Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 431 | Junio 2017



The forests are alive and they are sacred

Although President Donald Trump may deny it, climate change is already posing a real threat to humanity. It is the most pressing environmental challenge the world faces. If we don’t halt it, the woods, a source of life, will be extinguished. The following experience, begun in Panama’s Ngäbe-Buglé Region, offers a small great hope, perhaps an inspiration for other communities.

Jorge Sarsanedas

A document titled “Management Plan for the Community Forests of Cerro Flores, Cerro Congo and Llano Seblés” prepared by the Ngäbe residents of those mainly hilly areas, states, “Forests are a renewable natural resource that offers us many benefits in order to live, but we don’t know how to care for our woodlands, to enrich and protect them so they continue providing us those benefits: water, oxygen, food, firewood, lumber, shade, animal protein, medicine, vines, lianas… If we don’t nurture and enrich our forests we will lose this treasure that nature has provided us. So our future generations enjoy the same opportunity to receive this benefit, we must care for and enrich the kätogwä (forest), in what is [officially] known as a Forest Management Plan. Management implies how and when to make use of our wooded resources, without destroying them, so we will always be able to rely on them, what benefits we can take out without affecting the forests. This is a major task we must analyze.”

Conserve or recover?

“As an initiative of a group of families from Cerro Flores and Sebles,” says the document, “we decided to work together to protect and enrich the forest so the future generations will have the same right and opportunity to use it. It is better to conserve the resources (forest, water and other existing resources) so they remain in their natural environment. It is not a matter of recovering resources because that would take a long time and it would cost more to replant with species from outside their natural habitat.”

Although Donald Trump denies it, climate change is a reality; it is wiping us out and if we don’t halt it, the forests, our source of life, will disappear. This is the greatest environmental challenge we face. Scientists agree that to succeed in this effort it is imperative that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the increase in carbon dioxide. Tropical forests act as carbon dioxide deposits, so it is essential that we restore, reforest, rehabilitate and remedy them. It is fundamental work.

We need to define objectives

When thinking about reforestation or forest rehabilitation projects, we must be aware not only of socioeconomic factors, but also biophysical ones. Water availability is very important, as is temperature and humidity. The forest soils’ fertility levels, specific nutrients, rockiness and compactness must also be taken into account, as must the upheavals that have occurred there and the conditions of the areas bordering the forests. Moreover, it’s necessary to imitate natural processes and define what is wanted from the forest, defining objectives and evaluating costs.

Why deforestation is advancing

Upon observing Panama’s forests, Panamanian researcher Stanley Heckadon Moreno warned us back in 2009 that “one of the objectives of the national economic development strategies in the 1960s and 70s was ‘to incorporate forests into the national economy.’ They were seen as an obstacle to progress, a symbol of backwardness. These strategies brought about unprecedented ecological changes. In 1950, 75% of the land in Central America was covered by forests. Today, it is only some 30%. Panama’s deforestation alone is estimated at almost 50,000 hectares.”

The forests that covered 70% of Panama in 1947 shrank to 53% by 1970 and to 44.7% by 1992. Twenty-five more years have passed since then, and the deforestation has continued unabated. As Heckadon Moreno dramatically put it, “We destroyed more forested land over the second half of the 20th century than in the 500 preceding years.”

Now forests are found only within Panama’s indigenous territories and in protected areas. Twelve bioecological zones have been defined, 45% of which are rainforests and very wet rainforests, with two different rainfall systems, one on the Caribbean side and the other on the Pacific side. These two kinds of pre-mountainous rainforests cover 33.5% of the territory. But even there, wooded lands are shrinking, which confirms the urgency of taking action.

We were once rich in forests

The Ngäbe-Buglé people in Panama have a political territory created in 1997 that covers approximately 7,000 square kim and has 203,185 inhabitants as of the 2014 census. It is divided into three regions (Nidrini, Kädriri and Nö Kribo), 9 districts and 70 district subdivisions known as corregimientos.

According to 2015 Ministry of Economics and Finances data, 67.8% of its population lives in extreme poverty, meaning they cannot satisfy their most basic needs: potable water, housing, health, sanitation and access to information.

