In-Depth Information on the Emberá People and the Darién
Panama: The isthmus connecting Central with South-America
The village Playa Muerto lies in the beautiful Darién National Park, in Panama’s (south-) eastern-most province of the same name. Bordering with Colombia, the Darién province is densely covered by rain forest and sparsely populated, at only 4 inhabitants per km2. Its capital is La Palma.
The Darién National Park is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and extends across some 5’750 km2. The Park is among the largest and most precious protected areas in Central America. It includes a stretch of the Pacific Coast and makes up almost the entire border with neighboring Colombia. The Park boasts an exceptional variety of habitats, such as sandy beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, swamps, and lowland and highland tropical forests, which are home to a remarkable variety of wildlife.
Representatives of two Indian tribes live on the Park’s riverbanks: approximately 200 Kuna Indians and 1’000 Wounaan and Emberá, together referred to in literature as Chocó Indians. Both tribes are indigenous to Panama and Colombia and have long shared the same territory. Their recent history and their culture are similar. They do, however, speak different languages; their traditional roles – Wounaan were artists, Emberá were warriors – set them apart; and they are politically organized as distinct groups.
The National Parks of Panama
For centuries, the Emberá lived semi-nomadic lives as hunter-gatherers and fishermen. Their constant movement through the most remote parts of the rainforest did not allow for accurate anthropological studies until recently. It is believed that the Emberá moved from the Amazon to the Choco region in Colombia and onward to the Darién during the 16th century. Today, approximately 33,000 people who identify as Emberá live on Panamanian ground - most of them in the Darién Province.
Emberá people of Playa Muerto
Influence of Modern Society
The Emberá have maintained their subsistence agricultural systems through centuries of European contact. But over the last few decades, Western influence on their lifestyle increased dramatically.
The enormous water usage of the Panama Canal and the fast-growing electricity consumption of the booming capital have irreversibly modified the landscape due to the construction of two artificial lakes and their dams. Many Indian communities were relocated from the basin that now forms these lakes.
Drug trafficking and the FARC guerrilla activity are other critical factors that continue to influence the migration of Emberá and Wounaan communities. Guerilla, Paramilitary, and Regular Army soldiers often cross the border from Colombia into Panama. These incidents continue today and have caused many indigenous people to relocate to newly formed villages outside the National Park or even to Panama City.
The biggest impact on the Indian tribes in the Darién was caused by the extension of the Pan-American Highway, the famous road link between Alaska and the southernmost point of South America. It was in 1979 that the dirt road was cut straight through the pristine jungle of the Darién. The road opened the region to cars and trucks and offered easy access for Campesinos (poor farmers of Hispanic background) looking for virgin jungle land to clear-cut for cattle breeding and slash-and-burn farming. Today, cattle farms and plantations are bordering the Pan-American Highway in the Darién, and no jungle can be seen for miles on both sides.
The Legendary “Darién Gap”
The area near the border with Colombia is called “The Darién Gap” as it extends around the only missing piece in the 48,000km-long Pan-American Highway that stretches from Alaska to the pencil tip of Argentina. The world's longest motorable road crosses through the entirety of North, Central, and South America, with the sole exception of the 100km (60 miles) long gap in the Darién. The large swath of dense pristine forest that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast makes overland travel from North America to South America virtually impossible. Some daring adventurers have tried to cross the Darién Gap, but only a handful of attempts were successful.
At the small town of Yaviza, the Pan-American-Highway ends – but settlements do not. Rivers are the highways of the Darien’s interior, and people native to this land travel on them on small motorboats and dugout canoes. This is where the true Darién begins – an untouched paradise of virgin jungle.
The fact that the Pan-American Highway has never been completed is a blessing for several reasons. Although some voices keep asking for the completion of the road, the Panamanian government, environmentalist groups, local indigenous tribes like the Emberá, and even the US government object to this. The Gap so far effectively prevented the spreading of diseases to North America – such as foot and mouth cattle disease – and made cocaine trafficking more difficult. Furthermore, the completed road would accelerate deforestation and the threatening of indigenous cultures. As Michael J Ryan, a University of Texas biologist who researches in the Darién National Park, puts it: "The worst thing that could happen to the Darién would be the completion of the highway across the Darién Gap. The loggers will follow the road, forests will fall, and huge chunks of paradise will be lost forever."
