While pockets of the indigenous peoples of the isthmus can be found all over the country, either clinging to vestiges of their way of life or assimilating fully into the Panamanian mainstream, most still live on their ancestral lands. Comarcas (semiautonomous reservations) are still being established.
Most Kuna (pop. 62,000) live in one of three comarcas. The largest of these is Kuna Yala, or the San Blas Archipelago, which includes a strip of mainland and a string of nearly 400 coral islands that extends down the eastern Caribbean coast from Colón province to the Colombian border.
The other two Kuna comarcas, Madungandí and Wargandí, are on the Caribbean slope of the Darién rainforest. The Kunas refer to themselves as Tule, though they recognize the name Kuna as well. The name is sometimes spelled “Cuna,” but that’s now considered anachronistic.
The Emberá (pop. 22,000) and Wounaan (pop. 7,000) live in comarcas on both the Caribbean and Pacific slopes of the Darién. They are culturally similar, but speak different languages. In the past they have been known collectively as the Chocos, but the name is seldom used today. Emberá-Wounaan is preferred when speaking of them as a group.
The Ngöbe (pop. 170,000) and Buglé (pop. 18,000) have traditionally been known as the Guaymi, but the name is increasingly falling out of favor. Ngöbe-Buglé (NO-bay BOO-glay) is preferred when speaking of them collectively. Like the Emberá and Wounaan, they are culturally similar but speak different languages. They are by far the largest indigenous group in Panama. Most live in the mountains of western Panama. In 1997, they gained their own, enormous comarca, carved out of the provinces of Chiriquí, Bocas del Toro, and Veraguas.
The remaining recognized indigenous people are the Naso, also known as the Teribe (pop. 3,800), who live along the rivers on the mainland of Bocas del Toro and are trying to gain comarca status; the Bri Bri (pop. 2,500), who also live in Bocas del Toro; and the Bokota (pop. 993), whose few surviving members live in eastern Bocas del Toro and northwest Veraguas.
Most indigenous people make a living through subsistence farming, fishing, and hunting. The Kuna and Emberá-Wounaan are also able to bring in some cash through the sale of their handicrafts, which are prized by collectors around the world. Many Ngöbe-Buglé work on coffee plantations in the Chiriquí highlands. Indigenous peoples are increasingly experimenting with tourism, especially ecotourism, to improve their economic conditions. By far the most experienced at this are the Kuna, who have allowed foreign tourists on their islands for decades.
Unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, and poor health are consistently highest among the indigenous people. An estimated 95 percent live in poverty, most in extreme poverty, defined as trying to get by on less than US$1 a day. Poorest of all are the Ngöbe-Buglé.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition