In Panama, an Indigenous kingdom fights for its right to the forest
Sep 4, 2023
Panama’s Indigenous Naso kingdom has spent decades fighting for land rights in the form of a comarca. But after finally getting one in 2020, struggles to demarcate and protect the land have become increasingly overwhelming.
The Naso lack the resources to establish the borders of their territory, which makes preventing farming and other drivers of deforestation extremely difficult.
During a patrol accompanied by Mongabay, some Naso residents encountered Indigenous Ngäbe living within the comarca and began a heated discussion, revealing just how difficult community-led conservation can be in practice.
CHANGUINOLA, Panama — Long before the Naso peoples in the northern jungles of Panama won the fight for their land, before a king came from far away to lead them against the invaders and cattle ranchers, the bureaucrats and corporations who wanted the territory to themselves — long before all of that, the Naso people lived on the Caribbean coast battling enemy tribes and Spanish colonists. Eventually they were forced to retreat inland, up into the steep, jagged mountains near the border of Costa Rica, where the jungle is so dense and remote that many peaks have evolved their own endemic ecosystems.
Centuries of hunting and fishing, of planting chocolate, bananas and coffee, turned the jungle into a new ancestral homeland. Naso. Meaning: “From here.” Naso Tjër Di. “I am from the grandmother’s river.”
To worry over the land, to assert one’s possession and relationship to it, is part of the Naso condition now. The anxiety about losing it is always there. For years, in more modern times, no one had formal land titles. Farmers pushed in. Companies conducted studies for new energy projects. Even their own king, Tito, who ruled the Naso kingdom in the early 2000s, helped facilitate a deal with the Panamanian government and a Colombian electricity company to build a $50 million hydroelectric dam on the Bonyic River.
Most of the Naso people didn’t want the dam, they told me, because it compromised fishing and angered the spirit of the ancient grandmother. As their displeasure grew, and after a vote to push him out gained steam, Tito left the royal palace one evening in 2005 and disappeared down the river in a canoe. I tried to find out where exactly he went, but most of the Naso I asked only waved me away, as if to say it wasn’t worth the bother.
Panama has a solution to protecting Indigenous land from these kinds of problems — or at least it does in theory. It’s called a comarca, which in English translates to “region” or “district” but in this context means a territory collectively owned and managed by an Indigenous group. Panama granted the first one to the Guna Yala peoples in 1938. Othergroups won theirs in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s — in most cases stretching thousands of square kilometers.
For many years, there were six comarcas in the country and a general consensus that it didn’t have room for another. The Naso pushed for more formal recognition of their land in the 1970s but fell short of a comarca. Empty promises from other officials left the community waiting year after year for a sign of hope.
The tumult of kingly succession didn’t help. Kings and queens came and went throughout the years with every whiff of controversy. It wasn’t until 2011, after years of disagreements over who would replace Tito, that they began to unify around a strong leader: the young, unknown Reynaldo Alexis Santana. He was the only one who managed to push through the red tape of the government and introduce a comarca bill in the National Assembly.
It received a vote in 2018 only to be vetoed by President Juan Carlos Varela, a conservative, because the area overlapped with Palo Seco Protected Forest and La Amistad International Park (PILA), a shared protected area with Costa Rica. Granting Indigenous territory on top of an internationally protected reserve was not only inconvenient, he argued, but also unenforceable.
Support in the National Assembly was strong enough to override the veto, which automatically sent the bill to Panama’s Supreme Court. At the end of 2020, the court ruled in favor of the Naso, officially writing the 1,606-square-kilometer (620-square-mile) comarca into law.
For a while, Reynaldo was viewed as a champion of the Naso. But like so many kings before him, he wouldn’t be around long to enjoy his achievements. In July, he pled guilty to raping an underage girl. He stepped down the next month, leaving his community with another leadership crisis at a moment when they needed him the most. Winning rights to the land, it turned out, was the easy part. Now, they had to defend the land against squatters and rival tribes.
