Saving (themselves in) the forest at the middle of the world

19 de Noviembre de 2020
Por: Julio César Aizprúa.

Panama is one of the worst case scenarios with respect to the spread of COVID-19 in Latin America. The virus is affecting indigenous communities, where dozens have fallen ill already and at least five people are dead. Yet, although the disease is spreading, deforestation in the Darien Province has not stopped, warn the nokos, village leaders of the Emberá Wounaan, who are trying to defend their territory.

In the increasingly impenetrable jungle of the Darien Province, 230.5 kilometers to the east of Panama City, trees do not die standing up. The sound of heavy equipment breaks the silence and chainsaws gnaw through trunks, devouring little by little this natural lung that borders the Department of Chocó in Colombia. 

At a time when COVID-19 is advancing rapidly in Panama, with 102,832 cases reported by September 15, those sounds are heard more loudly in the Darien, Panama's largest province, with an area of 16,803 square kilometers. This region is home to most of what is known as the Darien Gap, an extensive, dense curtain of jungle covering 575,000 hectares, including a stretch of barely 34 kilometers that is a break in the road between North and Central America and its southern neighbors, a feature that has made it one of the most impassable areas in Latin America.

The jungles of the Darién Gap, the ancestral homeland of the Emberá Wounaan and Gunas Indians, are affected by deforestation every day. The area is the scene of endless confrontations between those who log illegally with no qualms whatsoever, thanks to government licenses, and those who live there and try to protect the jungle and to strike an ecological balance in the region.

One of individuals defending the Darian Gap is Tito Ortega, head of the nokos of the Emberá Wounaan, who were also once known as chocoes.  According to the 2010 National Population Census, this ethnic group occupies an area within the Darién that is divided into two districts (cantons or departments): Cémaco and Sambú, on the banks of the Chucunaque, Tuira and Sambú rivers. The first includes 29 communities and the second, twelve.

Speaking slowly, and perhaps sparingly, Tito says the current General Emberá Wounaan Congress - which was unable to elect its new authorities in March of this year due to the pandemic - maintains a "complicit" silence in the face of the devastation raging across the green lands where these communities make their home. Even so, he insists they have no plans to cease their struggle to preserve their ancestral home.

As explained by Genaro Pacheco Tocamo, another Emberá noko who is also an environmental activist, timber has been extracted in Darién for the last 25 years, through logging concessions.  Each harvest claims between 1,400 and 1,800 trees of valuable species, such as cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa), balsamo (Myroxylon balsamum) and almond (Prunus dulcis or Amygdalus communis), among others.

A stern-faced man of medium height, Genaro describes the situation facing indigenous communities in the region: apart from deforestation, the people are being exploited. He says the lack of local jobs has prompted some Emberá to sell timber as well.  According to Genaro, Indians are paid 10 to 12 US cents per foot for the wood they extract, while a logger can sell timber on the local market for up to 5,000 US dollars per cubic meter, a price that can triple on the international market. Part of the advantage is precisely the fact that Indians are paid by the foot and businessmen, by the cubic meter.

Genaro says both the loggers and national and traditional authorities are to blame for the way his people are being exploited and the damage that is being done to the environment. Since 2013, the authorities and the loggers have operated under flawed arrangements “supported" by the worn-out figure of the cacique (chief). In his opinion, this is because they do not demand respect for environmental laws.

This "chaos," he says, favors an increase in logging that is escalating, since the complicity between both national and traditional authorities is evident in many case

This noko does not hesitate to say the country’s Ministry of Environmental Affairs does not appear to have a plan that would allow indigenous communities to take action to preserve natural resources as opposed to lending themselves to the destruction of those resources, which is sometimes the case. 

Another indigenous voice that has denounced irregular practices in logging under timber concessions is that of Alfonso Chanapi, an Embera leader. He maintains that one of the strategies used by concession companies to extract more timber from the surrounding forest or to deforest a larger area is to overdo the harvest one year, but leave the rest so has to have a bit more than what is allowed in the years thereafter. This version of the situation could not be verified due to limited continuity and transparency in the way statistics on logging and timber permits are published by the Panamanian government.

The resistance to this struggle has been a constant element that haunts the forest. From the windows of their wooden and zinc houses, the Emberá Wounaan watch as the chaos and lack of control open furrows everywhere in the surrounding greenery. 

The village of El Salto No.2 is the seat of the traditional government of the Emberá Wounaan region. 

Photo: archivo personal del noko Genaro Pacheco Tocamo.

From 2012 to August 2019, some 20,784.5 hectares of Darien forest were lost. This is equivalent to 8.2 percent per day, according to the Ministry of Environment Affairs, which is the country's authority on biodiversity.

In the opinion of Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, if this rate continues, the Darienite jungle, as this natural forest is also known, could be turned into a "pasture". 

When talking about how the forest cover In Panama has changed, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs says 56,369.49 hectares (ha.) of forest were lost during the period from 2012 to 2019. This comes to a total of 8,052.78 ha. per year throughout the country. Between January and July 2020, the same ministry imposed just over $4.8 million dollars in fines and penalties for environmental damage throughout the country, including $193,000 dollars for damage in the Darien Province.

These changes  worry the nokos, because the Darien jungle is not only home to the ten thousand members of the Emberá Wounaan, but also has a variety of natural habitats such as beaches, mangrove swamps, rocky coasts and tropical forests that are home to different species of fauna and flora. This is why the Darien National Park was recognized in 2014 by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site and a World Biosphere Reserve. 