Back in 1790, a researcher quoting various studies described Panama’s indigenous peoples as residing in the jungles and forests of both the east and the west. By 1880, studies of the forests in what is today Ngäbe-Buglé territory cited a great variety of classified animal and vegetable species.

Three years later, the English entomologist George C. Champion, who studied the insects of Chiriquí and the archipelago of Las Perlas, still mentioned “dense forests” in what are today the area’s municipalities of Müna and Mironä. That same year, botanist John H. Hart found forests on the coasts and islands he explored of what is now known as Bocas del Toro. Decades later, in 1938, US botanist Robert Woodson still spoke of forests “near the village of Canquintú.” But with the passage of time, population increases and poor cultivation methods have added to the loss of all those forests in today’s Ngäbe-Buglé territory.

Native trees have disappeared and erosion can been seen on the hillsides. Added to this is the fact that 85% of the area has what the US soil conservation system classifies as VII and VIII soils, with limited concentration of organic material. The first four of that system’s eight categories are adequate for agricultural cultivation with specific practices for their use and management. Categories V, VI and VII aren’t considered tillable with modern mechanized techniques, but can be used for mountainous crops, perennial plantations and specifically native or cultivated forests. Category VIII is only considered suitable for national parks, recreation, wildlife and the protection of hydrographic basins.

The laws support us

National and international laws justify our forest conservation efforts. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, approved in September 2007, states in articles 29 and 32 that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources” and “the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources.” Articles 13 to 19 of the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), adopted in June 1989, also speaks of indigenous rights to land and its resources. This agreement was ratified by 14 countries in Latin America, although not by Panama.

Panama’s own Law 10, which created the Ngäbe-Buglé territory, also addresses ownership of, rights to and usufruct of its lands. Articles 47 to 50 regulate issues related to the natural resources, while articles 17 to 45 of the Organizational Charter addresses the lands and their ownership and Title VI regulates the issue of national resources.

A project on behalf of life

Given this whole problematic, three Ngäbe-Buglé communities (Bababotdä-Cerro Flores, Öbabitdi-Cerro Congo and Sablebitdi-Llano Seblés) in the Münä district of the Kädriri Region met to analyze the limitations they are already suffering. They proposed to work on a management plan for their communal forest in the upper Cuvibora River basin, a zone ranging from 1,000 to to 1,200 meters above sea level. In their language, the project will be called “Kätogwä bro nire-Katogwä – bro deme. The forests are alive – The forests are sacred.”

Its direct beneficiaries will be some 105 individuals from the three communities and it will seek to improve their livelihoods as well as and the communities’ traditions and rights, developing the forest so it doesn’t continue to be destroyed, recovering natural species and edible plants, seeking ways to help the ecosystem so the forest’s medicinal resources aren’t lost, protecting the forest so the animals survive and multiply to serve the communities, and conserving and improving the sources of water in the forest. All these actions will help improve the economic situation and strengthen the identity of the indigenous people.

Myths and music that enrich them

A number of activities were undertaken over a year and a half to achieve these objectives. Quite a few training sessions dealt with different themes for the leaders and their communities: practical forest management, how to establish mixed orchards with fruit and timber trees; watering with a drip system; seedbed construction; detection of harmful insects; and how to maintain vegetable crops in the forest for human food consumption, medicine and rituals.

We in the archdiocesan indigenous pastoral team also made several investigative visits to the forests and the cultivations. Community meetings were held to ensure that the three communities joined efforts and coordinated the work as much as possible. In all of these meetings we listened to songs and stories related to their forests and care of our “common home” as Pope Francis so rightly called it in his encyclical “Laudato Si´.” We heard how Mirónomo Krónomo fought against the Nngwoin who enslaved us and how the four sukia (shamans) combined forces to fight against the magatda (the evil serpent). We heard of the feats of Jiron Dai and Ulikon and the histories of Mesi Kwira ande Sami Kebe.

The singers summoned the trees, the birds and bush animals, all the living beings that surround and accompany us. Listening to all of this enriches and strengthens them by giving them their identity, their strength and a sense of their continuity based on their history and their people.

