RFUS’s Mapping Coordinator, Carlos Doviaza, was featured in an NPR article that describes how his maps are helping indigenous communities in Panama assert their land rights and track COVID-19.
Started working in 2010
Work with partners representing 30 communities
Support the protection of 625,000 hectares of indigenous land
Panama is 63.4% forested, Panama has the highest forest cover of any country in Central America. Its forests sequester on average some 160 tons of carbon per hectare and include extensive mangrove and cloud forest ecosystems.
As the singular land bridge connecting Central and South America, Panama is a key biological corridor for migratory birds and numerous other species. It is home to 1,500 known animal species and 10,000 known plant species, including emblematic species such as the jaguar, peccary, and harpy eagle.
Numbering half a million, indigenous peoples make up approximately 12% of the country’s total population. Panama’s seven indigenous peoples include the Ngäbe, Buglé, Guna, Emberá, Wounaan, Bri Bri, and Naso Tjërdi peoples.
The comarca system formally recognizes 5 indigenous territories as semi autonomous provinces, totaling 1.7 million hectares.
However, 30 more indigenous territories were left out of the comarca system and remain to be titled. These untitled lands – totalling 625,000 hectares of largely intact tropical forest – are under constant threat from ranching, logging and land invasions.
Despite public promises to prioritize forest protection, between 2001 and 2019, Panama lost 414,000 hectares (or 7.3%) of its tree cover, including 73,000 hectares of primary rainforest. The Darien region saw the most deforestation in that period, amounting to 104,000 ha of tree cover loss.
Indigenous land rights in Panama faces the triple threat of quickly increasing deforestation pressure, a government that is slow to recognize indigenous rights in or near protected areas and a dangerous border with neighboring Colombia – where migrants, drug traffickers and paramilitary organizations create a risky environment for indigenous communities and forests.
Main drivers of deforestation in Panama include cattle ranching and logging which are moving together as the agricultural frontier expands into primary forests. Illegal incursions by miners and ranchers onto indigenous lands are commonplace and the source of growing tensions and conflicts, which have at times turned violent and led to the loss of lives of indigenous land defenders in Panama. The expansion of commercial oil palm, the road network and mining and infrastructure are other sources of deforestation in Panama, as is the growing number of annual forest fires.
Rainforest Foundation US works in eastern Panama and the Darien. The Darien, comprising the only gap in the approximately 30,000 km-long Pan American Highway, contains roughly 1.33 million hectares of intact primary forest ecosystems. A global biodiversity hotspot, its rugged mountains, forests and coastlines make the Darien one of Central America’s most iconic landscapes.
RFUS and partners in Panama are working to secure formal land titles to 625,000 hectares of indigenous peoples’ lands in the Darien, and protect those forests and communities from quickly growing threats. Our work in Panama leverages exceptional indigenous on-the-ground technical talent in mapping monitoring and land management, with national level advocacy and strong regional leadership.
Our current initiatives in Panama include:
RFUS works with all of our partners to actively monitor their forests and secure their territories. We train community leaders and youth in forest monitoring techniques – including GPS and GIS systems, smart phones and drones – to document and submit evidence of environmental crimes with government authorities.
RFUS works with Embera and Wounaan communities to build participatory, bottom-up management plans to protect their forests and to map territories to accurately establish communities boundaries for title expansion requests.
Policy & Advocacy
RFUS policy support focuses on advancing the land rights of indigenous peoples in Panama and untangling the legal obstacles to titling of collective lands in or overlapped by the official protected areas system, including technical negotiations with the government. RFUS also supports national advocacy and campaigns related to land rights and titling.
Land Titling & Legal Intervention
Since 2010, RFUS has worked with organizations representing the Guna, Embera and Wounaan and others to improve that national process for recognizing indigenous land, while also documenting and filing more than a dozen large scale land claims.
Support Our Work
Rainforest Foundation US is tackling the major challenges of our day: deforestation, the climate crisis, and human rights violations. Your donation moves us one step closer to creating a more sustainable and just future.