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Challenges in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca | Part 2: Social Problems

Posted by | June 4th, 2014

This is the second of a 5-part series about the biggest problems in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé and how they are being addressed. You can click here to see the first part here about Physical Infrastructure.

The top 5 problems currently facing the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé are:

  1. Physical Infrastructure
  2. Social Problems
  3. Education
  4. Labor/Work
  5. Health/Medical Assistance

Today we will cover Problem #2: Social Problems.

Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous baby with mother
Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous baby with mother

There isn’t a community in the world free of social problems. What makes these problems particularly dangerous in these Ngäbe-Bugle communities is their lack of access to the organizations which could support and help those in danger or at risk.

Seclusion

These communities are especially secluded from the outside world, not only physically but also it's difficult for them to communicate with the outer world. Many communities do not have cell phone service, nor a functioning public phone, and definitely not internet (nor a means to access the internet, such as a computer or cell phone).

Travel time to many villages is several days through jungle and mountains
Travel time to many villages is several days through jungle and mountains

Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a common problem in indigenous communities worldwide. The Ngäbe tribe has not escaped from this disease. Drinking is a traditional part of the culture, especially during certain celebrations, where they drink locally-made fermented beverages from corn, sometimes for days at a time.

Chicha Fuerte, a homemade alcoholic beverage fermented from corn
Chicha Fuerte, a homemade alcoholic beverage fermented from corn

Unfortunately this habit has carried over to non-holiday times. It is common to find bars in large communities inside the Comarca. The men and some women drink excessively, though the cultural celebrations accompanying drinking are dying out. This also is happening in areas where the Ngäbes work outside of the Comarca, especially on weekends after paydays.

Indigenous fighting after drinking a good portion of the money obtained on payday isn't an unusual sight
Indigenous fighting after drinking a good portion of the money obtained on payday isn't an unusual sight

Domestic Violence

It has been well-documented that alcoholism heightens domestic abuse. Or perhaps it is an easy excuse for pent-up emotions caused by rampant miscommunication in this culture. Regardless, domestic abuse is a common problem, especially in many hard-to-reach communities in the Comarca. Although personally, I have seen this trend diminish as women and men are more educated as each generation passes.

However, it is interesting to note that a Panamanian government agency specifically formed to teach against domestic violence and help women in need, Defense of the Community, only taught about 20 indigenous people in all of 2012.

A community can only truly prosper when its women are allowed access to education
A community can only truly prosper when its women are allowed access to education

Macho Culture

Some communities in the Comarca still have a very machismo culture - even going so far as men having multiple families in different communities. Machismo culture hinders progress, as women are refused the right to study, are not allowed to travel far from the home and are burdened with raising the children and keeping the house while her husband goes to other towns (some of the men visiting their other families).

In this culture, it is seen as a symbol of wealth to be able to “support” multiple families. Though of course this man is actually very poor in worldly terms and really doesn’t have enough to even support one family well. And of course his wives aren’t allowed to even be alone with a man who is not her husband.

Thankfully these communities are the in minority since education is growing at an astounding rate and this behavior is not being replicated in newer generations.

Teen Pregnancy

Teen pregnancy is extremely common in the Comarca (32.5% of all reported pregnancies in the Comarca in 2012 were to mothers ages 10 - 19). Of course, this typically affects the mothers more than the fathers, as only a small percentage of fathers are committed to staying with the mother and providing support for the child (most of the fathers are teenagers themselves).

As most places in the world, teen pregnancy turns into a lonely journey for the mothers
As most places in the world, teen pregnancy turns into a lonely journey for the mothers

As expected, the reality of a baby being born to a teenage mother in the Comarca means that she will stop her schooling and go live with her parents or boyfriend. The percentage who return to graduate from high school after having a baby is extremely low.

However, there are some who decide that they still want to continue studying or live outside of the Comarca and work (or find a husband who has a job), so they leave the child with the grandparents in the Comarca and go on with their life. They will go to visit the child or send money so that the child can travel to where the mom lives once or twice per year during school vacations.

Cultural Decline

Possibly the most important social problem facing the Comarca right now is the cultural decline that is being witnessed and experienced. Of course, this has been happening for years, mainly when the Comarca was created in 1997 and when the first roads were built to the hub cities.

As Ngäbes left their communities in search of work and a better life, they left behind their heritage and assimilated into Panamanian culture. It’s estimated that 70,000 Ngäbes live outside of the Comarca.

Many indigenous leave their homes to go pickup coffee in the mountains of Boquete every year
Many indigenous leave their homes to go pickup coffee in the mountains of Boquete every year

Sure they might return to visit every year or two, but many continue with their new life and start chasing the “Panamanian Dream”. Sometimes they send money to their family in the Comarca and ask them to travel to visit them in their new city rather than going back to visit or live in the Comarca.

And of course, they begin having children in their new adopted town and they are raised away from the traditional indigenous culture.

This has many bad effects. Most obvious is the loss of language, natural medicine remedies, traditional dress, dances and ceremonies. Who ARE the Ngäbe tribe if they have no culture left?

Many of the Ngäbe's traditions are being lost as they are not being passed to the new generations after they leave their communities
Many of the Ngäbe's traditions are being lost as they are not being passed to the new generations after they leave their communities

Most notable of the bad effects is that the brightest of the Comarca are leaving and not returning. I think that they are still proud to be indigenous, proud of their homeland, but they become so busy with work and life that they feel they just don’t have enough time to make a difference (Panamanians typically work 6 - 7 days per week, especially for unskilled labor).

Racism against them

On top of this is the problem of racism against the indigenous in Panamá. It’s very hard for an uneducated person (or under-educated) to stand up for themselves when they don’t even know what their rights actually are.

If you have been treated a certain way by a majority group your entire life, would it dawn on you to question this treatment? To question if it is right and just and fair? As we saw in the United States, it took a few stubborn people to finally bring the longed-for change for the entire black population, even though racial segregation is still a very real problem in the USA. We’re still waiting for the persistent few Ngäbes to hold their stand against the Panamanian government for all of the Comarca.

One of the very few things at which the Ngäbe-Bugle have been successful at protesting against is dams or mines being built in their lands
One of the very few things at which the Ngäbe-Bugle have been successful at protesting against is dams or mines being built in their lands

Lack of Education

Meanwhile, those left in the Comarca don’t understand their legal rights (many have only traveled short distances from their hometowns), are uneducated (the majority aged 30 and older did not continue schooling past 6th grade), do not speak Spanish as their first language, and certainly do not have the resources (connections, money, education) to wage a truly spectacular effort. What’s more, they just don’t know where to begin nor what is needed to truly rise from their social position. All they know is that the government will continue to give handouts to keep them just above the extreme poverty line.

