Tribal groups in Panama are celebrating a victory for their rights to control some of Central America’s largest forests — a victory that could benefit conservation throughout the region.
The landmark ruling, by the country’s Supreme Court, upholds a claim by the Naso people of northwest Panama — who live in remote villages, grow subsistence crops, maintain their own forests and native language, and elect their own monarch — to create a semi-autonomous territory, known in Panama as a comarca, covering some 400,000 acres of their ancestral lands.
“This is an act of justice that will restore tranquillity to the Naso by securing our land,” says the King of the Naso, Reynaldo Santana. “We will be able to continue what we know best and what our culture and way of life represents: taking care of our mother earth, conserving a majestic forest, and protecting the country and the planet from the effects of climate change.”
The ruling, issued in October, might give conservationists pause, because most of the Naso territory has since the 1980s been designated as part of two state-protected areas — La Amistad National Park and the Palo Seco forest reserve. The judges found that, contrary to past claims by the Panamanian government, this status was no bar to the territory being recognized as a comarca — Indigenous land rights had priority. The parks will continue to exist, but under Indigenous control through a joint management plan.
Deforestation rates in Naso and other Indigenous lands are only a fraction of those in state-protected areas.
The Naso people, who number around 3,500, say conservationists should be applauding the decision. For the Naso say they are the real forest protectors, and, given legal powers to exclude land invaders, will be better able to halt the advance of cattle ranchers and others than government officials hundreds of miles away.
Their backers, including the Rainforest Foundation U.S. (RFUS), which supports Indigenous rainforest protection, agree. They say Panamanian politicians have too often in the past used largely spurious claims about state conservation as cover for withholding land rights from forest communities, allowing officials instead to promote destructive projects such as hydroelectric dams and turn a blind eye to ranches and illegal logging. They point out that deforestation rates in Naso and other Indigenous lands in Panama are only a fraction of those in supposedly state-protected areas.
“For a long while, governments have used the overlap with protected areas as a reason not to title the land [to Indigenous communities],” says Joshua Lichtenstein, regional program manager for the RFUS. “It has often been an excuse. Where land has been growing in value for agriculture, mining, and ranching, there are powerful economic interests at play.”
Even when the Panamanian government has the political will, it has little capacity for enforcing laws in remote forests, Lichtenstein says. He estimates the country has only around 300 park rangers covering 121 nominally protected areas. “These areas are parks on paper, but not in practice,” he says. By contrast, “Indigenous people are on the ground, defending what is theirs.”
The Supreme Court ruling, made on October 28, sets a precedent for other Panamanian Indigenous groups seeking to create their own comarcas within state-protected areas, including several whose traditional lands overlap the Darien National Park, one of Central America’s largest and most biodiverse forests — but also among its most threatened.
“Comarcas are progressive in recognizing Indigenous land rights,” says Christine Halvorson, program director at RFUS. “By extending their recognition to national parks, Panama has a chance to be a great model for other countries, and to end the misconceived conflict between Indigenous rights and environmental protection.”
With more than 60 percent tree cover, Panama is one of the most forested countries in Central America. Though smaller than Maine, it boasts everything from coastal mangroves to mountain cloud forests. The country occupies a narrow isthmus between Central and South America, making its forests a vital ecological corridor between continents, rich in iconic and endangered species such as jaguar, peccary, and harpy eagles.
Historically, Panama’s forests have survived thanks largely to the stewardship of its half-million Indigenous inhabitants from seven tribal groups. Today, the majority of the country’s intact forests are within comarcas, where Indigenous groups have legal rights and responsibilities for managing the area and receive funding from the national government. Those groups believe giving them legally enforceable authority would be the best way of securing the survival of forests still outside their formal control.
The first comarca in Panama was created in 1938 on the country’s Caribbean coast, as part of a peace settlement following an armed rebellion by the Guna people. The politically allied Embera and Wounaan people gained one in 1983. The Ngabe and Bugle tribes won a joint comarca in 1997. And the Guna added additional comarcas in 1996 and 2000. Together, these autonomous zones cover 4.2 million acres, just over a fifth of the country — leaving, according to RFUS, almost 1.7 million acres of largely intact tropical forest in ancestral lands that remain untitled.
After 2000, the Panamanian government called a halt to new comarcas. This, says Lichtenstein, who has helped communities map their lands and organize title claims, was despite outstanding claims for an additional 25 territories, including the Naso lands.
The government partially backtracked in 2009, passing a law allowing the creation of mostly smaller, village-based collective lands with less autonomy, known as tierras colectivas. But while five tierras colectivas have since been granted, the Naso and others have held out for full-title comarcas, even though successive Panamanian governments have resisted calls to give Indigenous titles in areas at least theoretically protected by the state.
