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Challenges in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca | Part 4: Labor/Work

Posted by | December 9th, 2014

This is the fourth 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 1st part here about Physical Infrastructure, here for the 2nd part about Social Problems or here for the 3rd part about Education.

The top 5 challenges 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 #4: Labor/Work.

In the majority of communities in the developed world, there are many options for work: supermarket, school, office worker, trash collector, post office, doctor, transport, retail store, restaurant, mechanic, etc.

The developed world
The developed world.

In the developing world, there is very little of this. Many times there will be just small communities or villages where you will find homes, 2 or 3 small food markets, an elementary school, a church, a public meeting area, and a clinic. The largest town might be a 2 hour walk/hike away (no roads by the way, just foot paths).

A typical town in La Comarca
A typical town in La Comarca.

This leaves the prospect of finding a job quite dim. Maybe that seems ok, since there is plenty of farmland where villagers can get their main food sources. But what about for the things that can’t be produced in this region, such as flour, sugar and oil? What about soap and medicine? What about clothes?

We live in a world where money is a necessity, even in the most remote areas. But what does one do when there are basically no sources of income close by?

Maybe it would be wise to just move. And many have done this: it is estimated that about 70,000 Ngäbes live outside of the Comarca.

Many Ngäbes spend at least part of the year in more developed towns such as Boquete looking to earn some extra income
Many Ngäbes spend at least part of the year in more developed towns such as Boquete looking to earn some extra income.

But is that fair? To have to leave your beloved (and beautiful, peaceful, familiar) homeland in search of a new life in a foreign area among foreigners (let’s be honest, Panamanians are COMPLETELY different from Ngäbes). And what would happen if ALL Ngäbes left to search outside of the Comarca for work? What would be the purpose of the Comarca if no one lived there? This is clearly not a sustainable option

In my opinion, the answer is to create a local economy which will create local jobs.

Keep it local cycle: jobs, business, community.

Think about how the American West was developed. Dreamers and entrepreneurs started building small towns where the land looked good. When the town began to grow, residents realized that some services were missing: school, church, drug store, post office, restaurant, hotel, bar, convenience store, hardware store, bank, etc. Money was loaned from friends/family/bank and the businesses were up and running. Each family owned a different business and the trade was passed down in families for generations.

Of course there are a few entrepreneurs in the Comarca who started businesses from very little, and they end up being the richest most successful people in their towns. Since they are the only ones with a surplus of money, they end up building multiple businesses to satisfy the needs of the community, in turn growing richer.

Little shop in La Comarca
Little shop in La Comarca.

Why aren’t the other residents starting businesses? Well actually, they are. But not as individuals anymore. In order to compete against the established businesses, one needs a large inventory and good connections. The solution - ban together a group! Societies and cooperatives are being formed, which are now, in some cases, putting the established individually-run businesses out of business. Another case of a Wal-Mart against mom-and-pop establishments...

It’s good that these groups are making money because they tend to be more of a social enterprise, choosing to improve their community rather than improve their own individual wallets (like an individually-run business would).

However, the people in these groups aren’t really doing much better individually because of this. So it’s a trade-off to start a business as a society rather than as an individual.

Another issue in the Comarca is the lack of technical training. There are multiple government organizations that provide free training to Panamanians, but they work very little in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. Again, the main reason is because of the bad infrastructure. It’s expensive and very time consuming to reach many of the communities, and there aren’t comfortable options for accommodation either for the instructors.

Government worker showing Ngäbe women how to operate a tool
Government worker showing Ngäbe women how to operate a tool.

This keeps thousands of people from taking that step to start their own business because they don’t have marketable skills nor much business knowledge.

As I mentioned in Part 1: Physical Infrastructure, the Comarca is out of reach from the rest of Panamá because the infrastructure is terrible. This creates huge blockades for economic development. It will be practically impossible for the Comarca to grow without access to roads, electricity, transportation and available credit.

Bridge in La Comarca
Bridge in La Comarca.

Unlike banks in the USA, Panamanian banks don’t like to lend to people who don’t have money (ok, you can laugh at my joke - I am from the USA, after all!). Most Panamanian banks won’t even open an account for you unless you have a legal residence and some sort of stable job.

Well, the Comarca is just now beginning to enforce property laws and require that landowners purchase titles for their land and register it with the government. This title costs a lot of money that typical residents of the Comarca simply don’t have. They also are subsistence farmers, not really bringing in any sort of stable income. It’s easy to see why no bank would even blink an eye at their application.

There now dozens of successful microcredit lending programs all over the world which have completely changed lives and whole communities. I think it’s time to gauge the effect of a flexible credit program for individuals in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé.