A comarca, if you can keep it
The last several years have seen a rise in prominence for Indigenous people on the international stage, especially when it comes to climate change policy. They’re getting more say than ever at the negotiating table, some claim, while others continue to fight for an increased role in how conservation is carried out.
Conservationists say preventing climate change will require protecting 30% of land and water by 2030, often in the form of national parks or reserves. Since Indigenous groups already sustainably manage as much as a quarter of Earth’s surface and around 80% of its biodiversity, it makes a lot more sense to trust them with the conservation work. Why cordon off the forest under the watch of a government office when centuries of Indigenous knowledge can do a better job?
Or so the thinking goes. Indigenous people still need manpower, training in patrolling and demarcation, science and regular updates on new forest monitoring technology to make conservation work in the modern era. All over Latin America, they’re overwhelmed and wind up going to the government, NGOs and private fundinggroups for support.
So the fact that the Naso won their comarca should have meant less than what happened afterward: the execution of the project, the funding, what kind of measures would be taken if it started to fail. Yet those things fell by the wayside after the Supreme Court ruling, which was treated as its own victory, the end of the story.
To see how the comarca was doing, I traveled to Panama City in May and took a puddle jumper to Changuinola, a small banana town covered in the Chiquita logo. I met Reynaldo outside the Naso royal palace in Sieyik after hours of pushing a canoe up the dry river; it hadn’t rained in days and the water was low. We sat at a table under an awning as the sun set, so that by the end of our interview it was dark and I could only see his face by the light of my phone screen, where I was recording.
At that time, the rape accusations still hadn’t surfaced, and Reynaldo was largely viewed as a hero in the community. He shook hands all day, ran meetings and signed papers. He and some of the other community leaders were in the process of drafting a constitution (or carta orgánica) for the comarca, a project he seemed both excited and exhausted by. The constitution would prohibit virtually all development on the Teribe River and Naso land within the boundaries of the comarca.
But those restrictions only made sense if the constitution also included the boundaries of the comarca, which still didn’t exist in practice. The demarcation process had lagged for years, I learned, because of a lack of resources in the community and inaction by a government that claimed it was doing everything it could.
It was all people talked about outside the royal palace, a circular building with a dirt floor and thatched roof. Without an official boundary for the comarca, there was no way to patrol against cattle ranchers and other land invaders — at least not with any precision. There was also no way for them to quantify the amount of deforestation that was happening. Everything was anecdotal and word of mouth. It was as if the comarca had been created in law and then abandoned in practice. It existed on some maps I’d seen, but wasn’t official in any way that counted.
A group of volunteer Naso park guards, known as Klung Kjërs, had been tasked with walking the boundary of the comarca to formalize its coordinates, but they needed funding to purchase equipment and food for the trips. It was no easy task pacing the dense, uncharted jungle for weeks at a time.
Earlier, I had hovered near one of the tables by the royal palace, where a group of them were planning their next outing. The goal of this one wasn’t to map the coordinates, though; they also needed to patrol against deforestation. From what I could gather, where they patrolled was less important than the resources they would bring along — how much food for how many people and who would be paying for what.
“There aren’t funds for that,” Kherson Ruiz, a coordinator for the environmental group Global Conservation, was explaining to them. “Only the patrols.”
“Well, when will they become available?”
“June, maybe.” That was a month away.
It was a respectful, albeit tense conversation they had clearly had countless times before. Global Conservation was helping train and equip the Klung Kjërs. But without additional support from the government, there was only so much they could do. What sort of power did they wield if, for example, they came across someone illegally living in the comarca? Could arrests be made? Could the Klung Kjërs even legally demonstrate they were on Naso land?
Last year, the other prominent Indigenous group in the area, the Ngäbe, had allegedly destroyed two patrol outposts the Naso had built in the forest. A group of Klung Kjërs had walked up to find it chopped to pieces, most of the wood taken away to be repurposed. They were still fuming over it. Several of them had told me the story.