Group of indigenous waiting in line to receive handouts from the goverment
Group of indigenous waiting in line to receive handouts from the goverment

Positive trends

There is some good news to be shared. A few dedicated organizations realize the hurt on these communities and have made it their mission to help improve these social problems.

The Jädrán Association is an independent group in the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle recognized by the General Congress in the Comarca. With 2,000 members, they aim to be the voice for all in the Comarca who live in poverty and to fight for the rights of their people. Their mission is to demand training and development in the Comarca because they understand that the only way to change the situation of extreme poverty is with real opportunities, dignified jobs, and just and equal opportunity without any form of discrimination.

Orphanage and multipurpose building constructed by Jädrán Association
Orphanage and multipurpose building constructed by Jädrán Association

Another organization supporting the development of the people of the Comarca is Acción Cultural Ngóbe, created by priests and bishops of the Catholic Church who live and work in the Comarca to support the Ngäbe culture and to provide advice and help networking with larger institutions, especially focusing on strengthening legality and development of the indigenous population. However, it doesn’t seem that they have been active in recent years.

A wonderfully dedicated organization that works in an island indigenous community just outside of the Comarca is Give & Surf. They now provide a slew of services mainly focused on education, sustainability and community development. They have a strong base of foreign volunteers, either expats or short-term travellers, which provide critical ongoing support to the community. Floating Doctors also provides health services in areas of difficult access.

Last but not least, Faithful Servant Missions is an organization with connection to the Christian Church and they have built an orphanage in a town outside of the Comarca where many Ngäbes migrate to for seasonal work. They also provide food staples for around 40 families each month, many in remote areas in this region.

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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle & Things Eco-Friendly Travelers & Residents Do

Posted by | November 20th, 2013

On this blog we share a lot about the amazing activities one can do in Bocas del Toro and Boquete, such as eco-tours, Spanish lessons, surf lessons, volunteering and so on. What we don't talk enough about are the the challenges we face in our little paradise, and that YOU as a resident, student or traveler in Panama can help improve.

The focus of this article will be Bocas del Toro, as it is my current home (think global, act local), and because a lot of what is mentioned here has already been implemented in Boquete (there is a wonderful recycling initiative over there, REAL Boquete, that has been educating the youth about recycling and conservation for a good amount of years).

Our Waste Management Reality: Problems and Challenges we Face

If you've recently visited Bocas, you may have noticed while walking along the streets and some of our beaches, that our beautiful scenery can sometimes be spoiled by unattractive trash items: plastic Coca Cola or water bottles, plastic grocery bags, plastic, plastic and more plastic... every time I see this, I think Jeez, why aren’t people more responsible!? Why don't they care? But if you think about it, a lot has to do with lack of education. It's not necessarily that people don't care per se: it's just that they don't know better.

Arriving to a beautiful beach and finding it littered with trash is not the most welcoming sight
Arriving to a beautiful beach and finding it littered with trash is not the most welcoming sight

Combine the above with a genuine lack of pride for the land that saw you grow up and coastal laziness in general, and you have a problem. And please, I'm not saying that every person that was born in Bocas del Toro doesn't have the education to understand these issues, or that most Bocatoreños aren't proud about their Archipelago, just that it's not a holistic and educated sense of pride (if it were, there would be less litter... just as in the Azuero Peninsula, where people do have a better sense of heritage and do care about how clean their towns are). And sadly, as well, many tourists don’t respect the environment when they are on vacation as much as they would back at home. After all, they don’t live here, right? We get visitors not only from North America and Europe, but also from Central and South America, where environmental issues and waste management isn't something that people have had the time to really consider.

Did you know that the average U.S. citizen produces about 4.4 lbs of garbage per day (2 kg) and that in Mexico this can be up to 30% more? When you're on an island that receives tens of thousands of visitors every year, it rapidly becomes a difficult problem for us to manage all this "imported" waste besides our own.

And if you add to this a corrupt local goverment that just isn't capable of facing these challenges, and a central goverment in Panama City that really doesn't care about what's happening in this neck of the woods (as long as it doesn't affect them), then the situation turns into a desperate one. Just in the past few years, we as a community, have faced several trash crises and until now, only temporary solutions had been attained, after local citizens started to create more awareness about these challenges and funds through private donations were obtained to deal with these emergency situations. For more background about what's been going on with the waste management in the past months, check out this article here...

During the last trash crisis, which took place around 3 months ago, the local population got so mad that some started to leave their trash at the doors of the municipality building. Please note the vultures taring the bags with organics apart.
During the last trash crisis, which took place around 3 months ago, the local population got so mad that some started to leave their trash at the doors of the municipality building. Please note the vultures taring the bags with organics apart.

Hope, Opportunities, Heroes & Efforts

I've painted a pretty grim picture, haven't I? Believe me, the reality that we've experienced has been a lot worst. But then something incredible started to happen: a group of outstanding citizens literally took away from the local authorities, our islands' waste management, and without any funding at all from Panama's central goverment, they are doing a MUCH better job at collecting our trash. If it wasn't for this small but courageous group of heroic members of our community, I really couldn't imagine what would be the current situation of Bocas del Toro.

Believe it or not, this is just one of the piles of trash that the new local waste management group had to deal with. This is on the road to one of Bocas del Toro's most beatiful beaches, Starfish Beach
Believe it or not, this is just one of the piles of trash that the new local waste management group had to deal with. This was on the road to one of Bocas del Toro's most beatiful beaches, Starfish Beach

In addition to trash collection, another superb initiative has been that of Willpower Corp led by local resident Robert Bezeau. Basically, each week their truck is driven around town (mostly by volunteers, many times by local business owners) to collect recyclables (glass, aluminum, and plastics) to get them off the island to be sold and processed. From a personal experience I can say this makes a huge difference, as I know for a fact, that depending on the season, between Habla Ya and Tungara Hostel, from 3 to 20 bags of recyclables are generated per week. If it wasn't for this initiative all of this would end up in landfill (and it would just be more difficult, time consuming and expensive to collect it). Imagine the difference it would make if every hotel, restaurant, household and business in general in Bocas del Toro would make a real effort to separate their recyclables!

Casie Dean, local business owner, volunteering her time to drive the recycling truck
Casie Dean, local business owner, volunteering her time to drive the recycling truck

Besides this organized effort, there is another group of local ladies (known as BELLO) who has been working, amongst other things, on making our public spaces more esthetically pleasing and building a genuine sense of pride for our islands amongst those who live here (both local residents and expats). You can see what BELLO has recently been up to here.