I’m not going to go into depth about the Mining Problem, but for those of you not informed about this topic, I will tell you that there is a very large copper source (and probably many other precious metals) located in the mountain range in the center of the Comarca. The Panamanian government wants to lay claim to this site (and most of the money that comes from it) and allow a foreign company to build a copper mine. I bring this up specifically in this Labor/Work section because I’m sure you can guess who the workers would be.

It would be a horrendous crime to mine the Comarca
It would be a horrendous crime to mine the Comarca.

The Ngäbes may be uneducated, but they are NOT stupid. They know the horrible and devastating effects that a copper mine would have on the surrounding areas and ecosystems, not to mention the dangerous working conditions that they would be subject to. They have been actively lobbying the government against this copper mine and demanding that a law is created to prevent any and all current and future mining operations in the Comarca.

As I mentioned above, there is no quick fix to create a healthy economy in a small non-developed area. There are various factors at work and it requires many organizations (specifically government) to come together to make it happen.

The most prominent means of income for families in the Comarca is through a government welfare program called “Network of Opportunities”. Through this program, women in impoverished communities are given $100 every 2 months so that they can first and foremost take care of their children’s needs. For the majority of families, this is their only source of stable income.

Women collecting their checks
Women collecting their checks.

This money has been a help to families, but it’s also created a huge dependency on the government. Now men and women aren’t motivated to seek other job opportunities because they know they can rely on this handout to get by. The local politicians also have formed a bad habit of gifting communities presents (such as shoes, kitchen supplies, food, etc.), especially during elections when they want to try to secure votes.

“Network of Opportunities” has given a huge boost to the local Comarca economies since it’s an almost guaranteed investment in the small communities. It’s helped a lot of individual store owners become quite well-off, but it’s also spurred the society and cooperative movement since women have learned the benefit of pooling their welfare money together to create a big business that the individual business owners can’t compete with.

These women’s groups come with their own share of problems since very often money and/or inventory is squandered or stolen by corrupt or irresponsible group leaders. Since the group is made of basically family members (in a small rural community, it’s easy to tie family relations back a few generations), it’s very difficult to run the organization as a typical business with rules and regulations and official employees, etc. Decisions are prolonged because no one can come to an agreement and proper mediation is difficult since everyone in the community has ties to someone in the organization.

The government organization which is in charge of the “Network of Opportunities” program is the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES). They are the most active on the ground in the Comarca. For the “Network of Opportunities” program, there is a MIDES worker assigned to each district who is required to have monthly meetings with the women in each community/village in his district.

During these meetings, the representative gives different lectures ranging from vocabulary of the Buglé tribe (why this is an important topic is beyond me) to encouraging them to form a group to do some sort of money-generating activity together for the community (baking and selling bread, making coconut oil, starting a store, etc.).

Again, it’s great that they are being encouraged to work together, but the technical support they receive is very limited and that’s why problems arise when the group begins dealing with thousands of dollars (which is kept by a group member uncertainly locked up in her house since there are no banks in the Comarca).

One of the organizations involved in creating meaningful work in the Comarca is Patronato de Nutrición. I really love their mission and vision! They are an NGO aimed at helping poor families come together and create community agriculture plots. They generally introduce a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables to improve nutrition. If the plot of land is very successful and produces more food than the community can eat, Patronato helps connect the community with outside sources to sell the produce elsewhere, creating income for the community-led group. They also provide fantastic training programs to help the community group be successful with their land and produce.

Jädrán is a local Ngäbe group focused on fighting for economic opportunities. They demand training and development for their communities (this group works specifically in the Nole Duima district) because they understand that the only way to rise out of poverty is through real opportunities, dignified jobs, justice and equality of opportunities without discrimination.

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Challenges in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca | Part 3: Education

Posted by | October 7th, 2014

This is the third 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 or here for the second part about Social Problems.

The top 5 challenges 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 #3: Education.

Teacher with students in front of an unpainted school in the Comarca
Teacher with students in front of an unpainted school in the Comarca

What IS a good education? The definition seems to be forever changing (and the manner to receive it even more so), but I think most people will agree that critical thinking skills are important as well as a general motivation to achieve and succeed.

I don’t think MEDUCA (Panama's Ministry of Education)Panama averaged 70th in the world in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Unfortunately all of these problems are amplified in the Comarca.

MEDUCA assigns all unlucky new teachers to the least desired teaching posts in the country, many of them in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. They try to not place teachers too far from their homes, but I’ve met teachers who were assigned to posts 12+ hours away from their hometowns. Typically the post lasts for 3 years and afterwards they can request to be transferred.

All children should have access to equal opportunities, but in a devoloping country like Panama, reality dictates a very different story for the children of the Comarca. Indigenous kids at school in la Comarca.
All children should have access to equal opportunities, but in a devoloping country like Panama, reality dictates a very different story for the children of the Comarca. Indigenous kids at school in la Comarca.

