Election opens door to implementing Panama’s progressive law protecting the land rights of Indigenous Peoples
Panama’s legal framework for protecting the land rights of Indigenous peoples is one of the world’s most progressive, particularly with regards to indigenous ‘comarcas’, administrative regions with a degree of autonomy. Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land are enshrined in Panama’s constitution. Despite this, 27 indigenous communities have not yet managed to successfully complete the process for securing collective title to their lands. 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.
Panama’s national assembly affirmed the rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2008 when it passed Law No. 72 establishing the procedures for titling indigenous land that were left out of the comarca system. 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. Yet, 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 National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP), with Tenure Facility support, is accelerating the titling of indigenous lands and building the capacity of Indigenous People to defend their rights against encroachment.
Who are the Indigenous Peoples of Panama?
There are seven Indigenous Peoples in Panama: Ngäbe, Buglé, Guna, Emberá, Wounaan, Bri bri and Naso Tjërdi. According to the 2010 national census, they together represent 417,559 people or 12% of the Panamanian population.The Afro-descendant population, which is significant in Panama, does not claim its rights as collective subjects.