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  • Main languages: Spanish is the predominant and official language. English, Creole, Hakka Chinese and indigenous languages (Buglere, Emberá, Kuna, Ngäbere) are also spoken.

    Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant/Evangelical), indigenous religions, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Baháʼí faith

    Main minorities and indigenous peoples: according to the 2023 Census, 698,114 persons belong to indigenous peoples, constituting 17.2 per cent of the total population. The country is home to eight indigenous peoples, which are Guna/Kuna, with a population of 112,319; Ngäbe, with 444,878; Buglé, with 23,898; Naso/Teribe, with 6,899; Bokota, with 590 people; Emberá, with 51,657; Wounaan, with 10,634; and Bri Bri, with 766. Other indigenous communities have 45,498 members, and 975 individuals did not declare to which community they belong.

    Afro-Panamanians were estimated at 1,286,857 (31.7 per cent) of the population in the 2023 Census. This estimate is considerably higher than the results of the 2010 Census, which recorded 313,289 Afro descendants in Panama. This increase is due to greater self-identification by Afro-Panamanians, alongside expanded measuring methods that allow for greater accuracy in reflecting Panama’s population.

    There is also a significant migrant population in Panama. Immigrants mainly come from countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the United States, the Dominican Republic and China. In recent years, there has been an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the Panama Darien Gap due to the increasing number of migrants attempting to cross it on their journey to North America.

    The majority of the population of Panama is mestizo, or mixed ethnicity. Spanish is the official and pervasive language with English being a common second language used by Afro-Caribbean communities and by many in business and the professions. More than half the population lives in the area between Panama City and Colón.

    Most of the population of Panama works in the service-based economy, which for instance comprises ship registration, tourism, banking and other financial services.

  • Environment

    The Republic of Panama is located on the Isthmus of Panama, which connects Central and South America. On the western border is Costa Rica and to the east is Colombia. The Panama Canal runs between the low-lying Caribbean and Pacific coasts. There are numerous offshore islands.

    According to the 2023 Census, the total population of Panama stands at 4,064,780, making it one of the smallest countries in Spanish-speaking Latin America.

    History 

    Before the arrival of the Spanish in 1501, Panama was densely inhabited by a number of indigenous peoples whose kinship groups extended into the Caribbean as well as South America and along the Isthmus as far north as Honduras. Craftsmanship was highly skilled, for instance in the making of gold huacas or figurines, which were traded north with Mayan cultures in Mexico and south into Colombia. Trade and travel between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts were conducted along a trail established by the indigenous nations. The trail was later adapted and used by the Spanish, who named it ‘Las Cruces’.

    As the narrowest part of the American continent, Panama’s later history has been largely determined by its strategic importance for imperial powers. Following the Spanish arrival, the Isthmus became a major crossroads for intercontinental and transoceanic travel using the Camino Real (Royal Road), which developed out of the original Las Cruces trail. For nearly two centuries it was the principal route for taking large numbers of enslaved Africans to the Pacific Coast colonies like Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and for transferring gold and silver from South American mines to Spain. Today, mestizos of mixed indigenous, African and European ancestry make up the majority of the Panamanian population.

    With the decline of the Spanish empire, in 1821 Panama declared its independence from the Spanish government, and immediately afterwards, it voluntarily decided to join Gran Colombia, led by Simón Bolívar. US efforts to exert influence in the region, particularly with regard to the construction and control of the Panama Canal, were instrumental in the separation of Panama from Colombia years later.

    In 1846, the government of Colombia signed the Mallarino–Bidlack Treaty with the United States, permitting the construction of a railroad across the territory that would run from Panama City beside the Pacific to Colón on the Caribbean coast. In addition to Chinese workers, this brought the first influx of Afro-Caribbean labour migrants who were recruited from Jamaica and other parts of the British West Indies.

    In 1903, the United States supported the secession of Panama from Colombia in order to gain control over the Canal Zone: an eight-kilometre strip of land, on either side of the construction site of the proposed inter-oceanic canal. In exchange for a US guarantee of Panamanian freedom from reincorporation into Colombia, with the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty, the new state granted the United States the right to build and own the canal ‘in perpetuity’. The construction employed over 30,000 Afro-Caribbean ‘diggers’, many of whom stayed after completion. The Canal was opened in 1914, and US involvement in the creation of Panama set a precedent for regular interference in Panamanian affairs.