Yorlenis, Karrol and Maiky, three local residents that spearheaded the work at our now beautiful park
Yorlenis, Karrol and Maiky, three local residents that spearheaded the work at our now beautiful park

Food for Thought & Long Term Solutions

A couple of easy laws to enforce (with fines) could be implemented but the local authorities lack will, vision and just don't care (that is the only conclusion I can come up with). Why isn't it possible to ban plastic bags at the grocery stores? Why can't we ban selling small plastic bottles for soft drinks and water under a certain size? Why don't we enforce each and every hotel to implement rain water collection systems (I mean, we're in the rain forest, aren't we?) and offer potable drinking water to their customers and guests instead of selling them water in plastic bottles? Why can't we implement effective recycling bins at the major grocery stores and enforce each grocery store to be responsible for managing them? And the list could go on an on about some little changes that we could make that would make a HUGE difference.

Now, in an ideal world, the taxes collected in a community (well, at least some of them), should be reinvested in that community. Here in Bocas del Toro specifically, the 10% hotel tax charged to every tourist for every night they sleep here, the 7% sales tax everyone pays for goods and services they purchase (demand your "factura fiscal" - receipt, everywhere you go), the taxes local business and individuals pay on their earnings, and the huge amount of monthly taxes business and employees pay for social security, health that is). Well, if you've been living here you will notice that literally NOTHING has happened in terms of infrastructure development since the last change of goverment (about 5 years that is, no exaggeration here) and we haven't seen any investments in healthcare or tourism facilities either. Our sad reality is that we're a region that is very neglected within Panama.

This is the hospital of Panama's most renown beach destination and it's in a really sad state... the only specialist on the entire island is a pediatrician. The nearest real hospital is in Changuinola, a 30 minute boat drive and 30 minute taxi ride away. We really don't understand how this is even possible.
This is the hospital of Panama's most renown beach destination and it's in a really sad state... the only specialist on the entire island is a pediatrician. The nearest real hospital is in Changuinola, a 30 minute boat drive and 30 minute taxi ride away. We really don't understand how this is even possible.

Here in Bocas, we could definitively use some funds from the goverment to purchase an eco-friendly garbage incinerator and generate clean electricity to power the island AND stop using landfills. Is that ever going to happen? Unfortunately not in the short term. We still have the same third world hospital with lack of medicines and no specialists, our schools are falling apart and almost all of the improvements are always made by private persons or entities.

Being Bocas del Toro the most recognized beach destination in Panama one wonders why does this happen? Well, it's very simple in fact: the Central goverment and Panama's big money have no financial interests in these islands whatsoever. Bocas is famous for its stunning natural beauty and has grown as a worldwide renown tourist destination despite of Panama's goverment. If you ask me, in some way it's better that things are this way, as our islands remain untouched from the corporate greed that has been exploiting and damaging Panama's Pacific coastline (think big chain resorts and hotels with no regard for our culture, local communities and environment)... but it comes at the cost of having third world services in terms of healthcare and education (amongst other things).

What can we do as Residents and what can you do as a Tourist?

OK, enough ranting. It's time to start changing mentalities and habits. How? Each of us has to do our bit by recycling, producing less waste, and encouraging our visitors to do so. In most cases, it’s just about fighting laziness, because you cannot blame it on education with North American or European travelers (one would think).

How can YOU help change this trend? Start by changing YOUR OWN habits.

1) Start with where you live or the place you're staying at

Try to do your bit at your hostel, hotel or host family´s house. Separate aluminum cans, glass and plastic, and make sure they are clean (just rinse them off) before you put them in their respective container. Our host families will probably not have the habit of recycling and separating their waste, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it (or show them how to do it). Habla Ya students can bring their own recycling to the school, and we’ll dispose of it. At the school itself, all you have to do is aim for the right item at the right container. If you're staying at a hotel, demand that things are done in this way, or even better, help them implement a recycling system. Sounds easy, but taking into account the laziness factor, it can prove to be difficult for some to overcome (and you do have to make it easy for people to understand where to put each item, otherwise it doesn't work). But we don’t lose hope, we know we can do it! At the end of the day, even if you set this up at your business in a user friendly way, there will always be someone who doesn't get it and some extra work from someone in your staff will be required to correctly separate all the recyclables... but hey, this is YOUR HOME, so it's totally worth it!

Implementing a system to separate trash isn't that difficult and then the recycling truck can come and pick up your recyclables once a week AND under the new system, in which trash collection for businesses is charged on a per bag bases this actually means SAVINGS for your business
Implementing a system to separate trash isn't that difficult and then the recycling truck can come and pick up your recyclables once a week AND under the new system, in which trash collection for businesses is charged on a per bag bases this actually means SAVINGS for your business. This is part of what we've done at Tungara Hostel... see, easy!

2) After visiting the beach

After you have been sunbathing or swimming and spending some time at the beach, I assume that you would (hopefully) pick up your own trash, correct? Well it won’t hurt to also pick up that old washed up plastic bag that is laying a few feet away from you in the sand, or that plastic bottle that "is not yours". Trust me, I've done it, and I am still alive! Same thing with any trash you find along the road. I am not saying that you should transform yourself into a garbage man: just do what you can, when you can. And don't be lazy just because you can't immediately find a trash can. Save your trash and throw it away properly when you come across a trash can, like the one in front of Habla Ya! If you have a business, why not put up a trash can on the sidewalk? Oh, because with the new trash collection system you have to pay by bag? Come on! Don't be cheap and do your bit if you consider Bocas del Toro your home and others will follow!

More than 4 years ago, a group of local surfers spearheaded an initiative to eliminate a horrendous dump which was located less than 30 meters from the sea, close to a famous surf break known as Dumpers on the way to Bluff Beach. Now, we're not asking you to deal with a dump, but if you do manage to see the odd piece of plastic by the beach, please take it back to town with you.
More than 4 years ago, a group of local surfers spearheaded an initiative to eliminate a horrendous dump which was located less than 30 meters from the sea, close to a famous surf break known as Dumpers on the way to Bluff Beach. Now, we're not asking you to deal with a dump, but if you do manage to see the odd piece of plastic by the beach, please take it back to town with you.

3) Throw organics in the compost, not in the general trash

It smells bad and decomposes, generates maggots, flies, and all sorts of stinky stuff. If you were in Bocas during the last trash crises I am sure you've seen the vultures in the streets tearing apart huge trash bags, and re-decorating the streets with whatever was inside. I don’t have to describe the smell to you. Just tell yourself that these vultures would not have taken YOUR trash bag if you would have used your organics for compost. That thought always makes me feel better.

Don't be lazy and don't put organics with your rest of your trash. Find somewhere in your yard and if you don't have a yard, find someone who does. In Bocas Town there are several locals who will be happy to take your organics to feed their pigs amongst other things
Don't be lazy and don't put organics with your rest of your trash. Find somewhere in your yard and if you don't have a yard, find someone who does. In Bocas Town there are several locals (the Chitré restaurant for example) who will be happy to take your organics to feed their pigs amongst other things

4) Avoid take-out meals

They are often served in Styrofoam containers, and cannot be reused. If you can, just avoid take-out altogether, but if you know you are going to be a repeat customer, bring your own Tupperware. Sorting trash is nice, but avoiding generating it is even BETTER!

