Sold Down the River?


I admit, I am conflicted. Should indigenous tribes change their way of life to satisfy tourism demands when tourism is their main source of income?

I’m in one of seven Embera indigenous villages located in the Panama Canal water basin. These native tribes live in the jungle on the banks of the Chagres River that feeds the Canal, without electricity, plumbing, nor cell phone service. Accessible by dugout canoe in one hour from Panama City, this is the only part of undeveloped Panama that can be easily reached from developed Panama.

I’ve visited these indigenous places four times. On my first visit in early 2008 I was greeted by a poorly organized community that desperately wanted to cater to tourists but didn’t quite know how. There was only an outhouse for visitors. The women greeted visitors bare-breasted, men in loin clothes, as that is how they lived. Hardly anyone spoke Spanish; community members mostly spoke their indigenous language. I felt like I was deep in Africa. A Peace Corps worker living among the tribe was helping to organize the community’s tourism effort.

More recently (January, 2016), the village women all wore clothes. Former Chief Antony, who went to university to study tourism, greeted us speaking Spanish (translated into English by a guide); brochures existed to promote tourism; rudimentary but professional maps — paid for by the German Embassy and permanently mounted at the entrance to the village — showed where in the jungle the village is located; and 4 flush toilets (2 for each sex) were available (although they are still not used by the community itself). For a $35 per person entrance fee, collected by the tour company, helps support the village. Still exotic, but gone was the “Out of Africa” feeling. Tour guides knew the routine — bring fruit and drinks in coolers for the tourists in their group, leaving the village’s supply of self-harvested fruit from the surrounding jungle unencumbered.

During a typical visit today you learn how the tribe ended up in the tourism business — government restrictions prevented commercial farming once the land they inhabit in the jungle became part of a national park, sometime around 1983. Lunch is served — fried river fish caught a few hours earlier and patacones (fried plantains) supplemented by the guide’s fresh fruits — usually pineapple, melon, papaya, bananas and oranges. Always delicious. While lunch is prepared, temporary tattoos ($5 each) are offered, and Antony answers tourist questions.

After lunch, a traditional music and dance performance is followed by an opportunity to walk around the community to see how the homes are built on stilts to protect against animals and snakes. About 20 families (around 60 people) live in the village, all related. When he’s not busy attending a sick villager, the medicine man will walk you through the jungle to explain medicinal plants.

Around the large hut that protects tourists from the sun and rain, handiworks are displayed for sale. Among them are wood carvings made of very hard cocobolo wood (similar to rosewood). Miniature sculptures are made from the seed of a tagua, a type of palm tree, which becomes very hard when dry, resembling ivory. Sculptures from tagua are decorated using colors from natural jungle flora.

Incredible handiworks are made from weaved strands of naturally-colored plant material from the black palm woven around a frame made from a stronger palm, naguala, into baskets, plates, and other useful items. Some of the weaves are so tight they hold water. A single woven item takes one and one half to two months to complete and sells for around $10-150.

In their desire to appeal to tourists, the village — over the last eight years — has lost a bit of its authenticity — with modern restrooms and clothed women. More indigenous people use their new-found tourism income to shop at the modern malls in lieu of preserving their self-sustaining way of life. Is the commercialization worth the cultural sacrifice? The jury is out on that question.