Part 4 On distant dirt – I visit the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca
A trip to Panama wouldn’t be complete without a chance to experience some part of its rich indigenous cultures, which are diverse. The Cuna comarca is on the Caribbean side of Panama and the Cuna are reputed to be quite commercialized; the Embera comarca is in the Darien Gap and I didn’t make it down there. The Ngäbe-Buglé comarca extends along the eastern border of the Chiriqui, which made it accessible to me. Comarcas are indigenous territory, similar to First Nations reserves in Canada.
The German owner of a wonderful, small B&B I stayed at (Finca Buena Vista near Las Lajas) had developed a relationship with the people in a village in the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca. He offered small, guided tours to the village and took me and another couple staying at the hotel.
The Ngäbe-Buglé are politicized and well organized. They spent well over two decades fighting the Panamanian government for their constitutional right to create a comarca. They were finally successful in 1997. But they still struggle to maintain their rights.
Last year the Ngäbe-Buglé shut down the Pan-American Highway to protest the government’s move to sell their land to international interests, which includes a large hydro-electric project and exploiting the mineral wealth on the comarca land. They hadn’t been consulted and the significant environmental implications hadn’t been discussed.
The Ngäbe-Buglé managed to seriously impede the flow of goods to Panama City and the southern regions of the country from the productive north and other Central American countries. The government under President Ricardo Martinelli cracked down, banning telecommunications companies from providing cell phone coverage to the region and jailing and beating protesters; one was killed. Other indigenous people joined the protest as did other concerned groups across Panama – and forced the government to negotiate with the Ngäbe-Buglé.
I visit the comarca
We drove up the new two-lane paved road that cuts through the comarca, built by the government to facilitate the proposed mining operations and hydro-electric damn.
After driving for about 20 minutes from a small town on the Pan-American Highway called San Filipe, we stopped and began to hike on the red clay trails down the mountainside to reach the village. The vegetation was lush and the air humid and warm. As we approached the village, small crops of coffee, beans, corn, bananas and root vegetables began to appear along the trail. And after about 45 minutes we arrived to a tiny cluster of primitive homes on the top of a small rise at the bottom of the verdant valley.
The village was essentially a family unit of four generations living in a few thatch- or tin-roofed structures, with bamboo walls. They were all almost barren of furniture, except in some a bed, in others a smoldering clay stove. A rickety table. A leaning bench. This clan leads a very simple life.
About a half a dozen children glommed onto us. They were not shy and wanted to be in every picture. They rushed to show us their crops and demonstrate how they hulled the grains and dried the coffee. When I photographed the clothing hanging on the line, they thrust themselves in front of it, pointing to pieces of clothing and identifying whose it was.
The grandfather was the mayor of the village. He seemed frail, and he used a cane as he took us around explaining how village life functions. His wife was sturdy and strong; and as matriarch she was efficient and busy. Their adult son suddenly appeared from a hut and expressed his desire to learn English. He found a notebook and I wrote down simple phrases, which we practised together. He took it very seriously, was completely engaged and showed no reserve at all about repeating the words and phrases. I was impressed by his fervor.
Further on a young woman was unbothered as she used a foot powered treadle sewing machine to sew a traditional dress – called a nagua – while younger children crowded around her and I took photos.
While I was at the comarca I met about eight adults, young and old; and I’m not sure but there may have been as many as a dozen children from under one year old to maybe 13 or 14. People seemed genuinely cheerful and curious. They were straight forward, eager to chat and share names and simple phrases. They welcomed us and the money our guide left with them.
As we left, our gaggle of kids followed us chatting and pointing out plants and this and that along the trail, asking for English translations. After a short way down the trail, they turned back waving and smiling. Except for one outstanding boy, who looked to be about 12 years old and who I was sure would one day lead his people. He was intense in admonishing me as we walked from the village. But I couldn’t understand his broken Spanish. I wished I could because it sounded something like “Don’t mess with us.” Just to be on the safe side – I’m not going to. He’s one fierce kid from one fierce people. Definitely, not to be messed with.