Styrofoam take away container? Please... DON'T!
Styrofoam take away container? Please... DON'T! It takes more than a MILLION years for Styrofoam to decompose!

5) Help educate the local population about recycling

One day I was walking down the street in Boquete, and a teenager in front of me threw an empty plastic milkshake cup on the floor after he finished drinking it. So, sarcastically, I tap his shoulder and say “disculpa, creo que se te cayó algo” (excuse me, I think you dropped something). And in all honesty and with a big sympathetic smile, he tells me “no, tranquilo, está vacío” (no, don´t worry, it's already empty). I was so taken away by his answer (because it was honest) that I didn’t get mad at him. He truly had no clue that it was wrong to do that. If you are volunteering in Bocas del Toro or Boquete, this is something we need help with. If you have the chance to work in public schools with children or teens, or other local businesses, a little workshop about trash and how it can be recycled would be a huge step in the right direction.

6) Stop buying plastic water bottles

At Tungara Hostel and Habla Ya we offer free drinking water for our customers (tap water is not potable). It is filtered rain water, tastes great and is perfectly safe to consume (I bet you whatever you want that it's safer than what you drink back at home full of chemicals of all sorts). If you already have a water bottle, just refill it as much as you want, or use the cups we have at your disposal. Just think about the amount of plastic you avoid being tossed somewhere by doing this. The Gourmet store by Casa Verde also offers bottle refills at a very low cost, as well as other places in town, so no excuses!

Don't buy plastic bottles. Get your water from a refilling container at your hotel. If they don't have one, DEMAND ONE!
Don't buy plastic bottles. Get your water from a refilling container at your hotel. If they don't have one, DEMAND ONE!

7) Say NO to plastic bags in grocery stores

Instead, bring your own bag (I am sure you have a back pack or a reusable grocery bag somewhere!). Most of these plastic bags will end up in the ocean, along the road or on the beach, and turtles or dolphins choke on them because they confuse them for jellyfish. Not to mention that it can take hundreds of years for a plastic bag to decompose.

8) Do you care about animals and wildlife?

Then don’t hurt them! Here are a few things you should avoid: going on tours with boat drivers that have 2 stroke engines. They pollute more (emit oily fumes) and are noisy. Go with someone who has a more efficient 4 stroke engine instead. Moreover, motor boats often cut dolphin’s fins, and can hurt them badly. If you really would like to go on an eco-friendly boat tour, we recommend the catamaran sailing tour. You want to see some starfish? You find them so pretty and you really want to know what they feel like? Curb your enthusiasm, and please don’t touch them. Don’t pull them out of the water to take pictures. Leave them in peace and enjoy their beauty without disrupting or endangering their lives.

Habla Ya students and teachers enjoying a day out with Bocas Sailing
Habla Ya students and teachers enjoying a day out with Bocas Sailing

This list should be much longer, but these are the things I came up with for now (here is a link with other things you can do to reduce waste while traveling). If you do some of these things, you'll be a more responsible traveler, and we will be very grateful for your efforts. Together we can make this paradise a sustainable one.

Please feel free to leave a comment below about what other things you can do to be an eco-friendly traveler.

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10 Cultural Differences of the Ngäbe-Buglé Indigenous in Panama

Posted by | May 23rd, 2013

This is the fourth from a series of posts about the Ngäbe-Buglé, Panama’s largest native indigenous group. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3 (this is, Panama's largest indigenous "reservation").

My colleague, Evelyne, recently wrote a great blog post about the cultural difference in Panamá versus many western cultures. I’m going to take this blog post a little further, and tell you some stories about the cultural differences that you would encounter if you venture into the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé.

When I ponder about the huge culture gap, SO many things come to mind! I’m going to write about the 10 most noticeable ones for me, but it’s seriously difficult to limit the list.

1. Organic Food & Simple Diet


Though the Ngäbe have plenty of land to cultivate, the past generation or two have seen a decrease in the food variety planted and harvested in their region. This may be because of pereza (laziness), increase of packaged products in the community store, and/or less people staying in the community to work the land.

Two different varieties of bananas, avocadoes, spinach-like leaves, yuca, an egg.
Two different varieties of bananas, avocadoes, spinach-like leaves, yuca, an egg. For more about what is available during different times of the year click here...

The typical Comarca staples are rice (either fresh or bought packaged in the community store), starchy root vegetables (such as ñame, otoe, ñampi, yuca, dachin), bananas (eaten green and ripe), and raised or wild game (fish, chicken, pig, iguana, rabbit, turtle, etc.). So limited! You can still find some leafy greens growing on some farms, but they are not often harvested nor replanted. Breakfast is either skipped or if the family has oil, they will fry up some green bananas or plantains.

BEANS! And oranges and a log of yuca.
BEANS! And oranges and a log of yuca. For more about what is available during different times of the year click here...

Even though the women of the Comarca don’t have a lot of food choices at their disposal, they will ALWAYS offer you whatever they are having, and it’s going to be a BIG plate or cup! So whether it’s coffee or cacao (hot chocolate) with 3 tablespoons of sugar, or a huge plate of rice with some mystery meat, it’s rude to say no. So get it down however you can with a big smile on your face, even if that means sneaking some to the dog or the kid next to you!

Portions are huge... eat up!
Portions are huge... eat up!

2. Pets are Animals, After All


Not all animals in the Comarca are hunted or raised to be killed. Many families keep dogs, cats and birds as mascotas (pets), just like the developing world! One stark difference, however, is the view of spaying or neutering the pet.

My friend, Carolyn, and I, each spayed our cats and had completely different experiences (Carolyn’s experience and my experience). But, what we can take away from this is the likelihood that our community members will NOT do the same. The main reason? El "costo" (cost). I paid $45 plus the headache of getting my cat to the vet and back on a boat, taxi and bus. Comarca sites are not easily accessible and veterinarians are not typically close to our neck of the woods.

In Panama, it costs $45 to have your female cat spayed. Shoot, that’s totally worth it in my opinion after having gone through two litters in only 4 months
In Panama, it costs $45 to have your female cat spayed. Shoot, that’s totally worth it in my opinion after having gone through two litters in only 4 months.

On top of that, Ngäbes have a much different relationship with their animals than westerners. Personally, my community members at the time thought I was NUTS to spay my cat. “She will never have babies again?!” “You paid how much?!” They don’t see it as a loving companion, but as it’s own separate being that we don’t own nor have the right to decide whether it has offspring or not. They also don’t buy their animals dog/cat food nor give them vaccines... they really just live symbiotically in the house together; the pet hunting either on the finca (farm) or bugs in the house (rewarding to the owner) and the pet gets some table scraps at every meal (rewarding to the pet).

