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



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

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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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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! 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 in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.

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