Impact on the Emberá
While it is certain that the access to the modern world through the existing part of the Pan-American Highway provides various benefits to the indigenous people of the region, it is clear that, in many ways, it has also caused negative impact and irrevocable change to their lives. Apart from the obvious fact that the continuing deforestation is destroying their natural habitat and hunting grounds, modernization also made the indigenous depend on the generation of hard-currency income. Thus, subsistence farming has become a thing of the past.
But generating monetary income has proven very difficult for the Indigenous. Most communities have no land titles and no authorization to exploit the land commercially. Many villages saw their young adults move to the city to make a living, where they usually ended up in very poor conditions. Being underpaid and treated as people of second class is still the norm for the indigenous minority.
Due to its location within a National Park, the community of Playa Muerto faces even bigger challenges. With the foundation of the Darién National Park in 1982, many regulations were imposed on them. Hunting, fishing, and farming became severely restricted and made living off the land very difficult. And logging, their primary source of hard-currency income, became illegal, too.
The consequent emigration from Playa Muerto and other communities, along with the growing modern influence in the villages (such as TV, modern medicine, etc.), favored the disappearance of indigenous rites, traditions, and even their native language. If this tendency continues – and it will, if nothing is changed – the indigenous culture of the Emberá will eventually vanish.
Responsible Tourism as one Promising Solution
The best solutions aiming to avoid this development focus on creating the economic basis that allows the indigenous to remain in their villages. Cultural tourism and sales of handicraft, if locally controlled, are excellent examples of such solutions. The Emberá may lack most resources and all but the most basic education, but their culture and their art represent two very valuable assets.
Today, some Emberá communities in the Darién already generate income from tourism and the sales of artwork, allowing them to secure their place in Panamanian society without being assimilated and losing their identity. Quite to the contrary, it helps reviving their traditions.
A Slow Start…
When realizing which far-reaching consequences the foundation of the National Park had on Playa Muerto, the government came to rescue the community from extinction. The idea was to jumpstart a modest tourism project – an idea very much welcomed by the village people. But the place’s remote location, with no road access and no electricity (which meant no means of communication to the outside world), presented a tough challenge. And the notorious fame of the Darién Gap made it even harder. No tourists showed up, and without tourist, there was no income. Entire families were forced to leave their beloved homes to make a living somewhere else – often in the big City. Within a few years, the population of Playa Muerto was almost cut in half.
…And an Unexpected Turn of Events
But in 1992, 10 years after the foundation of the National Park, an unexpected incident changed the situation of Playa Muerto at once – at least temporarily. A small cruise ship appeared in front of the village and about 100 foreign tourists were brought to shore. They came to see the indigenous’ way of life and to buy souvenirs.
For a few years in a row, small cruise ships brought the longed-for visitors to the village three times a year, with remarkable impact: it didn’t just provide the community with enough income for the whole year, it also helped revive their traditions like dancing, body painting, and the making of handicrafts. Playa Muerto came back to life. Over time, the village grew back to its original size – a simple, harmonious, and sustainable life was possible again.
The Situation Today
Since then, Playa Muerto’s luck was intermittent. The bankruptcy of one of the cruise ship operators and the unpredictable sea, which renders landing of passengers on the beach difficult at times, brought the number of cruise ship stops down to one per year. This meant insufficient income, and so the struggle started anew. People were forced to leave the village, and so over the last few years, the population has again declined.
Apart from the cruise ship tourists, few travelers ever visit Playa Muerto, as getting there is rather quite difficult. Public transport is inexistent (there are no roads and no ferries), so one has to hire or hitchhike a boat, or hike through the jungle to get there.
Another big obstacle for tourism development was the region’s notorious reputation – even if mostly unjustified. While the Darién Gap, the area in immediate vicinity of the border with Colombia, continued to see the odd incident between the Panamanian border police and the Colombian FARC and drug traffickers, the majority of the Darién Region was absolutely safe to visit, and so was the remote and tranquil village of Playa Muerto. But the false reputation persisted, much to the detriment and frustration of the innocent people of Playa Muerto. Luckily, since 2017, the border situation has greatly improved, and the entire zone has officially been declared as safe for traveling.
Of course, the fact that Playa Muerto is so far off the beaten track also allowed it to preserve its uniqueness: to this day, it remains an almost untouched paradise with a community of amazingly welcoming people. This makes visiting this place an all the more fantastic experience for the adventurous, nature-loving traveler.
This webpage is a humble attempt to support the people of Playa Muerto in their quest to attract responsible tourism – for the sake of the survival and blossoming of their community.
If you like, you can contribute to this cause by making a donation for essential infrastructure improvements, educational projects, and the community’s emergency cash pot. Or you can visit Playa Muerto yourself one day.