The sad reality is that many pets in the Comarca die from starvation
The sad reality is that many pets in the Comarca die from starvation.

My friend, Scott, wrote a great blog post about when some dogs "se murieron" (died) at his house. The reactions of the owners of the dogs to their deaths was sad, but fleeting. As Scott points out, the Ngäbes are used to death and have seen much more of it at a young age, especially in household pets.

3. Family is Everything


The communities in the Comarca are relatively small. There are some large communities of about 5,000 people, but the majority are very small villages of less than 500 people maybe 20 minutes apart from each other. This makes a "red" (network) of small communities that have one large community center, but mainly they keep to themselves in their own community. Probably this is where they were raised, or where their husband or wife was raised. You will find the grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters all close by too. At this point, many have probably left to find work outside of the Comarca, but amongst the women, many are still there taking care of the children, grandchildren and old "abuelos" (grandparents).

Family is not just mom, dad and kids: it includes aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins as well, and in many occasions all live together. This is one of the 6 host families I lived with.
Family is not just mom, dad and kids: it includes aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins as well, and in many occasions all live together. This is one of the 6 host families I lived with.

To give you an example of how the communities are where I lived on the northern Caribbean coast of the Comarca, what I just described to you is one family, but multiply that by about 10 and there you’ve got the current community. There are typically about 10 apellidos (family names), but maybe 40 - 50 houses in the community. Of course these are the brothers and sisters that have stayed in the community, but started their own families and built their own houses. But these same 10 family names all grew up together. And their grandparents all grew up together. And so on... so you can just imagine the stories that they tell of one another that go back decades!

Family is really important down here... just how it should be.
Family is really important down here... just how it should be.

Not only is the community close because of time and history, the families themselves are extremely close internally. Privacy and individuality is not sought-after in the Comarca (though this is changing with the entrance of the internet and cell phone service). Whenever I moved into my own house by myself (which was literally only a stone’s throw from 3 other houses), everyone in my community asked me the same questions: "¿Te da miedo?"(Aren’t you scared?) Aren’t you going to be lonely?” From birth they are sleeping at their mother’s breast. They are surrounded by siblings and cousins as soon as they can walk. Most of their houses only have one room where everyone sleeps together either directly on the floor or on a thin mattress.

Another big difference is how “family clusters share in the meaningful work” to run a house and farm. Family businesses are dying down in the U.S. as sons and daughters are drawn to different opportunities. The Ngäbes don’t have many oportunidades (opportunities). They are proud of the land that their family owns and rarely sell it because they know its value. Though many leave to work outside of the Comarca, most have hopes of returning to their homeland to work the land as their parents did.

4. Relationships are Simple Because Everyone Knows Their Role (and they keep quiet about their problems)


Now that you know how families relate to their communities, how do individuals relate to each other? Social norms are "MUY" (VERY) different in the Comarca. These also great depend on the region of the Comarca.

In the mountainous part of the Comarca, the women are quiet and shy and will take awhile to warm up to you and look you in the eye. On the coast, the women are more animated and direct. For women it is considered dangerous and a bit scandalous to travel by yourself and unthought of to travel with a man who is not your marido (husband) or a close relative (travel meaning mainly walking to other communities or going to work on the farm). Gender roles are very apparent as each gender has their own share of important, difficult and time-consuming chores (women don’t build houses, men don’t wash their family’s clothes unless it’s an extreme circumstance).

What is even more intriguing to me, is how men and women date and marry. This is also very regional. My friend, Scott, had a deep conversation with one of his community members about this interesting tradition and he shared his findings in a blog post, “The Comarca: Where Getting Married is Synonymous with Getting Socked in the Face.” Though his region seems to stick with the “fight and win” mentality, where I lived on the coast was very different. Fighting only took place at drunken parties and was not usually over a woman. "Relaciones" (Relationships) happen much like they do in western countries - boy and girl meet, flirt, talk... and eventually are introduced to the parents and sometimes are allowed to live together (even when the girl is only 14!). Someone cheats and either runs off with the lover or it bridges a gap between husband and wife, though they continue living together. Polygamy is rare and is dying out.

In some parts of the Comarca you are allowed to freely fall in love... in others it's a bit trickier
In some parts of the Comarca you are allowed to freely fall in love... in others it's a bit trickier

The biggest difference in relationships is communication. Ngäbes do not communicate well. They would prefer to sweep problems under the rug until they can’t get the front door open. That’s why cheating happens, Dad’s aren’t present, and the kids have no direction in life. They live simply and prefer not to ponder the big ideas, “what-ifs”, reaching “perfection”. They act off impulse many times and don’t know how to critically "analizar" (analyze) a situation. Believe it or not, analysis is not something we are born with, it must be learned.

5. Sex Education is Learned by Peers


What would relationships be without sex? I say “relationships” because unfortunately sex happens between all sorts of people in the Comarca, not just intimate couples. And kids start having sex really young, like at 13/14 years old. Parents don’t teach their kids about safe sex, so they learn in school (usually in 7th grade) and from other kids. Abstinence is a completely foreign concept in the Comarca, even amongst very religious communities. Men rely on the pull-out method because honestly this is usually the only option available (this depends on the region). "Condones" (Condoms) and birth control are typically not stocked at local Clinics. As well, there is a big stereotype against birth control, that the women who take it are whores.

If you have your first child when you're 15 or 16, you can easily become a grand parent in your thirties
If you have your first child when you're 15 or 16, you can easily become a grand parent in your thirties

6. Pregnancy is Scary and Not Discussed


What follows unprotected sex? Babies! Oh my gosh you will have never seen so many "bebés" (babies) in your life if you visit an indigenous community. “Baby” in the Ngäbe dialect is “chichí”, with the accent on the second syllable. Just some fun information for you.

¡Qué lindo chichí! What a cute baby!
¡Qué lindo chichí! What a cute baby!

As you have probably guessed, births are quite different in the Comarca than in western countries. Hospitals are far away and are under-stocked and under-staffed. Most births happen at home with a midwife, who may or may not be properly trained. This causes all sorts of "problemas" (problems), as you can imagine. Personally in the two years that I lived in the Comarca, I experienced 2 baby deaths at birth (one was born dead and the other was born “horribly deformed” and couldn’t survive). There were also multiple miscarriages mainly because of “accidents” as I was told (some were real accidents but some I question as domestic abuse).