    In 1939, the country’s protectorate status was ended in a revision of the Canal Treaty which explicitly recognized Panamanian sovereignty. This ushered in an era of ultra-nationalism which had a negative effect on non-Hispanic groups however, while the United States continued to control the Canal Zone. It was not until the 1970s, under the government of Omar Torrijos, that a new form of Panamanian nationalism and a desire for sovereignty brought Afro-Panamanians and the dominant mestizo Spanish speakers together. A concrete result of this process was the Torrijos–Carter Treaties, which led to the revision of the canal treaty in 1977, granting Panama sovereignty over the Canal Zone and affirmed that full operational control would pass into Panamanian hands in December 1999.

    The US arrest of Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega, through a military operation in December 1989 marked a blow to Panamanian sovereignty and a return to a period of US interference in the country’s affairs. Although the full extent of the invasion’s impact remains unknown, it is estimated that more than 2,000 died, many more ‘disappeared’ and 20,000 lost their homes during the first days of the ‘Operación Causa Justa’.

    After the invasion, Panamanian political parties became more cautious about promoting anti-US nationalism. The 1994 elections were won by Ernesto Balladares and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) which was the party of Noriega. The new government toned down the party’s previous anti-US views and focused on trying to attract more investment and expansion of the economic sector.

    In the elections of September 2004 Martín Torrijos (son of Omar Torrijos) of the PRD earned 47 per cent of the vote and assumed a five-year presidential term. Government policies continued to favour a market economy and free-trade arrangements with the United States.

    In May 2009 Panama held general elections in which Panamanians voted for all their elected leaders, from President through National Assembly Deputies to city councilmen and mayors for a five-year term. Ricardo Martinelli from the Democratic Change party, founded in 1998, won the election with 60 per cent of the vote. Martinelli’s government implemented a number of projects during his rule that impacted severely on indigenous communities in the country. This included the outright dismissal of a petition by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to suspend a US$600 million hydroelectric project in the Bocas del Toro province. Subsequently completed in 2011, this particularly affected the Ngäbe-Buglé peoples, displacing many from their homes. Martinelli’s government approved similar projects such as the ‘Barro Blanco’ dam in the same year, which is still ongoing and has caused severe inundations, mass fish killings, damaged sacred sites and destroyed the crops upon which Ngäbe-Buglé communities rely.

    In May 2014, Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez, candidate of the opposition People First Alliance, was elected as President. Martinelli was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term in office and was subsequently implicated in allegations of public embezzlement and wiretapping. Carlos Varela’s government, on the other hand, took some positive initiatives towards indigenous peoples and minorities in the country. Examples included the establishment of political guidelines and a plan of inclusion for Afro-Panamanians, approved by the General Assembly in 2014. Furthermore, in 2016 the National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians (SENADAP) was established. The Ministry of Social Development also created the National Council on the Chinese Ethnic Group as a consultative body in 2015.

    Despite these positive steps, hazardous hydroelectric projects, deforestation, poverty, health, illiteracy and other issues particularly affecting minorities and indigenous peoples persist. Corruption remained a key political issue for the May 2019 presidential elections, which resulted in victory for the Democratic Revolutionary Change Party candidate Laurentino ‘Nito’ Cortizo, who is seen as a centrist and ran on a platform of combatting inequality. Ahead of the country’s May 2024 election, the electoral court upheld the ban on Martinelli running for office again.

    Governance

    Panama’s 1972 Constitution seeks to protect the ethnic identities and native languages of Panama’s population, requiring the government to provide bilingual literacy programmes for indigenous communities. The Family Code recognizes traditional indigenous cultural marriage rites as the equivalent of a civil ceremony.

    In November 1993, following a successful national strike with the support of other social movements, the National Coordination Body of Indigenous Peoples of Panama, made up of Kuna, Emberá and Ngäbe-Buglé leaders, sponsored a national convention to demand the creation of a high-level government commission to implement greater investment in indigenous areas. President Guillermo Endara endorsed these proposals and incorporated the 1992 Agreement on the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC) into domestic law.