Reynaldo said that in a subsequent meeting between Indigenous leaders, a Ngäbe representative had taken responsibility for the destruction. There was also concern that the Ngäbe were using their polygamous family structure to overwhelm the area by sheer numbers. Like centuries earlier, the Naso found themselves fighting a neighboring Indigenous group, the comarca having created new problems instead of fixing the old ones.
It was only after the Klung Kjërs invited me on their patrol, near to where their outpost had been destroyed, that the gravity of those problems really came into view. As was the case with so many Indigenous groups fighting for their land, there weren’t many winners in this situation — only losers.
A patrol gone astray
I set out on patrol in the early afternoon with six Klung Kjërs and my photographer. Three of the Klung Kjërs were young men in training who carried a huge sack of food and the rest of the bags. The steep incline seemed to get more rugged at every turn, so that by the time we stopped to rest they had already sweated through their shirts and wanted to rinse off in a stream.
The thick canopy shaded us from a hot sun in a clear sky. Humberto, an older Naso man leading the patrol, called out warnings of venomous ants and frogs in the path. He stopped the group so we could apply tree sap to our boots for good luck.
By early evening, we reached a small clearing where the Naso outpost used to be. Now it was just a wooden platform with a couple of beams sticking out. The young Klung Kjërs tied a rope across them and threw a tarp over to create a roof. Where the tarp didn’t reach, they started laying banana leaves.
Alfredo, a short chubby man in charge of meals, had started organizing the food for a late lunch when he stopped and looked into the tree line. Someone was standing there watching us — a man with a machete. The Klung Kjërs looked at each other uncertainly and then looked at me as if I should be the one to do something.
The man didn’t look threatening, only curious. A woman stood behind him. I smiled and waved, extending my hand as I walked up. “We’re hiking through the comarca,” I told them, “trying to get a better understanding of what’s going on around here.”
“Well, this is my property,” the man said, and pointed into the trees.
He was trying to say we should leave without having to actually say it. He was clearly shaken up. As we talked, he became more comfortable and started inching closer to the campsite. He was Ngäbe, he told us, and he had a lot of issues with the Naso patrols destroying his crops and treating him badly.
“We just want to live in peace,” he said. “Last time, honestly, last time I don’t know if you know that a couple of people came up here and cut down my bananas which were … ready to harvest.”
Everyone looked thrown off by the man’s willingness to stand in front of eight strangers, most of them obviously Naso, and question their right to be there. The younger Klung Kjërs, jittering with nervous energy, kept their heads down as they chopped at the ferns.
“These things won’t be fixed by lying,” the Ngäbe man said of the conflict with the Naso.
“Right,” Alfredo said.
“Not by fighting or by arguing, not by mistreatment or discrimination. Those things don’t fix anything. It can only be fixed by talking,” the Ngäbe man went on. “Look, for example, if right now, imagine, if this was your farm and I came and yelled at you, how would you react? I’m here right now talking to you [as opposed to] what they did to me last time.”
This whole time Humberto was pacing off near the cliff with his hands on his hips. He was adamant that the Klung Kjërs shouldn’t involve themselves in confrontations — it wasn’t their place. He may have been the leader of this patrol but he didn’t have the authority to speak on behalf of the community without Reynaldo’s permission.
“What’s your name?” He finally asked the Ngäbe man.
Humberto took out a piece of paper and started writing down his name, the time and date, what had happened so far.
Virgilio watched him, perplexed. “Write your own name down, too, please, since I don’t have a pen.”
Virgilio looked back at his wife, who was leaning on a machete. They exchanged some words in Ngäbere, the language of the Ngäbe. He picked up a stick and poked at the ground near his feet, talking more about the bananas that the Naso had cut down. He seemed afraid to look Humberto in the eyes, maybe because Humberto spoke more loudly and declaratively than he did, often interrupting him.