Teen pregnancies are the norm in the Comarca
Teen pregnancies are the norm in the Comarca

They also don’t celebrate "embarazo" (pregnancy) like the western culture. It is really that much of a celebration to have a child at 15 years old or to bring your 5th child into the world in 10 years to a family that is already barely getting by? It’s not at all to say that they don’t love their children, but it’s a much different reaction to childbearing in this sort of environment.

7. Death is a Normal Part of Small Community Life


As you can probably imagine, death in an impoverished small community is very real and it’s a pretty big deal. In western cultures, we have an entire industry around "funerales" (funerals) to help the grieving family flawlessly plan and execute the “closing ceremonies.” Not quite so in the Comarca.

My friend, Evan, wrote a very touching account of a funeral for a 3-month baby girl in his community. He has been unlucky enough to have "experimentado" (experienced) 4 funerals during his service (and he still has until October 2013 to complete 2 years!). Of course the entire community is affected when someone dies, whether is it a small child, grandmother, expected, or accidental. Grief affects everyone differently and I would venture to say that westerners prefer to grieve in private, as this is natural and comfortable to us. We want our closest relatives and friends to be with us in our private moments, but in public we do our best to hold it together.

Ngäbes don’t really have a concept of privacidad (privacy) or alone-time. Therefore, even during the grieving process the family is surrounded by extended family and neighbors, at least for the few days surrounding the death. Everyone from the community who is able to attend the funeral attends. It is customary for the closest relatives to be completely distraught in public: crying, screaming, singing - anything goes. Extreme emotions are rarely shown in day-to-day situations (extreme meaning on the opposite ends of the spectrum, angry/livid - elated happiness). So the emotions are all poured out in moments like funerals and while drinking alcohol because it is culturally appropriate.

Death is a reality experienced with more frequency than usual in the Comarca
Death is a reality experienced with more frequency than usual in the Comarca

What brings us to death? Sometimes accidents, but usually "enfermedades" (illnesses). Sometimes unknown but many times known-but-not-curable because of lack of funds to pay for medical procedures and medicine. This sad reality isn’t too surprising as most families live on only $50/month for a family of 5+. This is why holistic medicine and botanical doctors are very popular in the Comarca. And many times I have witnessed the positive and miraculous results.

8. Motivation is Seriously Lacking


A real serious problem that development workers come across all of the time is lack of motivation. In a group of 50 people in the Comarca, you might find 3 who are truly motivated to work hard and better their lives and their family’s lives and who have what it takes to succeed. The Ngäbes live in a rich country, but are denied access to most economic activity because of where they live and their low education level. For someone to "superar" (overcome) these obstacles, they almost always have to have connections, usually politically in order to be awarded a grant or scholarship to study in high school or college and also connections through family to give the student a place to live and eat while he or she gets on his or her feet.

With so much against them, it’s easy to see why government handouts are not always the solution. They start to rely on this instead of fighting hard to overcome obstacles individually and as a Comarca. Though the government is "alabado" (praised) for their work with Red de Oportunidades, the truth is that it’s probably hurting the Ngäbes more in the long run because they are temporarily distracted by the handout. They forget about what they really need to better their lives - roads, infrastructure, electricity, clean water, decent schools and teachers, business investment to create jobs, etc. - because they are temporarily placated with their bi-monthly handout of $100.

The gobierno (government), of course, loves this. Instead of spending millions of dollars actually building up the Comarca and helping the indigenous build their own productive and successful lives, they just give them a little money each month to keep them in their place of poverty. It’s a hell of a lot easier (and cheaper), that’s for sure.

9. Ngäbe Traditions are Rooted in Fighting


Every culture has it’s own unique traditions and the Ngäbes are no exception. However, their "tradiciones" (traditions) are quite different from the ones that I grew up with in the Southeast United States and I venture to say that this extends to most westerners.

The Ngäbe’s most famous tradition is the Balsería. This event happens once per year in the larger communities of the Comarca on the mountainous side (the tradition has already died out in the coastal region). One community invites a neighboring community to a "parranda de borrachera" (drunken brawl), more or less. The men (and some women) drink ridiculous amounts of a fermented corn drink and afterwards partake in a brutal one-on-one game of throwing a sharpened balsa stick (balsa is a type of wood) at your opponent’s ankles. There is also a lot of fist-fighting that goes on during this multi-day charade. Alcohol only brings out the best...

Indigenous gather for three days of festivities
Indigenous gather for three days of festivities

Though this appears pretty barbarous to western cultures, let’s keep an open mind here and remember what this group of people has had to do all their life: "pelear" (fight). Fight for their land against the Spaniards, fight for their rights with the Panamanian government (who currently want to take their land away to build hydroelectric plants), fight foreigners who want to build resorts and hotels on their pristine beaches. And they’re damn proud of their skill and where it’s gotten them!

Some men will wear the women's traditional dress while they engage in combat
Some men will wear the women's traditional dress while they engage in combat

Similar to the Balsería, which is starting to die out and become looked down upon in religious Ngäbe communities, the Ngäbes’ other holidays are also a prime time to get drunk and fight. This frequently happens on November 3 (Panama’s Independence Day) and New Years. It’s also common to shoot fireworks at New Years (I have no idea where they get fireworks from, probably a homemade concoction). As well, Mother’s Day is hugely celebrated usually with the entire community coming together to make lunch and give "regalos" (gifts) to every mom in the community.

Mother's day is special here too
Mother's day is special here too

10. Loss of Culture


Even though the Ngäbes have so many cultural differences in relation to western societies, these unique traits of the Comarca are slowly starting to die out as Ngäbes become influenced by advertising and the “outside world”. "Publicidad" (Advertising) actually creates a “one-culture society” if you really start to analyze it’s effects. And advertising is global now-a-days, even in the Comarca where the government recently gifted all high school students laptops and installed free internet in big high school towns.

Access to technology should help with the digital divide, shouldn't it?
Access to technology should help with the digital divide, shouldn't it?

Slowly but surely Ngäbes are leaving the confines of their homeland to look for opportunities abroad. I don’t mean abroad necessarily as to other countries, but even going to surrounding cities outside of the Comarca is like entering a whole new world. They leave and stop speaking their native tongue, don’t attend holiday traditions back home, purchase man-made "medicina" (medicine) rather than visiting the botanical doctor, buy all of their food instead of planting a garden or working their own farm, stop wearing their traditional dress. This is a normal process as they are acclimating to a “new world”. They have to give some things up in order to gain in other areas.

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Daily Life in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca

Posted by | April 22nd, 2013

This is the third from a series of posts about the Ngäbe-Buglé, Panama’s largest native indigenous group. Part 1. Part 2.

Imagine life...

Before the internet and television.

Before GMOs and harmful chemicals.

Before fashion and design.

Before semi-orthopedic mattresses and cushioned chairs.

Before refrigerators.

Before laundry machines and dishwashers.

