By Steven Schnoor and Felipe Pérez-Jvostov
We’ve all seen images of rampant deforestation across some of the largest forests around the world. To us, these grim images are merely a distant reality that we see on the news and share on social media. To many indigenous peoples, however, these images define their daily battle in preserving their traditional territories and lifestyles. Nonetheless, not all stories make it to the news.
During our fieldwork in Panama (Steven studying the politics of engagement with local communities residing near Canadian mines in Central America, and Felipe studying how river-damming can influence the morphology of tropical fishes), we both got to experience first-hand the pervasive loss of habitats within the traditional territories of indigenous communities in Panama.
In the North Santa Fe, where Steven had previously worked, there are several rapidly progressing infrastructure development projects, including a recently constructed highway to the Caribbean Sea and a planned hydroelectric cable, both of which traverse the traditional territory of the Ngäbe and Buglé. Despite the fact that the Panamanian government has recently declared the entirety of their traditional territory to be a new national park – the Parque Nacional Reverendo Padre Jesús Héctor Gallego Herrera – the development projects have recently facilitated the entry into the region of land speculators and possible resource extraction projects.
On the East side of the country, where Felipe was doing his research, the Emberá Drua of the Majé River face a completely different set of environmental issues than those of the Ngäbe and Buglé: hydroelectric dam development and illegal slash-and-burn deforestation for cattle pasture have destroyed approximately 20,850 acres of the forest that once existed. Without legal titles to the land they inhabit, the Emberá of Majé have long been demanding the Panamanian government to enforce the conservation of their forest. These demands have not yet been met.
With the destruction of these natural habitats we lose more than biodiversity. The livelihoods of indigenous communities like the Emberá, Ngäbé and Buglé are closely intertwined with the plants and animals around them. Traditional names and uses of endemic species are being lost at almost the same rate as the forests in which they live. Biocultural conservation and the preservation of traditional knowledge is significant now more than ever.
During meetings with Rogelio Urriola, President of the Congreso Ngäbé-Buglé and campesino of the North Santa Fe region of Panama, and Lázaro Mecha and Ceferino Zarco, representatives of the Majé Emberá territory in the Bayano region, we discussed the primary threats to biological and cultural diversity in their regions. We developed a multidisciplinary project that would bring their current environmental situation into the spotlight: Felipe would develop community mapping and GIS methodologies in collaboration with the Majé Emberá, and Steven would develop audio-visual communication workshops with the Ngäbé and Buglé.
The work with the Majé Emberá started by comparing, from the Emberá perspective, their historical and their currently vastly degraded territory. The first map retraces the Majé Watershed, and what was once the Bayano River, during the first half of the twentieth century. The second map displays the rapid loss of biodiversity due to the combined pressures of dam development and frontier expansion. This work was spearheaded by Carmen Umana, who spent several weeks in Majé closely working with the community.
The work with the Ngäbé and Buglé started with workshops on audio-visual communication technologies and methodologies. Steven trained 9 community members using audio-visual equipment provided by CICADA. This training has been extremely valuable, as it provides the Ngäbé and Buglé the skills to investigate, document, and disseminate the biological and cultural diversity on their territories, and the threats facing them.
The next steps for this endeavour will be to train our indigenous partners on the use of GIS, and develop an ethnobotanic encyclopedia to investigate and document the specific drivers of habitat degradation within their traditional territories, the various ways in which these threats impact upon their cultures and the strategies for staving off these impacts and preserving the biological and cultural diversity that they now strive to defend. We will have a dedicated website where we will portray the stories (video, photo, and community maps) of how these communities struggle to defend their territories and the biodiversity therein. We hope this website will bring their issues into light and engage the broader Panamanian society to address them.
We would like to thank the QCBS for the support of this project through the HQP grant awarded to Steven and Felipe. We also received funding from CICADA, BESS, and PRISM.
Felipe Perez-Jvostov is a former postdoctoral researcher studying the effects of river damming on the morphology of tropical fish lineages, and the integration of multidisciplinary approaches to solve environmental and social issues. He currently works at the Office of Innovation and Partnerships at McGill.
Steven Schnoor works as a Research Associate with CICADA – the Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives, based at the Dept. of Anthropology at McGill, and teaches part-time at the Dept. of Communication Studies at Concordia. For over a decade, he has worked with Indigenous and local communities throughout Latin America and beyond, that are facing threats to their lives, livelihoods and territories through state-imposed development projects, such as large-scale metal mines.