Being taught by inexperienced teachers consistently will undoubtedly have an effect on an individual’s education. It’s certainly not the teacher’s fault that he or she hasn’t gone through the learning curve and the growing pains yet. But it is unfair to the tens of thousands of children and adolescents who deserve better.

How many first year teachers could be described as great? How about those working in a poor school with students who don’t value their education? Living in a community hours away from their homes and families in a shared living space (with your co-workers, nonetheless)? With a very limited variety of food choices, no cell phone signal, internet access nor electricity? As I said, it is NOT the teacher’s fault. The problem is with how the system's designed. After teachers spend 3 years far away from their home, they will almost always end up with a permanent position in a more urbanized setting, where the quality of education isn't great either: teachers' performance won't be measured and financial incentives to improve aren't there either as they only have to hang on to their job (by just showing up) to improve their salary.

School and Teacher Residence in Cerro Otoe-Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle
School and Teacher Residence in Cerro Otoe-Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle.

What adds to their despair are ill-equipped classrooms (usually with no electricity, broken desks, and not enough desks for all of the students), few textbooks (which are rarely loaned to students to be taken home) and students who don’t have enough money to purchase necessary classroom supplies.

To give you an idea of what’s really going on, here are some actual statistics from the 2012 school year (data collected by MEDUCA):

The biggest problem is in the Elementary and Middle Schools. The failure, drop out and pregnancy rates are higher than the national average. For the most part, if a Comarca student makes it to high school, they have a good chance of graduating.
The biggest problem is in the Elementary and Middle Schools. The failure, drop out and pregnancy rates are higher than the national average. For the most part, if a Comarca student makes it to high school, they have a good chance of graduating.

Children are encouraged by their parents and grandparents to go to school, especially since their welfare money is now partially tied to their children’s school attendance. However, the distance from home to school is usually quite long, especially as the child advances through school (there are fewer middle and high schools than elementary schools). In some more conservative communities, girls are not permitted to walk this distance, therefore their schooling stops whether they like it or not.

Depending on the area of the Comarca, even some young children have to walk hours to get to school (just one way).
Depending on the area of the Comarca, even some young children have to walk hours to get to school (just one way).

Since the high schools are mainly in the hub-cities, the majority of these students have long treks to school.

A lot of students drop off in middle school and this is for a few different reasons.

Sometimes the girls are not permitted to walk so far to school. Some conservative communities don’t believe in educating girls through high school. Other girls get pregnant or go to live with their boyfriend and are systematically barred from continuing school.

Panamanian law states that they should still be allowed to study, but traditionally this law is not enforced since it is believed that their first responsibility should be their child or husband
Panamanian law states that they should still be allowed to study, but traditionally this law is not enforced since it is believed that their first responsibility should be their child or husband.

The main reason for boys not continuing onto high school is for lack of interest/motivation and no authority figures (like a parent, police or social workers) to require them to attend.

Panamanian law states that it is mandatory for all children to complete 9th grade.

Thankfully, the Panamanian government is making some headway on improving education for all Panamanians, and this help is reaching the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé too.

First of all, they give scholarships of $20/month to all needy students to help them pay for necessary schools supplies and other incidentals. The government also offers scholarships to the top performing high school students so that they can continue their studies at a University.

Children in primary school have started to receive free backpacks and school supplies at the beginning of each school year.
Children in primary school have started to receive free backpacks and school supplies at the beginning of each school year.

Most stunning of all was Panama President Ricardo Martinelli’s announcement in 2010 that the government would gift every single high school student a laptop.

The first computers were given at the start of the 2012 school year and they have kept their promise so far, gifting the new 10th grade classes their laptops at the start of the 2013 and 2014 school years.
The first computers were given at the start of the 2012 school year and they have kept their promise so far, gifting the new 10th grade classes their laptops at the start of the 2013 and 2014 school years.

This has been a huge leap for Comarca students to jump into the current century’s technology! Some high schools in the Comarca also receive free internet service through the government program “Internet For Everyone”, so now students are learning how to browse the internet, send and receive email, and connect with their friends through social media.

A few foreign organizations focused on improving education for the Ngäbe are Few For Change and Give & Surf.

Few For Change is an organization which gives scholarships to high-achieving students for tuition and other school-related expenses. This scholarship allows the individual to continue studying, when normally their family wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Students who've received scholarships from Few for Change.
Students who've received scholarships from Few for Change.

Give & Surf provides preschool, summer school, after-school care, an English program, and other community programs to an indigenous community located just outside of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé.

There is still a long way to go, but it’s uplifting to know that the journey will not be lonely.

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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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Posted in Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui, Culture, Indigenous, Opinion, Panama Destinations, Panama Travel, Sustainable Development

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