Before stoves and ovens.

Before Big Business and making money for the Man.

Before cars.

Before farm machinery.

Before cement and bricks and drywall.

Before indoor plumbing.

Washing clothes in the creek.
Washing clothes in the creek.

I’m not trying to take you back to the Stone Age, just to the present-day Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé!

Does this surprise you, frighten you, uplift you, to know that there are people in 2013 still living this way?

I think it’s AWESOME! I think life is more REAL when it is lived this way. In my opinion, we are on information overload to the extreme in this day and age. My advice is to come and see how simple living is still carrying on for some very simple folks here in Panama.

The Ngäbe-Buglé are the largest indigenous tribe in Panama. Though the government has paid them more attention in the past 16 years after giving them their own Comarca (territory), it has been very slow with giving the people the rights that they deserve to a good education, necessary infrastructure, reliable health system, and access to a job market. This has in many ways left them “behind” the rest of us in the 21st century.

Local health clinic in the Comarca. You wouldn't believe what it looks like inside. Medicines... non existent most of the time.
Local health clinic in the Comarca. You wouldn't believe what it looks like inside. Medicines... non existent most of the time.

Is this a blessing or a curse? Depends on who you ask. I come from a positive standpoint and count them lucky for escaping the rat race of our day. Their families are tighter-knit, they use the natural resources that are found all around us, and they use the strength of their bodies in daily chores. They keep up to date with politics and news (local and international) from the radio and converse with community members during daily visits about their lives, families, farming, the future. Isn’t this what we were meant for as human beings?

But the reality is that many of them will tell you that it’s close to impossible to live their life of poverty. They will tell you that they barely receive enough welfare money (funded by the World Bank, Panamanian government and Inter-American Development Bank) to buy necessities like laundry soap, rice, sugar, oil, which often is sold at a much higher price in the Comarca because of transportation costs, since the infrastructure in the Comarca is completely undeveloped. They do everything possible so that their children can get a good education and find jobs outside of the Comarca, since there are very very few jobs in the Comarca. What will happen to this unsustainable lifestyle if severe changes aren’t made soon?

You certainly won't get to experience conditions like this if you're doing a family home stay with us... but you can definitively get up and close with the Ngäbe-Buglé by joining a Cacao Plantation Tour or by going to Soloy.

Whichever side you are on, I thought it would be interesting to share some photos with you of how it is to live SIMPLY in 2013.

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Grinding cacao for drinking and selling chocolate!
Grinding cacao for drinking and selling chocolate!

100% pure organic cacao (chocolate) balls. YES!
100% pure organic cacao (chocolate) balls. YES!

Playing soccer on the school's field.
Playing soccer on the school's field.

Natural materials are used to build houses, with the newer addition of zinc sheets for roofing and sometimes walls.
Natural materials are used to build houses, with the newer addition of zinc sheets for roofing and sometimes walls.

Semi-private bathroom...
Semi-private bathroom...

Making coconut oil – a labor intensive but no-cost way to have cooking oil. They are cooking over a “fogón”, which is the traditional way to cook meals over a fire.
Making coconut oil – a labor intensive but no-cost way to have cooking oil. They are cooking over a “fogón”, which is the traditional way to cook meals over a fire.

Finished coconut oil, YUM!
Finished coconut oil, YUM!

It is very common to have free-range animals for the family’s consumption.
It is very common to have free-range animals for the family’s consumption.

View of some living/store spaces in Hato Chami. The zinc house is partially a small store.
View of some living/store spaces in Hato Chami. The zinc house is partially a small store.

No indoor plumbing means bucket bath! The stone tablets are for washing clothes.
No indoor plumbing means bucket bath! The stone tablets are for washing clothes.

Harvesting medicinal plants and plants used to dye fibers for the bags.
Harvesting medicinal plants and plants used to dye fibers for the bags.

Community pitches together to build a bridge over a stream in a busy section of the village. The men do the building…
Community pitches together to build a bridge over a stream in a busy section of the village. The men do the building...

...while the women prepare and serve food!
...while the women prepare and serve food!

After a long day on the farm, carrying back freshly picked vegetables, fruit, and/or firewood in the traditional bag – the chácara.
After a long day on the farm, carrying back freshly picked vegetables, fruit, and/or firewood in the traditional bag – the chácara.

Stripping a natural pita plant down to its fibers to be used for making bags for carrying things.
Stripping a natural pita plant down to its fibers to be used for making bags for carrying things.

The finished fiber strands drying (pita plant).
The finished fiber strands drying (pita plant).

Making artisan jewelry out of coconut shells. Tiring but rewarding way to pass the day with all of your friends (and while catching a novela on the radio!).
Making artisan jewelry out of coconut shells. Tiring but rewarding way to pass the day with all of your friends (and while catching a novela on the radio!).

School with 4 classrooms. At the far end is the cafeteria where mothers of the children take turns cooking (when the Ministry of Education sends food) sometimes 2 meals per day.
School with 4 classrooms. At the far end is the cafeteria where mothers of the children take turns cooking (when the Ministry of Education sends food) sometimes 2 meals per day.

Sewing class funded by the government (including a donation of 8 sewing machines for the community) so that women could learn how to make their children’s school clothes and/or go into business for themselves as a tailor.
Sewing class funded by the government (including a donation of 8 sewing machines for the community) so that women could learn how to make their children’s school clothes and/or go into business for themselves as a tailor.

Clearing a foundation for a house using picks and shovels.
Clearing a foundation for a house using picks and shovels.

Community activity on Panama's Independence Day (November 3). The goal is to make it to the top of a greased tree trunk.
Community activity on Panama's Independence Day (November 3). The goal is to make it to the top of a greased tree trunk.

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Getting to know the Ngäbe-Buglé, Panama’s Native Indians

Posted by | February 12th, 2013

For those travelers who are new to Latin America, you might be quite surprised at the mix of ethnicities that you will find in Panama. About 70% is mestizo (mixed white, Native American, and/or black) and mulattoes (mixed white, and black ancestry), 9% is primarily black, 13% white and 6% Native Americans. The rest are primarily East Asian and Chinese. The construction of the canal not only brought big business to Panama, but also people from all over the world. Though each ethnic group has its own interesting beginnings in Panama, I want to focus on the Native Indians in this blog post.

I had the opportunity to work with one of the indigenous groups for 2 years (they don’t like being called “Indians”) while volunteering with the Peace Corps in 2010 - 2012. Panama is home to 7 indigenous groups, the largest being the Ngäbe-Buglé whom I lived among.

Map of the tribal land (called Comarca) of the Ngäbe-Buglé is situated in the north-western region of Panama
The tribal land (called Comarca) of the Ngäbe-Buglé is situated in the north-western region of Panama and their members have migrated over the last 40 years out of the Comarca and mainly into the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Chiriqui, where Habla Ya’s two schools are located.

