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Andrew Davis: Community Rights in Panama and Beyond: Lessons from Central America

In April of 2013, PRISMA team members and international collaborator Alba Sud had the privilege of visiting several indigenous territories in Panama, including the Embera Wounaan Comarca (indigenous territory). The Embera People migrated from the Colombian Choco region in the late 17th and early 18th century to the Eastern Pacific slope of Panama. Today, the Embera number approximately 35,000 and reside in dispersed communities throughout the Darien Province of Panama, a lush hinterland containing the majority of the country´s forests.

Embera woman selling coiled baskets, Panama (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Most of Panama´s Embera communities live within the Embera Wounaan Comarca (Indigenous Territory), which covers 4,398km2, almost six percent of Panama´s national territory. This Embera Wounaan territory is one of five Comarcas in Panama. The collective territorial rights recognized either through the Comarca or through a more recently created legal model “Collective Lands” make up 23,742km2, or 31 percent of Panama´s national territory, and contain over half of the country´s mature forests. These territories enjoy varying degrees of Autonomy and function through different representative systems; in the case of the Embera Wounaan Comarca, it operates by its own set of internal rules and system of government including elected Chiefs and a General Congress.

Despite this progress, the exercising of their indigenous rights have been jeopardized in recent years by an adverse political and economic climate. Since the Martinelli administration took power in Panama in 2009, invasions of indigenous territories have continued unabated, while a series of initiatives have placed indigenous communities at odds with large scale hydroelectric, mining and infrastructure projects. Conflicts over territorial rights have become acute and sometimes violent – leading to a visit and an urgent call for the protection of indigenous rights by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2013. Recent years also saw the disappointing results of a UN REDD Program that consistently excluded the country´s indigenous peoples from meaningful participation, though a historic precedent was set in June 2013 when an independent evaluation team – launched to investigate the program in response to the withdrawal of indigenous peoples from the initiative– recognized the right of the country´s indigenous peoples to refuse consent to the multi-lateral program.

Even as these conflicts persist, the Embera people continue to develop new and innovative strategies to achieve sustainable natural resource management along with development on their own terms. Collective rights have been critical in these efforts, as Chief Betanio Chiquidama explains in a recent video highlighting the experience in the Comarca:

“Our ancestors believed that if we obtained our territory through individual property titles, this would cause divisions or our disappearance as a people. So it was decided that in order to maintain our culture, our identity, our rights, it was necessary that we own our land collectively. As collective owners of this territory, we are all responsible for caring, cultivating and protecting her. For us, the earth is life, if we do not have land we as a people will disappear.”

Based on these collective rights, and on traditional practices and its internal governance rules, the Embera People are now managing significant tracts of forests that have been certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council. Dividends from the processing and selling of selectively cut wood are reinvested according to community needs.

These advances are only one example of a wide variety of experiences in Mesoamerica, ranging from collective rights through community concessions, to community contracts, municipal forests and ancestral territories where communities are demonstrating viable pathways forward for achieving the dual goals of development and sustainable resource management. Moreover, new and exciting opportunities to strengthen or consolidate these rights are opening up across the region. Nicaragua is reaching a critical phase for achieving territorial security for the Autonomous Regions on the Atlantic Coast – over 2.5 million hectares of indigenous territory have been titled – where the majority of the country´s forests are located. In Honduras, more than 400,000 ha of community forest management contracts have quietly been issued since the country´s 2007 Forest Law, while exciting new progress in titling indigenous territories – 1.4 million hectares in 5 indigenous territories have now been titled – is being made in the country´s largest forest area in the Mosquitia. These are complemented by a number of other processes promoted by local social organizations and the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests.

These communities are demonstrating real solutions to development and environment dilemmas. Yet the threat of roll back – whether de facto or de jure – is constant, and these communities require recognition and support. We hope the Conference in Interlaken will be a watershed moment in shifting the balance towards these community based solutions.

Watch the video A FOREST FOR LIFE. Forest management in Emberá Wounaan in English or Spanish.

Andrew Davis is an Investigador (researcher) at PRISMA (Programa Salvadoreño de Investigación sobre Desarrollo y Media Ambiente). PRISMA, located in El Salvador, is a policy oriented research institute on issues of development and the environment in Meso-America.  Its key areas of research include: Territorial dynamics and governance; Rural livelihoods and development, Climate change and adaptation; Property rights, Collective action and social capital; Compensation for Ecosystem Services, Migration and natural resource management; among others.

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