The Kuna Yala


The Kuna's struggle to regain land that was theirs for centuries has been long fought, culminating in a revolt against the government in 1925. With US forces backing the Kuna effort from a naval vessel stationed off the coast, Panamanian troops withdrew. It took another thirteen years before the Kuna were finally granted a comarca (reservation). Today some 50,000 Kuna live in the Comarca de Kuna Yala's forty-nine communities. Most Kuna live on the islands, and a few thousand make their home on the Kuna Yala mainland. Transportation is primarily by dugout canoe.

Though most Kuna appreciate the influx of tourist dollars, Kuna Yala government regulations dictate that when in Rome, visitors must do as the Romans do by adhering to modest dress codes. To photograph Kuna people on certain islands, permission must be granted in advance and a nominal fee paid. Rules vary by community. Most Panama tours of the Kuna Yala are guided. Southern Explorations' eight-day Panama Coast to Coast trip and one of its tour extensions visit the Kuna Yala.

While international tourists call the region's white sand beaches, clear pale waters and swaying palms paradise, the economics of the Kuna Yala tell another story. Many Kuna are poor, and socio-economic conditions here are evolving rapidly. The Kuna have traditionally been a barter society, and the coconut has held a special place of importance in the economy of the Kuna Yala. A staple in the diet and a source of raw materials for manufacturing a variety of products including bowls and brooms, the coconut has been the primary commodity traded for supplies with neighboring Colombia. High-spending ecotourism represents a growing source of income, helping to make up for the fact that fishing stocks are down. The success of mola sales and the quick-cash lobster business that is flourishing thanks to demand by Panama restaurants are turning the Kuna Yala into a money-based economy. Yet this growing wealth, responsible for improved living conditions, has created financial disparity among Kuna members and is undermining the society's traditional collective decision-making.

A new scourge from the outside world has arrived in the form of cocaine washed ashore in waterproof packaging from drug traffickers fleeing authorities. These windfalls have occurred often enough to addict some of the recipients and create a lucrative profession for others. Such are the modern-day challenges that both threaten and offer hope to maintaining the way of life in the Kuna Yala.