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We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years. So search our blog to plan your vacation. From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss. You'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while on vacation!


Challenges in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca | Part 1: Physical Infrastructure

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This is the first of a 5-part series about the biggest challenges in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé and how they are being addressed.

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

Today we will focus on Part 1: Physical Infrastructure, but before we dive into the topic, a brief introduction about the general economical situation in the Comarca.

It’s an obvious fact that indigenous communities all around the world are impoverished. Some communities choose to live that way and want nothing to do with the national government. This is not the case in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, Panamá’s largest group of indigenous peoples.

We are talking about a community of about 190,000 individuals who do not receive the same rights nor treatment as their fellow countrymen.(1) Based on information from 2008, the extreme poverty level is 91.5%, 98% of children under age 5 are malnourished, and 45.9% of the population is illiterate.(2)

Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous children in front of house
Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous children in front of house

The government of Panamá is very active in providing basic services for its citizens and for paving the way into the digital modern age. Unfortunately this hasn’t quite carried over to the poorest regions of Panamá, where clean drinking water, electricity and paved roads aren’t even found.

Despite the hardships they endure, there are still plenty of laughs to be had
Despite the hardships they endure, there are still plenty of laughs to be had

The common thought amongst many Panamanians (and its politicians) is that the Ngäbe and Bugle tribes refuse these basic services. Apparently they prefer to live with contaminated water that kills 32 of every 10,000 children under age of five (the national average is 6.4 children per 10,000).(3) They want to continue to live without power tools, access to information, functioning public telephones, and basic health services.

This is a lie.

Of course these communities want to live a decent life above the poverty level! I believe that miscommunication, or lack of communication or voice, as well as a very poor public education system in the whole of Panama, has held the Comarca back.

The indigenous kids that are lucky enough to attend school will most of the time have classmates of all different ages and only one teacher for the entire community
The indigenous kids that are lucky enough to attend school will most of the time have classmates of all different ages and only one teacher for the entire community

The big hub cities in the Comarca have some of these basic services, such as Chichica, Buenos Aires, Soloy, San Felix, Kusapín, among others. This directly serves 16.26% of the total number of people living in the Comarca (4). But the majority of the members living in the Comarca are not so lucky.

The vision statement of Panama's Ministry of Government, in regards to the indigenous people, states:

Define and determine government policies, and plan, coordinate, direct and enforce administrative control of the provinces and indigenous comarcas, respecting their cultural norms, in order to promote policies that allow for their integral development”(4) (emphasis mine)

“The Rules of the Internal System of the National Assembly” state that there is a Permanent Committee for “Indigenous Topics” (Article 63). This article states:

“The Committee of Indigenous Topics will create functions, studies, propose projects of laws, and issue concepts about the following topics:

  1. Legislation about the creation and modification of indigenous comarcas.
  2. Economic and social situation of the indigenous zones.
  3. Production, commercialization of agricultural products of the indigenous zones.
  4. Technical and financial advice to the productive, educative, social and economic activities that are performed in the indigenous zones.
  5. Make it so that the aboriginal languages are objects of special study, conversation and publication.
  6. Inquire into the programs and plans of alphabetization and bilingual education in the indigenous communities.
  7. Look after the conservation of the archeological sites and objects, documents, historical monuments and other moveable or immovable property, that are testimony of the old Panamá and that are found in indigenous zones.
  8. Promote the respect of the ethnic identity of the indigenous communities nationally and internationally.
  9. Propel the establishment of programs to develop material, social and spiritual values, according to each one of the indigenous comarcas.
  10. Analyze any international agreement or treaty about the indigenous population.
  11. Coordinate and look after the execution of government plans and programs inside of the indigenous comarcas.
  12. Look after the promotion, defense and respect of the fundamental rights of the indigenous people, and for their effective participation within the State.” (5) (emphasis mine)

Looking at these laws, one would think that the government is doing a lot to help the Comarcas, but reality is a totally different story.

The Comarca was created on some of Panamá’s most seemingly undesirable land (though the world’s 3rd largest copper mine was since then been discovered within the Comarca). Running along the center of the Comarca is the largest mountain range of Panamá, called the Cordillera, and it is very rocky and difficult to access. The Comarca stretches all the way from the Cordillera to the Caribbean coast and is thick with jungle and wildlife.

The Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca encompasses some of Panama's most beautiful places
The Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca encompasses some of Panama's most beautiful places

Hundreds of small villages are scattered throughout the mountains and along the Caribbean coast. There are 9 large hub-cities in the Comarca (capitals of the districts). These cities are well-placed throughout the Comarca and have locally-run daily transportation into and out of the communities.

Map showing the different regions of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca
Map showing the different regions of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca

There are a few paved roads leading to hub cities in the Comarca; the rest are gravel and some of these hub cities don’t have any road access. In 2013, there were only 5 projects in the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle conducted by the Ministry of Public Works, MOP (7):

  1. Reinforce a road connecting two large towns within the Comarca (started in 2008 and finished in 2013)
  2. Conserve a road connecting two large towns within the Comarca (started in 2009 and finished in 2013)
  3. Build a road connecting two large towns within the Comarca (started in 2008)
  4. Reinforce a road connecting two large towns within the Comarca (started in 2008)
  5. Design and build roads and bridges in various locations in the Comarca (started in 2013)

I’m hopeful for that last project, which has a budget of over $64 million dollars (we can only pray that the funds don't disappear before the change of goverment later in the year). However, the amount for these 5 projects is only 4.6% of the total budgeted current MOP projects (8). There is currently one ongoing maintenance project in the Comarca (maintaining some roads and bridges) (9).

