World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Panama : Overview
|Publisher||Minority Rights Group International|
|Publication Date||December 2008|
|Cite as||Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Panama : Overview, December 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce3823.html [accessed 25 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Updated December 2008
The Republic of Panama is located on the Isthmus of Panama, which connects Central and South America. On the western border is Costa Rica and on the east is Colombia. The Panama Canal runs between the low-lying Caribbean and Pacific Coasts. There are numerous offshore islands.
The total population numbering just over three million is one of the smallest in Spanish-speaking Latin America.
Main languages: Spanish, English Creole, indigenous languages
Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant/Evangelical), indigenous religions, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Baha'i faith
Main minority groups: Afro-Panamanians (14%, CIA 2007), Ngobe-Bugle (200-250,000), Kuna (50,000), Chocó (Embera-Wounan) (8,246, 2000 Census), Bri-Bri, Naso, Chinese (6%)
The majority of the population of Panama is mestizo, or mixed Spanish, Indian, Chinese, and African descent. Spanish is the official and pervasive language with English being a common second language used by Afro-Caribbean communities and by many in business and the professions. More than half the population lives in the area between Panama City to Colon.
Most of the population of Panama works in the service-based economy, which is supported by ship registration, tourism, banking and other financial services.
Before the arrival of the Spanish in 1501, Panama was densely inhabited by a number of indigenous peoples whose kinship groups extended into the Caribbean as well as South America and along the isthmus as far north as Honduras. Trade and travel between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts was conducted by the indigenous nations along a trail, which was called Las Cruces.
As the narrowest part of the American continent, Panama's history has been largely determined by its strategic importance for imperial powers. Following the Spanish arrival the isthmus became a major crossroads for intercontinental and transoceanic travel using the Camino Real (Royal Road), which developed out of the original Las Cruces trail. For nearly two centuries it was the principal route for taking large numbers of enslaved Africans to the Pacific Coast colonies like Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and for transferring gold and silver from South American mines to Spain.
Today mestizos of mixed indigenous, African and European ancestry make up the majority of the local population.
With the decline of the Spanish Empire, Panama lost much of its importance and became a part of independent Colombia in 1821. Its significance as a transit area was enhanced again when U. S. prospectors and settlers began making their way to Oregon and the goldfields of California via the Isthmus of Panama.
In 1846, the government of Colombia signed a treaty with the United States permitting the construction of a railroad across the territory that would run from Panama City on the Pacific to Colon on the Caribbean Coast. In addition to Chinese workers this brought the first influx of Afro-Caribbean labor migrants who were recruited from Jamaica and other parts of the British West Indies.
In 1903, the USA supported the secession of Panama from Colombia in order to gain control over the Canal Zone: an eight kilometre strip of land, on either side of the construction site of the proposed inter-oceanic canal. In exchange for a US guarantee of Panamanian freedom from reincorporation into Colombia, the new state granted the USA the right to build and own the canal 'in perpetuity'. The construction employed over 30,000 Afro-Caribbean 'diggers', many of whom stayed after completion. The Canal was opened in 1914 and US involvement in the creation of Panama set a precedent for regular interference in Panamanian affairs.
In 1939, the country's protectorate status was ended in a revision of the canal treaty which explicitly recognized Panamanian sovereignty. This ushered in an era of ultra-nationalism which had a negative effect on non-Hispanic groups however, the USA continued to control the Canal Zone. It was not until the 1970s, under the government of Omar Torrijos, that a new form of Panamanian nationalism and a desire for sovereignty brought Afro-Panamanians and the dominant mestizo Spanish-speakers together. A concrete result of this process was the revision of the canal treaty in 1977, which gave Panama sovereignty over the Canal Zone and affirmed that full operational control would pass into Panamanian hands in December 1999.
The US removal of Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega, through a military operation in December 1989 marked a blow to Panamanian sovereignty and a return to a period of US interference in the country's affairs. More than 2,000 died, many more 'disappeared' and 20,000 lost their homes during the first days of the invasion.
After the invasion, Panamanian political parties became more cautious about promoting anti-US nationalism. The 1994 elections were won by Ernesto Balladares and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) which was the party of Noriega. The new government toned down the party's previous anti-US views and focused on trying to attract more investment and expansion of the economic sector.