In recent years both the RFUS and the Tenure Facility, a Stockholm-based NGO that provides financial, legal, and technical support for community land claims, have been helping the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP), which represents the country’s seven Indigenous groups, to further the title claims, including in protected areas. “Many outsiders want to take over these forests, especially for livestock,” says Marcelo Guerra, president of COONAPIP.
“The ruling makes it clear that Indigenous rights have precedence,” says one expert who helped oversee the lawsuit.
The Naso claim has become the flagship, in part because the Naso have been determined fighters to protect their forest-covered lands. In 2009, they stood their ground when a large cattle ranching company took over a chunk of their ancestral land and burned houses, a school, a church, and a cultural center while an escort of police looked on. The Naso took their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, before reaching an agreement with the company five years later.
They also fought — ultimately unsuccessfully — to prevent the government building a dam in their territory that blocked fish migrations. The Bonyic Dam was completed in 2014, in defiance of both the Naso and a request from UNESCO to protect fish migrations into La Amistad National Park, which the UN agency has declared a World Heritage Site. The dam “destroyed a large part of the fish population in one of our rivers,” according to Naso King Santana.
The Naso people’s defense of their forests has had tangible environmental gains. An analysis of government data by the RFUS found that deforestation in the past two decades on Naso lands has been only a quarter the rate within state-protected La Amistad and Palo Seco: 0.4 percent compared to 1.8 percent.
Presented with such evidence, the Panamanian National Assembly in 2018 passed a law to create a sixth comarca for the Naso, covering 400,000 acres, all but 9 percent of which is within the two state-protected areas. The country’s then-president, businessman Juan Carlos Varela, vetoed the law, citing “environmental concerns.”
In response, the Naso pursued legal action. And in 2019, a new, more sympathetic government, under President Laurentino Cortizo, agreed to lift its opposition to the comarca. Now the Supreme Court has cemented the change.
“The ruling makes it clear that Indigenous rights have precedence,” says Nonette Royo, executive director of the Tenure Facility, which oversaw the legal case. But she warns there is much that needs to be done. “This is just a general ruling,” she says. The details have yet to be worked out.
Park authorities, however, who were previously “invisible,” have been in contact since the court ruling, says Santana. “We are now coordinating actions.”
The competing interests of Indigenous and protected territories have been a major roadblock for recognizing Indigenous land rights in Panama and many other countries, Halvorson says, so the Supreme Court’s ruling opens up prospects for other groups. The Guna, Embera, and Wounaan communities, for instance, can now pursue comarcas for ancestral lands within Panama’s 1.4 million-acre Darien National Park.
Protecting the ecology of the Darien Gap could become a conservation battle of international importance.
The Darien forests occupy a region of swamps and mountains 100 miles long and 30 miles wide, stretching from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans, known as the Darien Gap. The gap forms the boundary between Central and South America, and is a formidable barrier to travel. It is the only link missing in the Pan-American Highway that otherwise stretches uninterrupted for almost 20,000 miles from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America.
The Darien National Park is an ecological jewel, containing 169 mammal species and 533 bird species. In recognition of its importance, American conservationists in 2004 negotiated a “debt-for-nature swap,” under which the U.S. government and The Nature Conservancy bought part of the Panamanian government’s external debt in return for commitments to long-term conservation of the park.
Despite this, the park is in deep trouble. Besieged by loggers, ranchers, and oil palm planters and traversed by drug traffickers, militias, and migrants, the park has suffered extensive deforestation.
Around a tenth of Darien’s forests have been lost in the past two decades, according to Global Forest Watch. A 2020 assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found a lack of on-the-ground staff meant the park management plan was not being implemented, policing was poor, and there was little collaboration with Indigenous inhabitants.
One overarching threat is the long-standing plan to complete the Pan-American Highway through the Darien Gap. The plan has been in abeyance since the 1970s, due in part to the long civil war across the border in Colombia. But peace there increases the prospect for its revival, says Halvorson.
Another threat is a proposed “interconnector” between the electricity grids of Colombia and Panama, which could be operational as early as 2024. Several routes are being considered, some passing through the Darien forests.
Protecting the ecology of the Darien Gap could become a conservation battle of international importance in the coming decade. On the basis of past success, and sustained by the Supreme Court decision, there is growing support for Indigenous on-the-ground organization over government management of the park.
This approach may be an increasingly attractive option for the government, says Royo of the Tenure Facility. “The government is committed to a green agenda, but it is a challenge for them — one that Indigenous communities can help with. Indigenous management works for conservation, so there is an opportunity for all sides.”