The communities of Boquete and Isla Colón (Bocas del Toro) are now heavily populated with the Ngäbe-Buglé tribe and we thought that it would be cool for you to learn a little bit about them since you might be meeting them one day!

History and Geography

The comarca Ngäbe-Bugle is characterized by mountainous terrain, steep slopes and generally nutrient poor soil with high rock content, all characteristics that make farming difficult.[3] On the Caribbean slope there is no dry season and tropical forest dominates the landscape; on the Pacific slope there is a windy dry season (December to April) and a wet season
The comarca Ngäbe-Bugle is characterized by mountainous terrain, steep slopes and generally nutrient poor soil with high rock content, all characteristics that make farming difficult. On the Caribbean slope there is no dry season and tropical forest dominates the landscape; on the Pacific slope there is a windy dry season (December to April) and a wet season.

The Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé was formed in 1997 when the Panamanian government finally granted land rights to the group. It is a huge area of 6968 square kilometers comprising part of the vast Chiriqui mountain range all the way down to the pristine beaches of the Caribbean.

The Ngäbe-Buglé generally live in houses supported by sticks with a grass or zinc roof and dirt floor, wealthier families may have a cement floor. In each house a platform under the roof is used for food storage and there are a number of raised bed platforms.
The Ngäbe-Buglé generally live in houses supported by sticks with a grass or zinc roof and dirt floor, wealthier families may have a cement floor. In each house a platform under the roof is used for food storage and there are a number of raised bed platforms.

The Comarca actually consists of two different but similar indigenous groups – the Ngäbe and the Buglé. The Buglé are much less in number and are situated towards the northeastern part of the Comarca. The majority of indigenous persons that have migrated to the provinces of Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro are of the Ngäbe group.

Culture, Artisan

Ngäbe men typically wear homemade bell bottom pants, straw hats and rubber boots, while women wear full bright colored dresses with shoulder and neckline adornments and embroidered bands around the waist and bottom; these are called naguas. Women generally do not wear shoes. These items are usually made at home with hand crank sewing machines and, like chacaras, sold for extra income.
Ngäbe men typically wear homemade bell bottom pants, straw hats and rubber boots, while women wear full bright colored dresses with shoulder and neckline adornments and embroidered bands around the waist and bottom; these are called naguas. Women generally do not wear shoes. These items are usually made at home with hand crank sewing machines and, like chacaras, sold for extra income.

The Ngäbes are easy to spot because of their distinctive high cheekbones, broad faces, full mouths, thick straight black hair, tanned skin, short stature and stocky body size. In Chiriqui (Boquete), the women frequently wear the traditional brightly colored cotton dress that reaches down to the ankles and has triangle and straight-line designs to represent the mountains and rivers that they call home in the Comarca.

Though some of the traditions are dying out due to modern influences, many communities still make it a point to practice traditional dances, wear traditional dress, hold annual ceremonies, pass down family recipes, weave carrying totes made of natural fibers and dyes, and teach the new generations the tribe’s language and organic agriculture methods.
Though some of the traditions are dying out due to modern influences, many communities still make it a point to practice traditional dances, wear traditional dress, hold annual ceremonies, pass down family recipes, weave carrying totes made of natural fibers and dyes, and teach the new generations the tribe’s language and organic agriculture methods.

Language

The Ngäbes speak a Chibchan language called Ngäbere. The language is learned in the home as the child grows up, as it is the primary language spoken in the home among men and women. However, the language is considered “vulnerable” by UNESCO’s measure (Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger). This is because Spanish is the only language taught in the schools. Therefore children are typically brought up learning Ngäbere and Spanish together so that they are able to begin pre-school at age 4. Once the child is school age, he or she begins speaking Spanish primarily and only speaks Ngäbere in the home.

The language is in more danger outside of the Comarca where very little Ngäbere is spoken on a daily basis. Many children are being born outside of the Comarca and are raised in a Spanish-speaking home because the Ngäbe parents are now first or second-generation living outside of the Comarca and have no need to use Ngäbere in their every day conversations. Slowly the parents begin to forget the language from lack of use and the children end up not learning it at all.

Current Events

Many people around the world heard of the Ngäbes for the first time in February 2012 when they took to the streets to protect their land and people from the harmful and debilitating effects of mining and hydroelectric dams. The Panamanian government enacted a “Special Law 415” in early 2011 to protect the water, environmental and mineral resources in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. In late 2011, Panama’s Congress removed Article 5, without advising the Ngäbe-Buglé leaders, therefore allowing private domestic and foreign businesses to directly invest in mining operations and hydroelectric dams.

Starting on January 31, 2012, Ngäbe-Buglé demonstrators shut down the main highway running through Panama for one week to show their disagreement with the Congress’ removal of the vital Article that protects their lands from exploitation. The Chief of the Comarca, Silvia Carrera, stated, “We were open for dialogue! We want to sit down and talk, but with the riot squad here it’s evident that they want to suppress us.” It was reported that one person was killed, 40 people were wounded and at least 100 people were arrested after a violent confrontation with the riot police on February 5.

After weeks of refusal to agree to mediation, the President of Panama Ricardo Martinelli finally gave his approval to meet with the leadership of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé mediated by a Catholic priest.
After weeks of refusal to agree to mediation, the President of Panama Ricardo Martinelli finally gave his approval to meet with the leadership of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé mediated by a Catholic priest.

At the end of March, an agreement was reached between the two parties. Indian Country Today Media Network reported,

“According to the agreement the government had to: end all judicial prosecutions of Ngöbe–Buglé leaders and other protestors; free all those who had been arrested in the demonstrations; compensate and attend to the needs of the family of Geronimo Rodriguez Tugri, an indigenous protestor who was killed by gunfire at the largest protest on February 5; re-establish cell-phone signals in the affected areas; withdraw riot police from the indigenous territories and the protest sites; get the Legislature to re-address the mining Law 415 and it’s Article 5 regarding mining and development on Ngöbe–Buglé lands; continued mediation by Catholic Church officials; full publication of the subsequent agreement; demobilization of all protestors from the sites; and more medical attention and follow-up, under the supervision of a committee of indigenous physicians, for those indigenous protestors who were wounded.”

The Ngäbes hope that the government will honor their promises and stop trying to exploit the Ngäbe’s precious land and resources. But if they have learned anything from the history of the Panamanian government, they aren’t putting much faith in the leaders of their country.

Getting up and close

If you'd really like to learn more about the Ngäbe-Buglé but don't have the time that I did to go and live with them, you should really check out the Oreba Cacao Plantation Tour based at the Rio Oeste Afuera Community (Bocas del Toro) or this year's visits to the community of Soloy.

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