Chapin, Mac (1994)

Grassroots Development 17(2)/18(1): 39-41.

Thirty years ago, eastern Panama was largely intact forestland inhabited by three indigenous groups - the Embera=92, the Wounaan, and the Kuna - and small colonies descended from escaped slaves. Today it has become a battleground on which the native inhabitants are fighting to stem the incursions of loggers, cattle ranchers, and landless colonists from the country's interior provinces. Since construction of the Bayano Hydroelectric Dam and extension of the Pan American Highway to the town of Yaviza in the mid-1970s, the area's lush forests have been rapidly dwindling, together with the subsistence base of local peoples. Now a new threat looms with proposals to complete the last stretch of the Highway into Colombia.

As a first step toward counteracting the threat, the congresses of the Embera=92, Wounaan, and Kuna peoples and the Centro de Estudios y Accio=92n Social - Panamen~o (CEASPA) recently undertook a participatory exercise to map indigenous claims in Darie=92n Province. FromMay to October 1993, a team of cartographers and 23=20 indigenous encuestadores, or surveyors, from communities throughout the region produced maps detailing not only the geography of the area but also native people's land-use patterns. Each encuestador was responsible for a zone encompassing up to five or six communities, so that all of the territory inhabited and used by indigenous groups for subsistence was covered.

The mapping occurred in three stages, each focused around a workshop. The first began with a workshop in which three Indian coordinators - Genaro Pacheco and Facundo Sanapi=92, both Embera=92, and Geraldes Herna=92ndez, a Kuna - met with encuestadores to develop landuse questionnaires and discuss map ping methodologies. The encuestadores then journeyed into the field, where they took a complete census count, filled in the questionnaires, and made careful cartographic records of their assigned zones. With the assistance of villagers, surveyor transformed large blank sheets of paper into meticulous depictions of river systems and the places where local people hunted, fished, cut firewood, gathered building materials, and collected medicines and wild food products.

With this information in hand, the encuestadores returned to a second workshop, where they met with Peter Herlihy, a University of Kansas geographer who has extensive field experience in the Darie=92n, to construct composite maps from existing aerial photographs and the new community-drawn maps. After several weeks, the surveyors returned to the field to fill in the remaining gaps in information and check for errors. A third workshop put the final touches on the maps.

Several cartographers from the Instituto Geogr=E1fico Nacional "Tommy Guardia" and the National University assisted in this task. In their estimation, the resulting maps are, by far, the most accurate and detailed ever done of the area. For the first time there is clear demarcation of the areas used by the indigenous peoples of the Dari=E9n and the ways in which they manage the area's natural resources. However, the most important achievement of the process may well be the refinement of a mapping methodology that uses maximum participation by local people to craft a product with high scientific value. It is a methodology that can be easily adapted by indigenous people anywhere in mapping their own territories.

The Embera=92, the Wounaan, and the Kuna presented information from their maps, together with discussions of subsistence patterns, resource management, and social and political organization, at a forum at the El Panam=E1 Hotel in Panama City on October 26-27, 1993. With more than 500 people in attendance, the Indians expressed their views to the government and general public regarding the proper use of the Darie=92n.

The final map of the Darie=92n, to be completed by April 1994, is the property of the Embera=92, Wounaan, and Kuna peoples. It will show the intimate relationship between remaining natural vegetation patterns and patterns of indigenous settlement and land use. These data will be crucial as indigenous leaders engage in discussions over the future of their region, which stands at the brink of massive and potentially devastating change.

Of particular concern are pending negotiations between the governments of Colombia and Panama to finish the last stretch of the Pan American Highway connecting the two countries as well as South and Central America. Although the road would cut through the heart of Indian territory, indigenous leaders have thus far been given little voice in the matter. The mapping process and the recent forum are a step in opening up the process. "We are giving one more example to our government," said Leopoldo Bacorizo, the general chief of the Embera=92-Wounaan Congress, "so it understands what is at stake and can coordinate with us on the solutions to our problems."

During the forum's closing ceremony, Charlotte Elton, director of CEASPA, applauded the accomplishments of the mapping project but reminded everyone that this was merely the first step and the work had just begun.

A similar land-use map of the Mosquitia region in Honduras was produced by the indigenous support group MOPAWI and the Miskito Indian organization MASTA in 1992, and another effort by the Miskito group MIKUPIA is scheduled to begin soon in the Miskito Coast Protected Area in northeast Nicaragua.

Such tasks require coordinated support by many actors. In the case of the Darie=92n effort, for instance, technical, logistical, and financial=

assistance comes from no fewer than 16 Panamanian and international conservation and development organizations. Once the mapping is complete, attention must turn to using the information to build public support for preserving Central America's last remaining forests by supporting the people who have managed them successfully for centuries.

- Mac Chapin

This electronic copy was prepared by Preston Hardison (, who is responsible for any errors not found in the original.

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