The Kuna, Embera and Wounaan all arrived in what is now Panama from Colombia and live in Panama's far eastern regions though some Embera have moved to live along the Chagres River near Panama City. The Ngobe, Bugle, Naso (or Teribe), Bribri and Bokata were westerly tribes and today live in the provinces towards the western border with Costa Rica.
Illiteracy and poverty rates are high among the indigenous populations even though most tribes have embraced contact with the outside world. To better their economic conditions, some tribes sell high-quality craft products in domestic markets and abroad and are working with environmental organizations to develop eco-tourism projects and Panama tours that cater to international visitors.
In 1991, on the 500th anniversary of the beginning of European invasions of the Americas, indigenous groups from both continents first met in the Kuna Yala. Their goal was to form a united front in holding on to what was rightfully theirs and to increase their clout in the government decisions that affect their peoples. Since then, the National Coordinating Organization for Indigenous People in Panama (COONAPIP) has continued its drive to link advocacy efforts for indigenous rights.
The indigenous tribes of Panama believe that property is communally owned and over many decades have sought official delineation of their homelands and autonomy from the government of Panama. When Panama approved a new constitution in 1972, it contained a provision stating that comarcas, or autonomous reservations, should be established to protect the country's indigenous people. It has been a slow contentious process to implement the provision. To date, comarcas have been established for the Kunas, the Embera-Wounaans and the Ngobe-Bugles. The Nasos fight on.
A complicating factor in the fight over indigenous rights is Panama's move to decrease its dependence on foreign energy sources. It has built or has plans for ninety hydroelectric plants. Since the country's indigenous tribes live along waterways, they will be most affected by the country's ambitious plans. The controversy has rallied support from some fifty indigenous and environmental organizations throughout the world to help the tribes fight their re-location and the flooding of their land. For the most part, the government and hydroelectric companies have been unsuccessful in convincing the indigenous tribes that this non-polluting source of energy is in their best interests.
Given the limited geography of the isthmus, it is remarkable that these tribes have been able to sustain a traditional life style. The experiences of visitors on Panama tours are enriched by observing the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous populations in different areas of the country. For more information about Panama's major tribes, see our articles, "The Kuna Yala," and those on the Kuna, Embera-Wounaan, Ngobe-Bugle and Naso people of Panama.