These two tribes comprise Panama's largest indigenous group, with a tribal membership totaling some 170,000 Ngobe and 18,000 Bugle. They live near Panama's western border, some on the Caribbean coast and some inland, in a comarca (reservation) that is divided into seven districts and covers about nine percent of Panama's territory in the Chiriqui, Bocas del Toro and Veraguas provinces.
Culturally, the Ngobe and Bugle share some customs but not the same language. Ngobe-Bugle men may be recognized by their elaborate beaded neckwear called a chaquira that in centuries past was worn by warriors as a nationalist symbol and today is sold commercially to visitors on Panama tours and through distribution channels abroad. Women wear smocks with distinctive appliquéd patterns.
Their comarca was established in 1997 following over two decades of protests and clashes between the tribe and police and with settlers who encroached on their land. The Ngobe-Bugle finally achieved their goal after an extended period of demonstrations following the government's approval of a Canadian-owned copper mine, one of the largest in the world, at Cerro Colorado in Remedios, Chiriuqui, in which the Ngobe-Bugle people were given no say.
Over a sixteen-day period in October of 1996, some 300 Ngobe-Bugle marched 250 miles from eastern Chiriqui Province to the capital where they were joined by supporters from other indigenous tribes, church groups and student protestors. In various cities, the protestors occupied public buildings, went on hunger strikes and held vigils. The government first offered 1.7 million acres comprising most of Bocas del Toro Province, but tribal representatives held out until the territory was almost doubled and the tribe was given a major decision-making role concerning mining, tourism and other economic development activities in their territory.
After gaining control over their homeland, the tribe designated a 59,000-acre Isla Damani Escudo de Veraguas Wetlands Reserve that protects an important nesting site for hawksbill turtles in an area of mangroves, coral reefs and rainforest. Though not easy to reach, the destination makes a most memorable experience for visitors on Panama tours. Two Ngobe Bugle villages lie at either end of the beach, the communities of Rio Cana and Rio Chiriqui.