Ease of access to the Comarca should be a priority
Ease of access to the Comarca should be a priority

Unfortunately it's common practice for those who win the bids for projects like these, to not deliver the best quality in order to reduce their costs and increase their profits. The cost per kilometer for roads in Panama is one of the highest in Latin America, but the quality is certainly not there and it's all a vicious cycle as after several years, the same roads have to be re-done and Panama's big money (who win these contracts) and large foreign corporations just keep profiting from this way of doing things. It also has to be taken into account that the Comarca is not an easy territory (on steep sides of mountains in some areas!). Many roads become useless after a year’s worth of tropical weather, including erosion and landslides from torrential downpours. The government prefers an inexpensive temporary solution instead of complete permanent infrastructure.

The Comarca's infrastructure needs permanent solutions... not just get rich quick schemes for contractors
The Comarca's infrastructure needs permanent solutions... not just get rich quick schemes for contractors

The advantages of a complete road infrastructure system are numerous. Most importantly it would allow critical access to the indigenous communities for government organizations and non-governmental organizations. There are many many organizations and individuals who are interested and available to help these communities, but they don’t have access to the communities to bring the necessary resources.

It would also increase economic trade and would attract many more much-needed jobs to the Comarca (think tourism).

The villages outside of the hub cities, tucked away in the mountains and dotted along the pristine beaches and rivers, are only accessible on foot (or horse or boat if you are lucky).
The villages outside of the hub cities, tucked away in the mountains and dotted along the pristine beaches and rivers, are only accessible on foot (or horse or boat if you are lucky).

Another form of infrastructure are homes. The Ministry of Home and Territory Order (MIVIOT), has a budget of $141 million dollars to promote and facilitate the construction of neighborhoods and homes in Panamá. This program is meant to give well-built but inexpensive homes to people who currently don’t have one. They focus on areas that are in poverty and extreme poverty. The have one project in the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle for 60 homes (10).

Luckily there is some good news from MIVIOT. They are donating $2 million to individuals in the Comarca to invest in better roofs (think zinc sheets instead of palm fronds) and flooring (think cement instead of dirt).
Luckily there is some good news from MIVIOT. They are donating $2 million to individuals in the Comarca to invest in better roofs (think zinc sheets instead of palm fronds) and flooring (think cement instead of dirt).

I mentioned in the introduction that the majority of the inhabitants in the Comarca do not have electricity. Electricity in Panamá is supplied by private companies. The hub communities who do have electricity have organized this themselves.

Usually a well-meaning NGO donates a sum of money to purchase a generator large enough to support the “downtown” area of the lucky community. Wires are strung haphazardly through the community connecting houses to a few “utility poles” (stripped tree trunks), or sometimes simply connecting house to house, all the way to the generator. The community members are responsible for paying their portion each month (decided by the community) and a few people are typically responsible for collecting the dues.

Imagine powering the light bulbs of a bunch of houses in a community with one of these
Imagine powering the light bulbs of a bunch of houses in a community with one of these

It often happens that the generator breaks or because of some dispute (many times over someone on the advisory board stealing the funds) there is no money to purchase the gasoline needed to run the generator. Sometimes the person in charge of the generator leaves the community to find work or to visit family in a different area and therefore no one runs the generator because he was the only one who knew how (frequently things shut down when the president of a group leaves because group roles are not clearly understood).

It would make a world of difference if a professional electricity company ventured into the Comarca to provide electricity to the communities who asked for it. Of course this would come further down the line, after the Comarceños have built local economies in order to pay for luxuries like electricity.

Another important part of infrastructure is clean water and sewage systems, which will be discussed in Part 2 of this series.

We’ve gone over the bad, so now let’s talk about the good and end on a happy note.

It’s true that there are several groups making headways in infrastructure in the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle.

The most prominent is Peace Corps, an agency of the United States of America which sends volunteers to developing countries around the world to work in communities for 2 years on a wide range of development projects. One branch of the work is focused on Environmental Health and some of their main projects are building aqueducts to bring clean water to the communities. There are typically around 10 - 15 volunteers at any one time working in small communities in the Comarca.

Another notable group is Engineers Without Borders (EWB), an international organization which sends trained engineers all over the world to help with infrastructure projects, typically.

There is a Panamanian branch of the Engineers Without Borders and they have a phased infrastructure project in an indigenous community in the Bocas del Toro region (located just outside of the Comarca) which includes improving the quality of the community’s water supply, improving public sanitation, industrial engineering, off-the-power-grid electricity supply, and building a community center (11). Though the local word is that the project has apparently been delayed...

There have also been some separate chapters of EWB from the United States who have supported or are currently supporting other indigenous communities in the Comarca (12).

Another supporter of infrastructure has been the Chinese-Taiwan Embassy in Panamá. They donated $3 million dollars to the Panamanian government agency MIVIOT to build proper homes in indigenous communities, specifically for the elderly. 336 homes were completed in August 2013, each home with walls of bamboo, cement floors and enameled zinc ceilings (13).

New house with bamboo walls
New house with bamboo walls

Last but not least, the Panamanian government has made huge leaps forward to bring free internet to the country. They have set up “Info Plazas” in cities all throughout the country, even in many of the main city hubs in the Comarca, which are difficult to access (14).

This has been a huge advantage, especially for the schools, so that teachers can develop more diverse and interactive lesson plans since the government also gifts laptops to every single new high school student each year (15).

LEARN MORE ABOUT PANAMA'S INDIGENOUS' COMMUNITIES... »

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We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years. So search our blog to plan your vacation. From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss. You'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while on vacation!


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