In the elections of September 2004 Martín Torrijos (son of Omar Torrijos) of the PRD earned 47 percent of the vote and assumed a five year presidential term. Government policies continued to favour a market economy and free-trade arrangements with the United States.
Panama's constitution seeks to protect the ethnic identity and native languages of Panama's population, requiring the government to provide bilingual literacy programmes in indigenous communities. The Family Code recognizes traditional indigenous cultural marriage rites as the equivalent of a civil ceremony. The Ministry of Government and Justice maintains a Directorate of Indigenous Policy and the Legislative Assembly also has an indigenous affairs commission, which is aimed at addressing charges that the Government has neglected indigenous needs.
Despite legal protection and formal equality, indigenous peoples without exception have relatively higher levels of poverty, disease, malnutrition, and illiteracy than the rest of the population. The biggest campaigning issue for Panama's indigenous peoples has been the struggle for land rights in the form of autonomous land reserves. .
The 1972 constitution required the government to establish 'comarcas' or reserves for indigenous groups, but this policy was not universally implemented. The country has demarcated territories for five of the country's seven native groups. These have a significant degree of autonomy and are free from taxation.
In November 1993, following a successful national strike with the support of other social movements, the National Coordination of Indigenous Peoples of Panama, made up of Kuna, Embera and Ngobe-Bugle (Guyami) leaders, sponsored a national convention to demand the creation of a high-level government commission to implement greater investment in indigenous areas.
President Endara endorsed the proposals and incorporated the Convention on the Indigenous Peoples' Development Fund into domestic law. These were important steps; however, the Ngobe-Bugle experience of fighting the mining concessions showed that the government would only allow the participation of indigenous groups in decisions when it is forced to by civil protests.
Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples
Indigenous people in Panama continue to face political and economic discrimination, poor health, territorial conflicts and low literacy levels. In late 2002 serious flooding contributed to further environmental decline in many indigenous enclave.
Dispossession of land by settlers and expanding investment by commercial interests including tourism real estate development and hydro-electric generation in areas like Bocas del Toro also threaten the cultural and economic vitality of indigenous communities.
Panama's current indigenous population can be divided into three distinct groups the Ngobe-Bugle (Guaymi) Kuna and the Choco (Embera-Wounan). Afro-Panamanians constitute the largest ethnic minority.
Although being the most numerous the Ngobe-Bugle (Guaymi) continue to have the least political leverage of all the main indigenous groups. The traditional Ngobe-Bugle rainforest lifestyle of simple small communities affects the level of national political organization. .
Despite constitutional guarantees instituted in 1972, development projects like the Cerro Colorado mining project put Ngobe-Bugle ancestral lands in peril and prompted them to organize politically. In 2004 after years of protest the Ngobe-Bugle/Guyami were granted their own cormarca (reservation) however Ngobe-Bugle leadership complain that the allocation covers too little of their ancestral land and argue this is mainly due to government interest in the mineral resources which are now increasingly being exploited. This includes the construction of a controversial four dam hydro-electric project in the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve of Western Panama.
The Kuna remain in a strong position politically; They are one of the most organized of the indigenous groups in Panama, with a history of violent rebellion against the government. The Kuna gained their comarca after a violent uprising in 1925. In 1930, the government established the San Blas islands as a semi-autonomous zone and created the comarcas de San Blas eight years later. In 1962, they again took up arms, but the rebellion was put down.
Their central problems remain poor health related to diet and sanitation. Although still culturally strong, the increased contact with the global market economy since the 1990s is beginning to produce marked social changes that threaten traditional values and cultural sustainability.
The issue of protection of indigenous intellectual property is also of concern and projects have been started aimed at working with Kuna communities to rescue and document collective knowledge of cultural practices and use of traditional plants and medicines.
The Choco, also known as the Embera-Wounan live in the interior of the Darien province on the border with Colombia. While being in a better position than the Ngobe-Bugle, the Choco are not as strong as the Kuna. Choco have been granted a comarca, but many mestizo squatters are invading their land.
