Ecotourism in Panama

GoNOMAD writer Jon Kohl discovers that The Emberá Indians have found a way of life that incorporates traditions and new trends in ecotourism. He writes about his experience in his article Up the River: A Lesson in Community-Based Ecotourism in Panama.

“Originally from the Darien region of Panama near Colombia, a few Emberá Indians migrated to the Rio Chagres area in the 1920s, the river that feeds the Panama Canal. Their numbers have grown since, and although in the ecotourism business only five years, they are trying to write the text on community-based ecotourism.

As they tune my welcoming, women and children run down from their village. They smile and wave. The sunny reds and oranges of their traditional garb profile them against the cool background green of the rainforest. The most expensive hotels in Panama City could not offer a warmer welcome. Jorge smiles, “Bienvenidos a Emberá Drua.”His wife, Crecencia, then shows us how they make baskets and the natural black, brown, orange, and red dyes, how they carve figures in wood and the ivory-like seed tagua. Later the Emberá treat us to traditional dances, fried plantains and fish, and body painting. Some tourists hike the nature trail and others go swimming. Jorge tells me that tourists can canoe, fish, bird-watch, or just relax. After two or three hours, the tourists pack up and head down river.

Before the Panamanian government declared the Rio Chagres area a national park the subsistence Emberá hunted and farmed and struggled for their rights. With the declaration, they had to look for an alternative. Most local groups would have fought, as they do throughout Central America when governments restrict their economic activity, but not the Emberá. Instead, they had a Renaissance.”