Panama - Kuna
Updated December 2008
The Kuna live mainly on the San Blas islands and in some settlements on the Colombian border at the the edge of the Darién National Park
The great majority of the population are spread over 38 islands. Eleven communities are located in coastal parts of the region and two communities are located on the mainland.
. The Kuna have maintained a stable, successful economy based on tourism, crafts and fishing. The Kuna language is still used both in and out of the comarcas for example in Panama City where the Kuna have networks for coexistence and organization. Kuna have a significant number of teachers and university students who form an intellectual stratum.
The relative isolation of the Kuna and successful resistance to encroachment by European traders and agricultural colonists during the early part of the twentieth century led to the partial autonomy of the San Blas region. This occurred through a 1930 treaty and the formation of the Kuna comarca (semi-autonomous region) eight years later.
In 1985, the Kuna were the first indigenous group to establish an internationally recognized forest reserve.
The Kuna are exceptional among indigenous groups in Central America in that they have not only survived the conquest but have since thrived and maintained an important level of autonomy from the post-colonial state.
The Kuna have been notably successful at preserving their land and culture. They are the most consolidated, organized and economically well-off of the indigenous groups with the most international and national contacts and the highest levels of formal education and knowledge of the contemporary world.
There are two specially chosen Kuna-Yala legislators in the National Assembly. Three national chiefs, chosen by the Kuna General Congress, act as the Kuna spokespersons to the Panamanian government. The Government recognizes traditional Kuna marriage rites as a civil ceremony. Laws have been introduced protecting intellectual property rights of artwork and establishing regulations for artisan fairs.
However, problems arising from squatter incursions into their traditional lands have led to protests, and forceful removal of squatters.
The Kuna comaraca Madugandi has complained that settlers are deforesting the territory. There have been demands for another Kuna reserve to protect traditional land from settlers, but the requests have not been granted.
More than half of Kuna Yala’s mainland is still covered with forest, however deforestation by outsiders as well as Kuna is becoming a serious problem. The Kuna of Madungandi are now losing their old growth forests to logging companies which harvest trees that are often hundreds of years old. Subsistence agriculture has given way to commercial crops. Commercial over fishing and excessive harvesting of wildlife has harmed animal and marine populations some to the point of extinction. Water contamination is uncontrolled. The coconut trade with Colombia, which has become a key Kuna income generator, has encouraged the conversion of important coastal mangrove habitats into coconut monocultures. Nevertheless for rural Kuna, the central problems remain poor health related to diet and sanitation.