The Choco are also most affected by the ongoing conflict in Colombia. With regular waves of refugees crossing the border and attempting to settle on their land, there have been clashes. Special frontier police had to be posted and in Jaque, central Darien, and Kuna Yala, the Government, local NGOS, and the UN High Commission for Refugees have had to provide displaced indigenous Colombians with food, medical care, and access to public services, including schools and clinics.
All indigenous groups would like the government to do more to control refugee and mestizo squatters, which will help to prevent clashes.
Bri-Bri and Naso
While the large indigenous groups have been given enclaves, the much smaller groups like the Bri-Bri and Naso who live near the border with Costa Rica, do not yet have officially recognized reserves.
There appear to be no legal barriers to political participation for indigenous people, however their presence in high-level positions within the government is not in proportion to their percentage of the population. However, this seems to be gradually changing. With the granting of the comarcas, the government has given guaranteed representation to the larger indigenous groups.
There are reserved seats for two Kuna Yala comarca and three Ngobe-Bugle comarca representatives in the National Assembly. In addition to the five dedicated seats, Bocas del Toro elected one Ngobe legislator to the National Assembly. Neither the Madugandi nor the Embera-Wounaan reserve has dedicated seats. However these positions do not ensure greater rights protection.
Like the Gnome, the Naso are also being affected by the hydroelectric dam project. In October 2007 the Naso initiated a seven month long blockade at the construction site aimed at resisting construction of the Bonyic dam on the Teribe River in the state of Bocas del Toro near the border with Costa Rica. The blockade was subsequently attacked and broken up by 50 armed paramilitaries in May 2008.
In October 2008 a group of Naso and Ngobe representatives travelled to the United States to give evidence at a hearing at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (ARC) in Washington D.C. This included citing instances of discrimination, abuse, and displacement they claim to have suffered through actions of Empresas Publicas de Medellin (Colombia), AES Corporation (United States), and the Government of Panama which in consortium are constructing the four hydroelectric dams in the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve.
The projects financed under the Kyoto Protocol initiative Clean Development Mechanism, have also been condemned for their environmental impacts on the San San Wetlands and the La Amistad International Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In mid 2008 a UNESCO mission demanded the Government of Panama present a complete report of the impact the hydroelectric projects will have on the aquatic life of the Teribe and Changuinola rivers.
The Naso and Ngobe representatives claim that dam construction will destroy their traditional livelihood and homelands, and that their land rights and informed consent have been denied to them by the Government of Panama which has never ratified ILO 169.
Afro Panamanians suffer subtle but significant discrimination within Panama's mestizo society and are not regarded as a distinct ethnic group in the same manner as indigenous people,
Afro Panamanians in general and especially those who openly identify with Caribbean and other ancestral cultures (e.g.Congo) continue to experience marginalization and unequal treatment. This is manifested both in the cultural arena as well as in exclusionary hiring practices and inadequate access to public sector programs and resources.
The lack of inclusion is particularly evident in the political sector where there is a marked absence of special advocacy on their behalf. Unlike indigenous groups who have recourse to a Directorate of Indigenous Policy and specially allocated parliamentary seats there are no special efforts to include Afro Panamanian concerns in policy development, data analysis, resource allocation or government programs.
Despite the high percentage of Panamanians of African ancestry in the overall national population Afro-Panamanians remain markedly absent from positions of political and economic power. Mainstream political and economic elites continue to ignore the acute economic and social problems that affect Afro-Panamanian populations and the areas where they constitute the majority.
In recent years there have been increasing efforts by the Afro West Indian community to celebrate their cultural heritage and contributions to the development of modern Panama. This includes obtaining government support to establish a museum that highlights Afro-Panamanian history and their key role in canal construction.
As of 2004 there was one Afro-Panamanian in the 13 member National Cabinet and the Solicitor General was an Afro-Panamanian woman.
Panama has significant number of Chinese, Arabic speaking, East Asian, South Asian, Jewish and Muslim communities.
Chinese Panamanians who number around 150,000 are one of the major minorities in the country and represent nearly five per cent of the population. Panama also has one of the largest Jewish communities within Latin America. Jewish immigration began in the late 19th Century and it is estimated that there are at least 10,000 members in this community.