Securing Indigenous peoples’ land rights and protecting forests in the Darien Gap


Started working in 2010


Work with partners representing 30 communities

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Support the protection of 625,000 hectares of Indigenous land

Our Work

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:

Territorial Monitoring

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.

Land Management

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.


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.

Indigenous  Peoples

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 five 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. 


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CGTCEWP – Congreso General de Tierras Colectivas Embera y Wounaan de Panamá

The General Congress of the Embera y Wounaan Collective Lands of Panama is the representative body for the Embera and some of the Wounaan communities outside of the Embera Wounaan Comarca, and has been on the forefront of the struggle for land rights for many years.

CNPW – Congreso Nacional del Pueblo Wounaan

National Congress of the Wounaan People is the representative body of the Wounaan people inside and outside of the Comarca, with elected leaders who fight for the Wounaan at the national level. The CNPW has an associated Wounaan Foundation which is the project management arm of the Congress.

COONAPIP – Coordinadora Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas de Panamá

National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama is the national umbrella representative organization of Panama’s indigenous peoples’ organizations founded in 1999 to lead the fight for indigenous land rights, respect for indigenous culture and other priorities.

Congreso General Ancestral Tule de Tagarkunyala

Congreso General Ancestral Tule de Tagarkunyala represents the Guna people in the communities of Paya and Pucuru, and the large territory considered the ancestral homeland of the Guna people, including the sacred mountain of Tagarkunyal. The Tagarkunyal territory is completely inside the Darien National Park, making them a key ally for the sustainable management of Central America’s largest protected area.

Geo Indigena

Geo Indigena is a newly formed civil association led by indigenous youth with a focus on providing training and capacity building for mapping, monitoring, and community natural resource management with indigenous traditional governance structures and the indigenous movement regionally. RFUS has been supporting the development and organizational launch of GeoIndigena for the past few years. GeoIndigena received legal recognition in mid-2020, and will be a key partner for RFUS in coming years.

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Didier Devers
Chief of Party – USAID Guatemala

Didier has been coordinating the USAID-funded B’atz project since joining Rainforest Foundation US in April 2022. He holds a Master’s in Applied Anthropology and a Bachelor’s in Geography. Before joining the organization, Didier worked for 12 years in Central and South America on issues of transparency, legality, governance, and managing stakeholders’ processes in the environmental sector. Prior to that he worked on similar issues in Central Africa. He speaks French, Spanish, and English, and is based in Guatemala.