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Kuna in Panama

  • Profile

    Kuna live mainly on the San Blas islands and in some settlements on the Colombian border at the edge of the Darién National Park. The great majority of the population are spread over 38 islands, each with their own distinct traditions and led by a chief (saila) who is both a political and spiritual leader. A key aspect of the saila’s role is to memorise and recite Kuna oral history, legends and laws. Eleven communities are located in coastal parts of the region and two communities are located on the mainland.

    There are three Kuna comarcas (or reserves). Kuna Yala was established first and has provincial status and therefore greater local autonomy; Kuna Madugandí and Kuna Wargandí are part of the provinces of Panama and Darién respectively. Kuna have maintained a stable, successful economy based on tourism, crafts and fishing. The Kuna language (called Tule) is still used both in and out of the comarcas, as for example in Panama City where Kuna have networks for coexistence and organization.

    Kuna are a matriarchal society. Early marriage is common, with the groom moving into the wife’s family home where he may spend a number of years as an apprentice to his father-in-law. Kuna have a significant number of teachers and university students who form an intellectual stratum.

    Historical context

    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 1930s treaty and the formation of the Kuna Yala comarca (or semi-autonomous region) eight years later.

    In 1985, the Kuna were the first indigenous people to establish an internationally recognized forest reserve.

    Current issues

    Kuna are exceptional among indigenous peoples in Central America in that they have not only survived the Spanish 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 prosperous of the indigenous peoples of Panama, 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 Kuna traditional lands have led to protests and necessitated the forceful removal of squatters.

    The Kuna living in the comarca of Madugandí have 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 forests, and yet deforestation by outsiders as well as by the Kuna is becoming a serious problem. The Kuna of Madungandí 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 overfishing and excessive harvesting of wildlife has severely 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.

    Although the Ministry of Environment in Panama created the Majé Water Reserve in 1996 with the stated aim of improving access to clean water, there has been widespread deforestation by illegal settlers and severe contamination. This has occurred despite some international efforts, such as the ‘Panama UN-REDD programme’ (2010-2015), which sought to increase the forest cover. Furthermore, the 2014 Inter-American Court of Human Rights (‘Case of Indigenous People Kuna of Madungandí and Emberá del Bayano and its Members vs. Panama’) ruled that, after being displaced back in the 1970s from the original territory to make way for a hydroelectric dam, the government had failed to provide adequate compensation or legal title to other land. As a result, their land is now at risk of being taken over illegally by settlers.

    A key cultural rights issue has emerged for Kuna, particularly women, in recent years. Kuna women are known for their mola production, namely handmade appliqué panels worn on traditional blouses with intricate geometric patterns that are deeply tied to Kuna people’s history and identity. While being the main form of Kuna artistic expression, the molas are also a key source of income. In the 1980s, however, commercial imitation molas by non-indigenous makers began to appear, threatening the Kuna women’s right to their art. In response, a law was passed in 1984 prohibiting the import of fake molas, but it did not protect intellectual property rights. Fifteen years later, after much lobbying by indigenous representatives, including indigenous women’s groups, Law 20 was passed, bestowing intellectual property rights to indigenous cultural production, including the mola, on the Kuna community. Moreover, in 2002, the Kuna community established the GaluDugbis trademark and logo (depicting the sacred place from which mola designs are believed to emanate), as a sign of authenticity. The law fell short however, as it did not consider the specific rights of indigenous women to their own cultural production. A Kuna General Congress (KGC), composed of men, was in charge of representing the Kuna in Law 20 disputes. When it was discovered that Kuna women were teaching their craft to non-indigenous people and producing molas for cheap sale in surrounding countries, the KGC prohibited Kuna women from doing so, despite the fact that they are its sole producers and were themselves making the choice to do so. Since then a General Congress of Kuna Women has been created to more fairly address the issue of women’s representation and hopefully strike a balance between issues of intellectual property rights and the economic needs of Kuna women.

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