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Into the Jungle

November 23, 2011

Last week, as a part of my new-found legitimacy as the Ag-Biz Coordinator, another equally legitimate coordinator and I planned a business seminar in the furthest reaches of Panama – the Darien Jungle. You may know it as the place where Interstate-5 (yes, you Seattle) goes to die when it meets the Darien Gap on the border with Colombia. Somehow, Peace Corps manages to put a few souls out there and then just leaves them alone, sending in the helicopter if anything goes astray.

Fourteen hours on a bus, countless potholes, two police checkpoints, four copies of a letter from Peace Corps, and one boat trip later, we landed in the Comarca Embera-Wounaan. Much like my Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle, the Embera and Wounaan people have their own designated autonomous region with collective land rights.

Essentially, we are mountain folk and they are jungle folk (not a mountain in sight!) and this leads to a number of interesting differences in the way that people live. For example, Embera communities thrive on the shore of rivers, depending on its waters for fishing, bathing, washing, and transport. The houses are up on stilts with palm-leaf roofs to protect when the water rises. The traditional Ngäbe house is bamboo, wood, or sticks, with straw or palm leaf roof. In both cases zinc roofs are coming more in favor.

Photo Caption: Moiz and I on the river. Right, my comarca’s mountains

Each morning, we saw the women carrying buckets of water back to their homes for cooking. The Chucunaque River is a notoriously polluted river system that carries a lot of water-borne illnesses due to the standard of using it as a drinking source and as the place to go to the bathroom. Many Ngäbe communities also depend on streams or wells for water, but few are as dirty this. This point is not lost on Moiz (our host) who works for the water and sanitation program.

In one house we visited, a woman was saying that her baby was just sick with a fever and diarrhea. “Well, did you make the oral-rehydration salts that we talked about?!” asked Moiz. When she responded no, he went on “Your neighbor made it for her daughter when it happened, and it worked! You have to try it next time.” I loved this response because it shows how he knows that peer pressure – not logic, or reason, or statistics, will likely be the greatest instigator for adopting a new health practice.

The very design of the villages reflects key differences in the administration of each region. In an Embera community, the houses tend to be grouped together around a plaza. After coming down the stairs at one house, you never have to walk more than 30 feet to be at another house. On the other hand, Ngäbe communities tend to be more spread out. In fact, the more traditional they are, the more spread out they will be.

We volunteers learn to adapt to standards within our communities. On the first afternoon we were visiting some families to introduce ourselves, and as we walked across the plaza, Moiz stopped and said, “Shoot, I forgot about one house back there, but it’s already so far, we’ll just keep going.” Perplexed, Andrea and I responded, “But Moiz, it’s only like 100 yards, we can just walk back, it will only take a few seconds.” Moiz concluded, “Nahh, it’s too far.”

Bah! The average distance between houses here is 100 yards! And the differences did not stop there. When it came time for the first session of the seminar to begin, Moiz said, “I’m going to go ring the bell to let everyone know and then we can head over.” Ring the bell? Yes, typical Embera communities are organized so that when someone rings the bell, the people know that a meeting is happening. That is so efficient! If I could only ring a giant bell that could alert my Ngäbes far and wide that a meeting was starting… it would be a game changer! Unfortunately, a bell of such size would surely render deaf the poor fellow that has to ring it.

Photo: Also worth mentioning that the ‘bell’ is actually a car wheel ‘rung’ using a piece of re-bar. Brilliant example of re-cycling.

Needless to say, this translates into more well-organized communities with a cultural tradition of meeting together to make decisions together. While the congresses of the Ngäbe barely got off the ground this year, the Embera are more familiar with choosing people for their congresses and sitting through really long meetings to chew through different points on the agenda. This is all new for the Ngäbes, whose history is actually rooted in being semi-nomadic.

Perhaps the most interesting divergence of all is population. According to my nifty map of Panama that we got during training, the population of the Comarca Embera-Wounaan is a wooping 8,246 people in a surface area of 4,400 square kilometers. What about the Ngäbe-Bugle? In a surface area of 6,700 square kilometers, there are 110,000 Ngabe and Bugle people. With a population that large, it puts quite a strain on the natural resources, as anyone can note by the amount of land dedicated to farming and cattle grazing and the lack of local animals in the diet (“we ate them all”).

If nothing else, this is a useful anecdote to demonstrate the diversity of communities within this tiny country of Panama (population 3,000,000, surface area 75,000 square kilometers – the size of South Carolina). Whew, and I haven’t even mentioned the Kuna, Naso, Guari-Guari or Congo cultures. We’ll save that for another time…

2 Comments leave one →
  1. BRUCE RUDDER permalink
    November 24, 2011 3:17 am

    I am learning more and understanding more with every post, thank you! love, dad

  2. November 24, 2011 5:53 pm

    HI Jessica,

    I found your blog and I love the articles and pictures!

    I’ll be heading to Panama in about a week – probably to David since my cousin lives nearby. I wondered if your communities might be able to use an engineer/MBA for a week or so?

    My story is that I gave up the corporate life to pursue my dreams/passions in life. So I am traveling and volunteering my way to personal fulfillment. I’ll head to Panama in about a week and I’ve really hard a hard time finding volunteering opportunities. Let me know if I can help you out there, or if you know any places I could help out.


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