Panama’s legal framework for protecting the land rights of Indigenous peoples is one of the world’s most progressive. Indigenous People’s rights to land are enshrined in Panama’s constitution. The threats to the land rights of Indigenous Peoples come not from the law, but from increasing competition for access to lands that are claimed by Indigenous Peoples but are not yet titled. Competition for indigenous lands comes from private sector, the landless poor, and government claims to protected areas.
The national assembly affirmed the rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2008 when it passed Law No. 72 establishing the procedures for titling indigenous land. Panama’s Supreme Court of Justice affirmed again indigenous rights when it declared Indigenous Peoples have the right to occupy their indigenous lands whether or not they possessed legal title. Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of an indigenous group in Panama. Yet, despite these advances, implementation of indigenous rights lags far behind Panama’s aspirations. For decades, Panama’s central government has emphasized economic investment at the expense of Indigenous Peoples’ tenure rights. With the election of President Juan Carlos Varela in 2014 there appeared to be new political will in Panama to make significant advances.
The Tenure Facility pilot project, completed in 2017, capitalized on these emerging opportunities. The National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP), with Tenure Facility support, is accelerated the titling of indigenous lands and built the capacity of Indigenous People to defend their rights against encroachment.
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