The Waounan of Panama

The village of Arimae in the Darien of Panama is remote – not necessarily by distance, but by accessibility. It’s about a four-hour drive from Panama City, but if you, like most of its residents, don’t have a car, it can be an arduous journey. Arimae has a primary school but no secondary school, access to clean water but no permanent clinic or medical professionals.

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Arimae, Panama (March 2013)

Arimae is populated by indigenous people – Waounan and Embera, who share many cultural similarities, the main difference being that historically the Embera were warriors and the Waounan artists. Their former hunter-gatherer lifestyle was effectively destroyed by the construction of the Pan-American highway in the late 1970s, which required huge swaths of forest to be cut down. Today, they rely mainly on agriculture for their income, as well as selling artisanal crafts.

Sugar is one of Panama’s main exports. Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the Americas in 1493, where it was first cultivated by slaves on plantations in the Caribbean islands, primarily Hispaniola. In Arimae, sugar cane is also made into juice – jugo de caña is made by hand using a machine called a trapiche.

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Waounan women and children making sugarcane juice using a trapiche

In Panama, indigenous people have kept a fairly strong grip on their culture. The Christian missionaries never managed to get a firm grip on these populations, so in Arimae the people have maintained many of their traditional beliefs and celebrations. Waounan and Embera women traditionally wore only skirts called palomas, made out of palm fibers – today, they wear shirts and their palomas are made of cotton. Both men and women paint their bodies with jagua dye for ceremonies.

This community faces problems common to indigenous peoples in the developing world – pure subsistence living is no longer feasible, and they must now generate an income. Western medicine (which has replaced traditional healing practices) is expensive, and in order to fight for their political rights, they need a modern education, which is also costly. Perhaps the biggest issue for this community is a lack of official land titles, which they need to be able to exploit their land commercially.

Amandari Kanagaratnam