“You’re within the Naso comarca,” Humberto said. “Just know that. By law of the republic, the law which came from the Supreme Court of Justice, the ultimate authority in Panama. I didn’t come here to address any of your problems. We’re here to do a job with these gentlemen who came from a distant land. We’re patrolling here.”
“All right, well —”
“So we’re going to keep patrolling. The time will come for the king to come up here, or the community, or the minister of Indigenous affairs will come, because I personally can’t fix anything.”
“No, of course. But the problem is —”
“I hear what you’re telling me. I already wrote it down. When I get back, I’ll tell them.”
“Just so that it doesn’t happen again.”
There were long pauses in the conversation but it was obvious they wanted to keep talking, that even though there wasn’t much more to be said or done today, there might be an opportunity to get to the bottom of something.
The Klung Kjërs had talked so much about combating deforestation and land invasions in the comarca, but now I understood just how badly they needed more resources or some action from the government. They claimed to have a drone and SMART, a spatial monitoring tool, but here they were bickering with a farmer who was upset about his bananas, writing down his name on a piece of scrap paper.
I wanted to speak with Virgilio off on his own to get his thoughts on all of this. He had only cleared about an acre, half a hectare, at most, from what I could tell, which made all this arguing seem a bit uncalled for. The forest was slightly less dense, maybe, but he had left the saplings intact and only used what he needed.
Virgilio and I walked up the trail a bit, the Klung Kjërs watching nervously from a distance. When they were out of earshot, Virgilio turned to me and whispered, “What did they tell you?” And I decided not to answer. I didn’t want him to think I was picking sides. I asked him how long he had lived here and what he was growing. He pointed to his banana plants and palm trees, which he said were evidence that he had been here for decades, giving him the right to stay whether there was a comarca or not. “The palm is a witness, the farm is a witness and everything is a witness.”
He said he didn’t have a title to the land, although almost no one in the area did, according to the Naso. We talked about his bananas again. He laughed at the idea that the Ngäbe were all polygamous and used their big family size to overtake local voting blocs. The tradition of men having multiple wives had mostly died out with his grandparents, he said. He also said he hadn’t cut up the outpost. The Naso had done it themselves to fabricate problems.
More than anything else, Virgilio talked about wanting to be left alone, and I realized that included me. I thanked him for his time and went back to our camp, where the Naso were finishing the roof. Alfredo had started a fire for lunch.
Under whose authority?
Humberto wanted to stop at a couple of patches of deforestation in the morning — banana plantations stretching an acre or two — but mostly he was set on making it down the mountain before an afternoon meeting with the king. Someone with a truck was scheduled to come pick us up, although no one in our group seemed to know who it was, and I worried we would end up waiting for hours on the side of the road or hitchhiking. Reynaldo had at least one private driver, but the rest of the community, even the Klung Kjërs, relied on casual verbal arrangements with friends to get a ride.
Halfway down, where the trail narrowed and the canopy thickened enough to cool us off, we walked by another Ngäbe couple with two dogs and a sack of fruit. The husband’s eyebrows came together at the sight of us, his head turning to the side curiously, but he seemed to decide not to say anything.
He pulled on their dog’s leash to try and stop it from barking. Like Virgilio, he was cross-eyed and had drops of sweat hanging on his upper lip.
Humberto and the other Naso men lingered up the trail for a while as if unsure whether they should do something. They were the Klung Kjërs, after all, and here were more non-Naso people working on the land. I wondered if, on any other expedition, they wouldn’t have given it a second thought. My presence seemed to be forcing them to act.
Alfredo and another Klung Kjër shook the couple’s hands and made polite small talk for a while, with Humberto pacing in the background. The younger ones wanted nothing to do with this — they kept walking down the trail. When the couple started talking about their crops, Humberto demanded to know their names. The wife didn’t want to say. She seemed to resent their presence here, their claim to authority under the comarca, and became increasingly defensive the more Humberto pressed her.
“This isn’t fair,” she said.
“Listen, listen to me,” Humberto said. “What’s your name?”
