In Panama, industrialized agriculture and increased infrastructure development are causing tropical rainforests to be destroyed at an alarming rate. For the Kuna of Panama's Northern coast, who represent 25% of the country's Indigenous People, the destruction of rainforests is devastating food security, livelihoods, and the maintenance of traditional knowledge.1 Today, 98 percent of Panama's Indigenous population lives in poverty. As native plants and agricultural seeds disappear from the forests that the Kuna have managed sustainably for centuries, communities are faced with increased poverty and a loss of intellectual property rights.
Climate change is exacerbating the destruction of Panama's biodiversity as increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere slow the growth of native forests. Indigenous women, who are primarily responsible for providing food, fresh water, and medicinal plants to their families, bear the brunt of this ecological destruction.Plan Puebla-Panama, which proposes to build highways, railroads, and other infrastructure across Indigenous territories in Central America, is the latest in a long line of "development" projects that violate Indigenous rights. Plan Puebla-Panama would destroy precious rainforests, deny local people access to resources such as land and water, which would become private, and force Indigenous Peoples from their territories-all in the name of economic growth. Even some more benevolent-sounding "eco-tourism" projects on Indigenous Kuna lands threaten to displace collective Indigenous economic practices in favor of models of private ownership and individual profit. Often, visitors to "eco-tourism" projects are not aware that these programs may undermine Indigenous traditions by commodifying natural resources and placing price tags on the cultures of local communities.
Indigenous women in Panama have few opportunities to participate in formal political processes and limited means to protect their environment, culture, and language, despite their central role in maintaining and transmitting these aspects of Indigenous life. In many Indigenous communities, including among the Kuna People, women are integral to the process of recovery and protection of traditional knowledge, particularly knowledge related to the arts and to biological diversity.
Plan Puebla-Panama seeks to create an extensive free-trade zone, build a giant network of highways and railroads and develop the oil and electric industries from Mexico's Puebla state all the way to Panama. Some of Mexico's largest oil reserves are thought to lie beneath autonomous Zapatista communities in Chiapas, where the struggle for democratic rights is underlaid by a contest for control over this valuable resource. "You can see which areas are thought to be richest in oil," explained one member of MADRE's Chiapas sister organization, Kinal Antzetik. "These are the places where the government has stationed the most troops." For Indigenous farmers who live in these areas, more oil wells mean the loss of more precious farmland and the further erosion of their way of life.
The US government is using Plan Puebla-Panama and the resulting investments of US corporations as a pretext to increase military assistance throughout Central America. Plan Puebla-Panama is bringing maquilas (sweatshops) to Chiapas, taking advantage of rising unemployment created by NAFTA; privatizing land collectively owned by Indigenous communities; displacing tens of thousands more poor families; and encouraging biopiracy, whereby pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies exploit Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and patent the plants for profit. Communities that are threatened by these developments, including several of MADRE's sister organizations, are opposing the Plan Puebla-Panama and insisting on human rights for local and Indigenous Peoples.
- Panama Census, 2000