Our trees and our animals

In the gatherings, local knowledge about the region’s place names was shared and possible volunteers, collaborators and alliances with other organizations were reflected on. Concrete tasks were also performed: seed collection, development of seedling nurseries and repair of the Piedra de Diablo pathway.

More than seven gullies that provide water were identified as were 14 species native to our surroundings, among them three edible leaves (ka ogwä, mitdra and ngröga), ñürün, beans, corn, calabash, chayote, bananas, plantains, citrus fruits, avocados and coffee. They have also learned to cultivate particularly nutritious species such as tomatoes, hot pepper, onions, potatoes, celery and cabbage. Some of the animals and birds we found, among them deer, peccary, armadillo, squirrels, turkey hens and bush cockerels, are for food and others help maintain the surroundings and the ecosystem.

In the forest we also found both timber-bearing and fruit trees that are useful for everyday life: bitter cedar, spiny cedar, oak, medlar, mountain mangrove, guava tree, soursop, avocado, jaguar, balsa, peach palm and others. We found numerous medicinal plants, edible mushrooms, lianas and other, materials for artisans and wood for housing construction and firewood.

An evaluation we did in the workshops found that aside from the successes they had accomplished, they also had failures. Among them was the confirmation of an impression given us at the beginning that this would be the work of “the old people,” with youths not joining us in the numbers we would have liked. The coordination with the area’s schools was similarly less than hoped for. This is particularly viewed as a failure as children, adolescents and young adults are our future and we work for their benefit. Moreover, their teachers could be great awareness-building allies in this struggle.

An example for others

At the end of a year and a half, we’ve reached various conclusions. We’ve confirmed the importance of organizing to defend, protect and care for the common forests we have access to, maintaining and promoting them, and making them produce given the numerous benefits the communities receive from them. We want to continue doing and improving this work because it not only benefits them, but also many other people in the region and it can be an example for many. Our communities are aware of the importance of the work they’ve accomplished and plan to continue.

We’ve seen the importance of creating alliances with government and private institutions and with colleges, schools and churches in the area. It’s a way to involve everyone and grow stronger. We’re convinced of the importance of this people’s history and for that reason we’ll continue meeting to share both it and their myths, in accord with their culture, inviting schools and teachers.

The work that lies ahead

After the initial education that made us more aware of the importance of the forests and the life they provide us, several work and project proposals emerged:
.Form Councils of Elders or Wise Ones to strengthen their cultural identity and preserve their traditions, customs, histories and rites.
.Keep maintaining the nurseries of native fruit and lumber trees.
.Continue planting seedlings to improve the community woodlands.
.Strengthen family production (chickens, layers, rabbits, bees, vegetables) to help their economy while they maintain the forests.
.Continue learning different techniques of woodland and family farm management.
.Keep collecting and mapping medicinal plants.
.Analyze the possibility of forming a group of cabinetmakers in the communities.
.Continue to maintain and protect the water sources, bringing them to the communities’ attention.
.Make a map of the hydric network and complete it with a management plan.
.Seek possibilities of drying certain plants and preparing compounds such as mren kugwon (prepared by grinding together egg shells, fish bones and salt), all for both consumption and commercialization.
.Work with different area schools on projects related to forest maintenance and to culture.
.Strengthen the alliances we already have and work on others.
.Complete the creation of a map of their forests’ cultural wealth: places, paths, related stores, water sources, elevations, caves…
.Inventory the forests by community and continue what we have already begun.
.Begin an ecological tourism program in the zone.
.Work with store owners to improve recycling efforts and create consciousness in the communities.

What remains to us of our “common home”

Faced with the alliance of the powerful, we small ones are organizing in alliance with the trees, water, animals and plants. Good Living (Buen Vivir or nunanga kwin, the Ngäbe-Buglé term for it,) will arise from these alliances. We have no other pathway. We will fight to defend to the utmost what remains to us: our Common Home: (Nuestra Casa Comun or Ju Nungwe).

Jorge Sarsaneda is a member of the Indigenous Pastoral Team of the Archdiocese of Panama.

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