BENEFITING: RAINFOREST FOUNDATION INC
We are helping the Wounaan people of Panama secure their rights to 470,000 acres of their ancestral lands.
Partner: Foundation for the Development of the Wounaan People
Why this project is important:
Panama recently passed a law that will allow indigenous groups to claim collective lands, which has long been a demand of the indigenous movement. The Wounaan will be among the first indigenous groups to gain formal control of their lands through this new law, establishing a model for other indigenous communities in the country. We see this as a critical opportunity for advancing indigenous rights, as well as environmental protection in the biologically important Darién region.
The Wounaan number some 8,000 people living in communities spread throughout eastern Panama, including the Darién - the largest remaining stretch of tropical forest in the country. Twelve Wounaan communities, numbering about 7,000 people and covering some 470,000 acres, have never held formal legal title to their lands. Some have been invaded by outsiders, who have cleared the forest for cattle-raising, agriculture, and other development projects. Despite these threats, the lands claimed by the communities include significant swaths of largely untouched rainforest, some of the most intact mangrove and lowland forest ecosystems in Panama, and ecologically important rivers and estuaries.
In response to pressure from indigenous groups, in late 2008 the Panamanian Congress passed a law to facilitate the demarcation of collective indigenous lands. A law setting out all the steps necessary for recognition of collective lands was passed in 2010. This is exactly what the Wounaan were waiting for, and they have since completed nearly all the steps needed for three communities to have their lands protected, and begun laying the groundwork for others.
What we’re doing:
Over the next few years, RF-US will be working with the Wounaan to gain recognition of all 12 communities. This will include legal work, community meetings, gathering necessary documents, and subsequent negotiations with the government. As a result, we hope to help secure nearly 500,000 acres of tropical forest, to be owned and managed by the Wounaan, who call the area home.
Did you know?
•Panama is home to seven indigenous peoples: the Bribri, Bugle, Emberá, Kuna, Naso (or Teribe), Ngobe, and Wounaan, comprising approximately 6% of the total population.
•The Panamanian Constitution states that it “guarantees to its indigenous communities the reservation of necessary lands and collective property of the same to achieve their social and economic well being.”
•Five semi-autonomous indigenous areas, known as comarcas, exist in Panama, though dozens of areas still remain unrecognized.
•In 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended that Panama “recognize the rights of indigenous communities that live outside the comarcas, including the right to collective use of their ancestral lands.”
•New legislation recognizing collective indigenous lands was passed in December 2008, and enabling legislation was passed in June 2010.