Panama Facts
Area:    78,200 sq. km.
Capital:    Panama
Total Population:    2,736,000 (source: various, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Indigenous people in Panama face political discrimination (POLDIS01-03), economic discrimination (ECDIS01-03 = 3), poor health (DMSICK01-03 = 2), low literacy levels (ECOSTR99 = 6), and flooding in late 2002 contributed to further environmental decline in many indigenous enclaves (DMENV02 = 3). Dispossession of land by settlers and commercial interests also threatens the cultural and economic vitality of indigenous communities (DMEVIC01-03 = 3). However, any risk assessment must address the three main indigenous groups separately as each is faced with a different set of problems and policies (POLSTAT = 4).

The Guaymi, while the largest group, has the least political leverage of the three because of their loose organization. Most Guaymi are simple pastoralists who live in their traditionally small tribal settings in the jungle; they identify with their communities, not with ethnicity. While they have recently been granted their own cormarca (reservation), it remains to be seen whether the government will live up to its promises and respect the autonomy of the area. Given their recent

success, it seems likely that the Guaymi would react to any government failures with renewed protests and international litigation, and potentially greater violence.

The Kuna remain in a strong position politically; they are one of the most politically mobilized and active indigenous groups in Latin America. Their central problems remain poor health (due to diet) and sanitation facilities. Because they have fought for and won autonomy, it seems likely that the majority of Kuna in the San Blas will remain satisfied with their situation. They have doggedly held on to their culture and traditions, but have freely associated (in a business sense) with Europeans and mestizos. Their position towards the government and other Panamanians will not likely change without significant political and economic changes.

The position of the Choco, while better than that of the Guaymi, is not as strong as that of the Kuna. While they have been granted a comarca, this arrangement may not be as stable as they would like, with many mestizo squatters invading their land. The Choco are also most affected by conflict in Colombia, with regular waves of refugees crossing the border to attempt to settle on their land. Unless the government makes a concerted effort to control refugee and mestizo squatters, clashes with the Choco and Guaymi can be expected to continue (DEMSTR99 = 12).

Analytic Summary

Panama's indigenous population can be divided into three distinct groups the Guaymi, the Kuna and the Choco (RACE = 2). The largest of the three, the Guaymi, number approximately 70,000 and live in the western provinces of Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui and Veraguas (GROUPCON = 3). They

are also known by the name Ngobe and are closely affiliated with a small group known as the Bugle. There are 45,000 to 50,000 Kunas who live along the eastern Caribbean coast and on the San Blas islands. The Choco, also known as the Embera, account for several thousand and live in the interior of the Darien province on the border with Colombia. The Bokota, the Terraba and the Bribri all are smaller groups of indigenous peoples scattered throughout the interior of Panama.

The three groups differ considerably according to history, culture and relations with the government of Panama (COHESX9 = 3). Historically, the Guaymi have not been as organized nor as effective in negotiating with the government as the Kuna. However, the Cerro Colorado mining project and other development projects since 1972 have put their ancestral lands in peril and prompted the Guaymi to organize politically. Both the Kuna and Choco have been given reservations (comarcas) where they have considerable autonomy and are free from taxation. The Guaymi recently reached agreement with the government on a separate reserve, but Guaymi leadership has objected that the land covers too little of their ancestral grounds and most Guaymi will live outside the reserve. They

charge that the government has withheld rights to most of their land because it wants access to mineral resources.

The Guaymi, the mainland Kuna, and the Choco are all concerned about the increase in squatters who continue to settle on their reserves and ancestral lands. Each has voiced grievances to the Panamanian congress, staged protests, and forcefully removed squatters from their land. The Kuna and Choco have asked the government for more reserves to protect traditional land from settlers, but the requests have not been granted. Culturally, the groups have been free in the past to practice their religions and observe their traditions (CUSTOM = 1). Government schools have been established in Guaymi villages; Guaymi were often bilingual, with some assuming more Hispanicized identities. Young Guaymi students who attend school with Antillean Blacks frequently adopt English as their second or even third language (ETHDIFXX = 7).

While there appear to be no legal barriers to political participation for indigenous people, 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.

The Kuna are the most organized of the indigenous groups, with a history of violent rebellion against the government. They gained their comarca after a violent uprising against it 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. The 1972 constitution required the government to establish "comarcas" or reserves for the other Indian groups, but this policy has not been fulfilled for the Guaymi.


U.S. Dept of State. Background Notes 1994

U.S. Dept. of State Human Rights Report 1993

Area Studies Handbook for Panama, 1991

City-Net Internet site (

Inter Press Service.

Rueters News Service, November 3, 1994

"Indian Uprising over Land Titling." Latin America Weekly Report May 13, 1993.

"Land Distribution Sparks Conflict with Indigenous People." Inter Press Services, July 3, 1992.

Cawthorne, Andrew. "A Model of Native Self Rule: Kunas Island Kingdom in the Caribbean." The Toronto Star Nov. 12, 1993.

Hay, Katherine. "Patenting of Human Material Postponed" Alternatives July 1994.

Fourth World Development Project sponsored by the Center for World Indigenous Studies.

Lexis-Nexis: All News Files 1995-2000.

Otis, John. "Infected Indians Protest 'Vampire Project'." United Press International, June 3, 1994.

U.S. Department of State. March 4, 2002. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Panama 2001.

U.S. Department of State. March 31, 2003. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Panama 2002.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur, December 2, 2002, Flooding In Costa Rica and Panama Kills Four, Strands Thousands.


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