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What is a Comarca?

September 29, 2010

I hope you wanted to learn something new today because here it is 😉

A Comarca is the Panamanian term for Indigenous reservations. There are three main indigenous groups in Panama and each has a Comarca (see map below) that is semi-autonomous from the national government. The first Comarca established was the Kuna Yala in the 1960’s (although they were self-ruling since the 1920’s). It is my understanding that this is the first example of self-government by an indigenous group in the Americas and it is a model that many groups around the world seek to achieve. The Kuna Yala occupy the island archipelagos in the Atlantic and a thin stretch of the northeastern coast. Despite being the most autonomous, the Kuna have a reputation for being business savvy and many operate successful tourist sites in their beautiful territory. Next, in the far eastern province of Darien – scary jungle that no one has traversed (except the FARC) – is the Comarca for the Embera and Wounaan people. I believe this is the most recent Comarca established sometime in the 2000’s (bear with me as I am not 100% on the details). During my first site visit (see entry below), I visited an Embera community that was outside of the established Comarca.

Lastly, the third Comarca, established in 1997, is for the Ngobe-Bugle people and is located in mountainous region of western Panama. The Ngobe’s are the largest and poorest indigenous group in Panama (~160,000-200,000 people). In contrast with the Embera, who have specialized knowledge about how to sustain themselves in the fierce jungle, or the Kuna who sustain themselves in their coastal environment, the Ngobe (pronounced No-Bey) were historically nomadic and likely had the most difficulty adapting during colonization and Latino settlement.

I’ll preface this statistics rant I’m about to go on by clarifying that statistics should be viewed critically. With this in mind, I agree that statistics are an effective tool that serve as a baseline to understand and analyze the economic context of a given region. Wikipedia told me (thanks to my dad looking it up with his was on the phone with me) that indigenous groups represent 6% of the population. Within the Ngobe Comarca, 86% of people live at levels of extreme poverty in houses without electricity, latrines, or floors. The infant mortality rate is four times as high as in the rest of Panama and half of children under 5 are malnourished and many do not complete sixth grade. One principal constraint is that most communities are dispersed throughout the mountainous region, lack basic transportation infrastructure, and many families must walk (hike) several hours to their farm where they grow food for subsistence living. Despite this, life in the Comarca is gradually improving as a result of earmarked government investment and a social safety net that encourages school retention. The Peace Corps presence is also growing in this region in programs relating to sustainable agriculture, latrine and water projects, and small business advising.

That was probably the world’s longest introduction to breach the topic of what I did this past week! To put to use all of the diagnostic, analysis, strategic and operational planning, and administrative tools that we have learned in our technical training sessions, we took a trip for 6 days to the town of Hato Chami to get a taste of life in the Comarca and work with small businesses and the school. The living conditions were tough and the weather was sub-par at best (it was freezing!).  Its in a cloud forest, so we basically were caught in the clouds from about 11 am onward. During the first three days we split into groups to work with a honey-producing business, a sugar-cane producing cooperative, a tailor, and a women’s artisan association.

My group worked with Milanio and his bee hive operation. Our group worked with Milanio, the president of honey-producing association that is in its first year of existence. After two days of learning about his lofty, long-term goals for accessing the organic honey market in Europe, it was pretty clear to most of our team that he needed to narrow his focus and start smaller by simply writing a solid business plan. This is where the process of inception begins. As Peace Corps Volunteers, our job is not to impose our ideas (no matter how awesome!) on the groups that we work with, but rather to facilitate them to generate new ideas and practical approaches to achieving THEIR short and long-term goals. As such, we could not simply tell Milanio that it would be wise write a business plan. Instead, we had to engage a discussion that would make him come up with the idea himself – aka achieve INCEPTION. We had our presentation on the third day, and sure enough, after walking through a SWOT analysis, Milanio identified the lack of a written business plan as a key weakness. Done. Kick. Get out of the dream while you still can. Fortunately, a volunteer from our group is going to be placed at this site and can follow-up as needed with this project. Below is a photo of me in front of the bee hives (that you cannot really see) and also a photo of the school where we gave a 2 hour class. Unfortunately I must head out now so I will write more about that another time!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anne Palmer permalink
    October 27, 2010 5:45 am

    Looks like an interesting environment. I think it’s perfect for a girl of your caliber. You go girl!

    • October 31, 2010 7:59 pm

      Thanks Anne! I start work tomorrow so there should more to come soon!

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