“We’re not going to argue about the comarca. I know very well that this property was here before the comarca.”
Humberto grimaced. He didn’t like the legitimacy of the comarca being questioned. But he also knew it wasn’t his place to argue back. He paced around on the trail with his hands on his hips, trying to control himself. “OK, look, I am simply asking a question. Then the authorities will work this out. I’m simply asking [what your name is].”
“If the authorities come here — but they always come when we don’t know about it. That’s when they come.”
“The king is going to come and —”
“When the authorities come, then they should let us know. Let us, the owners of this property, know. You know,” she said, looking at me, “they burned down a neighbor’s house.”
I didn’t know who she meant by “they” — maybe Klung Kjërs or the government — and I never figured out if a house had really been burned down or not. Just like the Naso’s destroyed outpost, there were multiple versions of the story floating around.
She took out her phone and showed me a picture of a man who had apparently burned down the house. “When they come around, they try to keep a low profile.”
“They don’t have to come with a low profile,” Humberto said, “because this is the Naso comarca.”
“And because it’s the Naso comarca, that gives them the right to burn down my neighbor’s house?”
Humberto held up his hands to say he was innocent of that. It was the first time he’d heard about a neighbor’s house being burned down and he was careful not to involve himself. The husband pointed to his banana plants, saying the deforestation wasn’t so bad — it was just small-scale farming for sale down in town. The other Klung Kjërs, who had come back up the trail to see what was taking so long, were losing their patience and wanted to get home.
Humberto threatened to bring the king around, some local officials and the minister of Indigenous affairs. But the threats felt hollow. The couple wasn’t fazed. He didn’t have any monitoring equipment with him, no camera, not even a notepad. His only claim to authority, in that moment, was his official-looking shirt with Global Conservation written down the sleeve. When he wrote down their names for his report, he had to do it on the palm of his hand.
I asked the wife if she planned to raise her children here, and she said of course. It occurred to me then that this was probably going to be a problem for years to come. Those children would grow up on this land and at least a few of them would raise children here, and some of those children would stay, too. Meanwhile, the Naso people and the government would try working out who had a right to be in the comarca — where the comarca even was — the cases becoming increasingly more complicated with every generation.
“I’ve grown up here since 2000. I was here before 2000,” the woman said. “I grew up here and the Naso didn’t appear until this became a comarca.”
Humberto looked exasperated. “That’s because it was PILA.”
The woman either didn’t understand what he meant or didn’t care, although he’d made a valid point about this being a park under government management. The fact that officials had failed to monitor the area didn’t mean the Naso couldn’t now.
She pointed to her crops and started listing them off: coffee, chocolate, banana … Humberto eventually got tired of her and motioned at the others to keep walking.
He was frustrated by the encounter, possibly even embarrassed, and for the next half hour he talked excitedly about the couple, which points they had gotten wrong and what would be done with them once the boundaries of the comarca were established. On a whim, he took the patrol on a detour to look at one last instance of deforestation, mostly small-scale banana plantations.
When we finally made it back to the road, we piled into a pickup truck headed to the village of Bonyic, where the hydroelectric dam approved by Tito, the former king, had been built. The young Klung Kjërs sat in the back talking and making jokes. Everyone seemed more relaxed now that we were out of the forest.
It wasn’t clear to me that we had accomplished anything on our patrol, if we had even been trying to accomplish anything. Pulling into Bonyic, I thought maybe the eight of us would sit down together, like a kind of debrief. It felt to me like we had gone through something important. Face-to-face confrontations with Ngäbe were a rare occurrence. Would Humberto report them? Would there be some formal response?
It didn’t seem like it. The six Klung Kjërs disappeared almost immediately, heading off in different directions to handle the next task for the day, to attend the next meeting. There was more work to be done on the comarca, apparently, and there was no time or resources to spare.
Banner image: The Teribe River cuts through the forest in the Naso comarca. Photo by Powell Pittman.
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