wants to locate within their comarca indigenas. The news is that the copper mine poses a great environmental threat as waste materials from extraction and processing pollute local watersheds. They blocked highways in protest to the mining last February and shut down all routes to and from Panama City, just outside of David. In the past they have protested dams going into their territory.
In April of 2012, finally a law went into affect by the current government meant to protect the lakes and rivers of that region for the Ngobe people.
The tribes of Kuna de Madugandí and Kuna de Wargandí were originally Kuna. They also live in the Darien region of the country and are among the most remote of the tribes.