    In 2016, the Panamanian National Assembly adopted Law No. 37, which established the requirement of consultation and free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples. While this was positive, indigenous peoples were not consulted in the development of the legislation. Panama has yet to ratify the key indigenous peoples’ rights instrument, namely the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169), although it did vote in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

    The Ministry of Government includes a Vice Minister of Indigenous Affairs, whose office was established in 2013 and is tasked with coordinating the various relevant government offices and projects in order to guarantee the full participation of indigenous peoples. At the time of writing, the current Vice Minister is Ismael A. Jaén who was appointed in February 2023.

    Despite these legal protections and formal equality, indigenous peoples without exception have relatively higher levels of poverty, disease, malnutrition and illiteracy than the rest of the population. The biggest campaigning issue for Panama’s indigenous peoples has been the struggle for land rights in the form of autonomous land reserves.

    The 1972 Constitution required the government to establish comarcas or reserves for indigenous communities, but this policy was not universally implemented. The country has recognized such territories for six of the country’s indigenous peoples. These have a significant degree of autonomy and are free from taxation. These provisions were later supplemented by Law No. 72, adopted in 2008, which enables the demarcation of collective indigenous land titles outside the comarcas. Only five land rights claims have so far been recognized under Law No. 72, however, out of the 29 that have been filed.

    The most recent comarca Naso Tjër Di was established in 2020, granting official recognition to the territory of the Naso people. Its establishment was fraught, having been vetoed by President Juan Carlos Varela in 2018. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Naso people in 2020. However, while the comarca has been recognized, its boundaries have yet to be demarcated, making it difficult to enforce.

    Panama’s indigenous peoples still face a myriad of challenges. These include land rights disputes, inadequate access to education and healthcare, and cultural preservation concerns. The need for sustainable development, improved infrastructure and continued efforts to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples remain crucial priorities in Panama.

  • Panama’s diverse communities, including a sizeable Afro-Panamanian minority, a number of indigenous peoples and a considerable migrant population, face a range of issues involving discrimination and exclusion.

    The country’s indigenous population is protected by law, with numerous provisions in place concerning their rights and identities, such as bilingual literacy programmes. Although a considerable number of indigenous people reside in one of six semi-autonomous regions known as comarcas, there are other traditional indigenous authorities also informally recognized by the government. According to the 2023 Census, the majority of the indigenous population (62.7 per cent) live outside these territories.

    Living standards for indigenous peoples remain low. In 2018, the Human Development Index, which takes into account life expectancy at birth, level of education, and per capita income, was 0.4 in the Emberá, Guna Yala and Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous territories, contrasting with an index of around 0.8 in the rest of the country. Indigenous Panamanians also experience discrimination in other areas, such as employment: for example, the majority of labourers in the country’s agricultural plantations are indigenous and frequently work in unsafe, exploitative conditions.

    Indigenous peoples also contend with land rights violations, including illegal encroachment by settlers and displacement to accommodate the development of hydroelectric dams, often with little in the way of meaningful consultation. For some, this has resulted in decades of uncertainty. The construction of a dam back in the 1970s, for example, was responsible for uprooting Kuna of Madungandí and Emberá of Bayano from their lands, with the government then failing to provide them with secure land title elsewhere. As a result, they now face the threat of being displaced again as illegal settlers have begun to take over their territory. In 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that the State of Panama had violated the American Convention on Human Rights to the detriment of the Kuna and Emberá peoples and their ancestral territories.

    Other projects have had a similarly devastating impact on indigenous peoples, such as the controversial ‘Barro Blanco’ dam, approved without the free, prior and informed consent of the communities affected. Though in September 2016 members of the Ngäbe-Buglé General Congress rejected the planned completion of the dam, Panama’s Supreme Court subsequently ruled in favour of the project. Since then, with the flooding of the river, much of the crops cultivated by Ngäbe-Buglé communities have been destroyed. The waters of the dam have covered ancestral cemeteries and ancient petroglyphs, central to Ngäbe-Buglé religious practice. In May 2018, the Tabasará River was drained for maintenance work, wiping out local fish stocks and leaving Ngäbé-Buglé communities with no source of protein. Although the petroglyphs were temporarily revealed, community members could witness how they had been damaged by being submerged.

