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We Demand a Development Plan

May 5, 2012

It was a sight to be seen, to say the least. Ninety seven indigenous leaders from the Ngäbe, Embera, and Naso tribes gathered at an all-inclusive resort on the beach, talking about the future of indigenous development in Panama. Not only were they out of their context, surrounded by buffet after buffet of food and half naked white people in swimming pools, they were also accompanied by three young Americans, each wearing some resemblance of the trademark triangle appliqué on their clothing to show that they work with the Ngäbe indigenous group, who also don triangles on their clothing. It is me and my fellow volunteers and neighbors Laura and Chris, making up the US delegation to the event.

At this moment, it is appropriate to wonder why the three of us were included on the guest list. Basically, a Panamanian NGO that works in our area building aqueducts invited us so that we could gain a different perspective on the current debate surrounding indigenous development and to thank us for helping them with training and technical support on the ground. We were grateful to have been flies on the wall to these conversations and happy to see the stage being set for a national dialogue on indigenous development.

The goal was to engage indigenous mayors and governors in a dialogue about development with the goal of writing a memorandum to the national government requesting further action to write and fund a strategic development plan (of which none currently exists).

We heard lectures and participated in a working group. The first lecturer spouted off a litany of poor development statistics of the 3 Comarcas in Panama (Ngabe, Embera, and Guna) that showed how dire the situation is. So here, for your number-grubbing pleasure is a concise chart:


Extreme Poverty

Average Years of Schooling


Malnutrition (measured by stunted growth)

Average Monthly Income

Country Average




























The speaker summarized by asking, “If Panama is growing at 7.5% per year, why are the Comarcas lagging behind?” Amen brother, we ask ourselves this all of the time.

Yet, that was not the most disconcerting question asked that day. In what we have deemed typical Panamanian meeting protocol, most questions or comments at the end of a presentation consisted of a lot of sentences strung together with key words like ‘development,’ and ‘needs,’ and ‘planning’ without presenting a coherent point or idea, and often assigning blame to the central government and its unwillingness to spend more money in indigenous areas (which they are probably right given the evidence above).

After many of these stump speech, sort-of-asking-a-question, mostly-just-wanting-to-chime-in commentaries, the three of us would look at one another and say “wait, what was the question?” Someone should have asked, ‘How can we expect to write a strategic plan for development if we aren’t even sure what a strategic plan is let alone how to write one?’ It didn’t help that no one ever used any derivative of the word ‘creativity.

Later, there was a debate over the advantages and disadvantages of collective land rights. In effect, the Comarcas are like any other province in Panama except that they have collective land rights, whereby only the indigenous group within each Comarca, or reservation, has the right to own the land and cannot sell it to outsiders. As a benefit, it guarantees a degree of autonomy by giving complete control to the indigenous to self-manage.

However, it can also limit investment and growth because outside companies cannot own land and banks won’t loan to people with land that they cannot seize if the loan goes bad. Paradoxically, collective land rights, usually a keystone in any indigenous fight for autonomy, are also one of the main limiting factors to economic development.

Alas, we’ve identified the conundrum of indigenous development that no one seems to know how to reconcile: How do you balance autonomy, self-determination, and cultural preservation with overarching needs improved health, education, and local economic development?

I love all of the old-school culture of the Comarca and admire their staunch insistence on controlling their own land even if that means that higher living standards in the rest of the country are circumventing the Comarca. We Westerners love the quaintness and novelty of indigenous culture and praise them for their resistance to materialism. I’m just not sure how true that is. I witness all of the time people who want material things and seek more comfortable lives with less toiling on tired farms. They want to know what modernity offers. They want to be healthy and educated.

This conference was certainly the right place to start to find the balance between those two conflicting forces. The separate indigenous groups should absolutely pool their voices and their resources to work together with the national government to demand a development strategy. I wish I knew a policy or a development model that would suit their needs. But, unfortunately, I am increasingly more confused about what it means to be ‘developed’ and what the role of outsiders should be.

Ok, that’s two serious blogs in a row. I promise that I will try and lighten up. 🙂

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