I think they, the largest indigenous group in Panama, are usually called No-bee. Their history and their place in Panamanian society interest me primarily as a comparison/contrast to the situation of indigenous Canadians. All indigenous groups together total roughly 200,000 in a country with a population approximately the same as Alberta. The Ngäbe-Bugle form the largest indigenous grouping.
When the Spanish conquered the Panama region in the 16th -17th Centuries, the goal was to clear the country of indigenous peoples and populations were violently, brutally decimated or forced into slave labour. The Ngäbe-Bugle had been coastal people but were driven into the mountains of Central Panama where most still subsist on vegetable and fruit cultivation and seasonal employment on coffee and fruit fincas and on ranches belonging to Mestizos. In general, the Ngäbe-Bugle live far below the Panamanian poverty line and the comfortable climate, the abundance of rain are directly responsible for their ability to survive on what is relatively marginal land on steep slopes. The year-round temperature range where the Ngäbe-Bugle live averages ca. 17 to 27 degrees Celsius.
What I find interesting in the Panamanian situation is that indigenous people have found ways to negotiate forcefully with governments and as a result have obtained large swaths of land over which they are sovereign. The Ngäbe-Bugle, for instance, were able to obtain sovereignty over a large homeland when in 1997, the government hived off portions of Chiriqui, Bocas Del Toro and Veraguas provinces to create the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle. The closest equivalent we might find in Canada has been the creation of Nunavut with a great deal of autonomy granted to the indigenous population. The way we think about land sovereignty in Canada might be different if the negotiations for “reserved land” had taken place in the 20th Century instead of in the 19th!
Although the federal system retains taxation and infrastructure control in the Comarcas, the control of how land will be used and by whom is in the hands of elected councils in the Comarcas. I was looking for a route today by which we could get to Buabidi, the largest centre in Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle; the map shows not a single road so I expect that such lack of infrastructure is typical of those regions designated as indigenous territory.
Here in Boquete in Chiriqui Province, it’s obvious that the Ngäbe-Bugle don’t live exclusively in the Comarca. The colourful dresses of their women and the jeans-and-shirt men are abundant in the town square and on the roads leading into Boquete. The similarity to Canada in this regard is obvious. Survival on the marginal lands reserved for indigenous people requires that the opportunity for casual or seasonal plantation or ranch work must be taken. (An aside to this is that wages in Panama are abysmal; a coffee picker might well work a long hot day for $10.00.)
Some things have decidedly been done right. Virtually the entire population of Panama has a school nearby and the literacy rate is as high as Canada’s. Panama has also had a long-standing policy of non-discrimination and ethnic minorities and women can generally find a route to self-sufficiency—everything else being equal.
In contrast to some Latin American countries, Panama has no strong Marxist party, has had no revolution comparable to Cuba or Nicaragua; it’s generally been governed conservatively (since Noriega’s military dictatorship), probably a consequence of the overbearing American presence from the time of independence in 1903 to the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama in 2000.
In essence, European colonialism has left a stench wherever in the world it’s been. The Cree of Saskatchewan and the Ngäbe-Bugle of Panama have all had to live with this smell for a long, long time.