    Indigenous peoples in Panama persistently encounter significant challenges stemming from corporate interests that seek to undertake mining projects within their ancestral lands. In September 2023, the Ngäbe-Buglé peoples voiced their concerns, asserting that the approval of a mining project would result in irreversible environmental and territorial consequences. Furthermore, at the outset of 2023, Joaquín González, a representative of the Bri Bri indigenous people in the province of Bocas del Toro, conveyed that illegal deforestation, encroachments upon their lands, unauthorized roadblocks and various other issues concerning environmental stewardship are regular occurrences.

    On the occasion of the commemoration of ‘Hispanic Day’ on 12 October 2023, officials representing the indigenous peoples of Panama, collectively constituting the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples (COONAPIP), participated in a march aimed at recollecting the extermination of entire civilizations.

    The Afro-Panamanian community also faces issues concerning economic marginalization, lack of political representation and regular discrimination in everyday life, with some employers reportedly favouring lighter-skinned candidates, especially for senior level or high-profile positions. Though the community has been very active in recent years in campaigning for greater recognition, with the government having implemented a number of measures to promote inclusion such as the creation of the National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians (SENADAP) in 2016, Afro-Panamanians still struggle with wider social marginalization.

    The situation of Afro-Panamanian women is particularly dire. A 2020 study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme revealed that Afro-descendant women in Panama confront a multitude of challenges stemming from racism and poverty, which hinder their ability to lead fulfilling lives. According to the study, among Afro-descendant women situated in the lowest quintile, which represents the most impoverished segment of the population, 68 per cent of them lack access to social security, and 20 per cent are not engaged in formal employment.

    LGBTQI+ groups in Panama still face harassment and discrimination, and while Panamanian law forbids discrimination against individuals with HIV/AIDS in employment and education, this is often not enforced in practice. This holds particularly true for indigenous peoples, whose members experience the highest level of negative attitudes when living with HIV/AIDS (77.8 per cent for women and 76.9 per cent for men) compared to non-indigenous Panamanians (42.6 per cent for women and 45.2 per cent for men). At the same time, contraceptive protection is also harder to access, with 50.2 per cent of indigenous women and 20.9 per cent of indigenous men reporting lack of a condom when they needed one, compared to 18.1 per cent of non-indigenous women and 3.7 of non-indigenous men. According to reports published in 2020, the Ngäbe-Buglé peoples are among the indigenous communities most affected by HIV; the disease had a prevalence of 2.1 per cent in rapid HIV tests taken in their territory. This was in contrast to the 0.3 per cent and 0.5 per cent prevalence rates found in the non-indigenous population (among women and men, respectively).

    With regard to the large-scale migratory flow passing through the country, in the year leading up to September 2023, there was a record of 400,000 migrants who crossed Panama’s Darien Gap, the perilous passage that links Panama and Colombia. Most of these migrants embarking on this journey through the jungle are of Venezuelan origin, with others coming from countries like Ecuador and Haiti. The Darien Gap, being the sole land route from South America northwards towards the United States, has evolved into the most hazardous migratory route in the Americas, leading to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

    According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, migrants are exposed to many of the risks linked human trafficking and people smuggling, including sexual violence, which is an especially serious threat to children, women, LGBTQI+ people and persons with disabilities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration state that individuals often depart from their home countries for economic motives, primarily linked to the absence of employment opportunities. Additionally, over half of these individuals mention leaving their countries due to a prevailing sense of insecurity or threats, as well as direct attacks against them and their family members. UNHCR issued an urgent call in 2023 for a regional protection-based solution to address this humanitarian crisis in the Americas.

  • General

     

    Chinese Panamanians

     

    Indigenous peoples

     

    Ngäbe-Buglé

     

    Kuna

     

    Emberá and Wounaan (Chocó)

    Afro-Panamanians

Updated May 2024

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