In these forests, there are a number of species at risk.  As documented by UNESCO, animals such as the brown-headed spider monkey, the tapir, the anteater, the jaguar, the bush dog, the white-lipped peccary and birds such as the great green macaw, the grand peacock, and the harpy eagle are threatened.
 

The Emberá Wounaan navigate the Tuira and Chucunaque rivers in the Darien Province. These waterways supply their communities and are a source of food.. 

Photo: Javier Jiménez.

Over-exploited Forests

Preservation of the Darien jungle is also a struggle embraced by Donaldo Sousa Guevara, a 75-year-old lawyer who has been waging environmental battles for four decades in a country that has lost 50 percent of its forest cover, according to data from the Ministry of Environmental Affairs. 

Donaldo believes deforestation has continued in the Darién and in the Emberá Wounaan region during the pandemic, where he says more than fourteen 20-year concessions are in force.  He says the companies that have these concessions are required to demonstrate each year that the timber has been harvested in a scientific way, according to government standards.  If so, they are allowed to request a new endorsement or guarantee to fulfill the time stipulated for the concession. 

Each year, these concessions require an inventory and a government resolution for what is known as "the annual cut or harvest," which allows them to continue to devastate or over-exploit the forest on a daily basis. Practices like these are used by loggers in other Latin American countries, such as Colombia in the Amazon region.

According to the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, in the midst of the quarantine measures that were established to prevent the spread of COVID-19, inspections are being done to verify safe management by the companies that are allowed to extract wood in the Darien.

President Laurentino Cortizo – who has been in office barely a year – made a campaign promise to stop deforestation in the Darien Province.  However, Sousa Guevara says most of the deforestation is made possible through illegal concessions, and the logging continues. 

In the environmental section of President Cortizo’s platform, on page 69, mention is made of preventing “the illegal logging that occurs in provinces like Darien and water-producing basins, by working closely with communities and local authorities.”

A year ago, on 13 September 2019, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs issued a resolution implementing a one-year ban on granting special authorizations for subsistence forestry, community permits and forestry concessions. After this measure was approved, the same Ministry stated, "No license to exploit the forest has been or will be granted.”

According to official statistics for the different types of licenses (plantation and thinning, planted, subsistence, domestic, natural regeneration, and necessary and undefined cutting), 119,943.11 cubic meters of timber were mobilized in Panama during 2019. The Darien Province was the largest source, with 37,920.34 cubic meters. In other words, as a percentage, it provided 31 percent of all the timber mobilized in Panama during that year. 

"It is absolutely not true that no annual concessions have been granted," says Sousa Guevara. Even before the pandemic, he filed a complaint against the Deputy Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Ausencio Palacios, who allegedly granted a series of fraudulent licenses. The same complaint also involves senior officials at the Ministry of Environmental Affairs. Representatives of the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs declined to comment on the matter, saying the only one authorized to do so is Deputy Minister Palacios, who could not be reached.

Sousa Guevara says he examined the records and realized the licenses are illegal because at no time did those involved comply with the mandate from the Emberá Wounaan Congressional Assembly that indicates certain types of trees cannot be logged. "Verification to that effect is impossible, since neither the companies nor the authorities report on the matter. In fact, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs has not even published information on the concessions or logging licenses that have been authorized," said Sousa Guevara.

Authorities at the Ministry of Environmental Affairs insist everything is in order for the Darien, but Sousa Guevara claims "they have done what they wanted [in the province].They have failed to comply with any of the country’s regulations, because the forests are like banks full of money. Each leaf has so many dollars, and they simply have to harvest them.”

The indigenous population supports all the efforts of those who struggle alongside them to prevent modernism from wiping out their habitat, says Alfonso Chanapi. 

As the nokos claim, deforestation and over-exploitation, in addition to the warnings about forest loss and degradation mentioned by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in State of the World's Forests 2020, are among the factors that disturb the balance of nature and raise the population’s exposure and its risk of contracting zoonotic diseases, which are caused by viruses, parasites, bacteria and fungi transmitted by animals or humans. In that report, FAO confirms the fact that deforestation and forest degradation continue at "alarming rates," contributing to the loss of biodiversity.
 

Emberá Wounaan women demonstrating in the park in front of the cathedral in Panama City to protest deforestation in the neighboring Darien Province, which is where they live. 

Photo: Javier Jiménez.

The Forest and its Natural Remedies

The Emberá have survived the constant deforestation of their land, especially in recent years. Some of them, however, have adapted to resist through projects for tourism, as in the case of the Emberá Querá, who formed a community on the banks of the Panama Canal dedicated to initiatives focused on tourism and environmental sustainability. 

They are holding on to that same resistance when dealing with COVID-19. Consistent with their beliefs, the Emberá Wounaan try to take care of themselves and ward off the virus with "pure hot drinks,” says Tito Ortega. "We use plants like soursop [and] a lot of lemon. And, we drink water and other beverages hot, because the bug (sic) doesn´t like heat.”  Tito says this helps his people to stay healthy, although they know there still is not much information about how to guard themselves against contagion. 

 For the time being, they turn to protection of the forest and fear deforestation will wipe out the natural remedies they rely on. Some of those remedies come from fruit trees, such as those producing lemons and soursop, among other species they prefer to be discreet about. The Emberá Wounaan are cautious when it comes to their traditional practices.

Pacheco Tocamo, who is also a noko, says a swab test showed he was one of those affected by the virus. He is convinced he feels stronger today because of traditional medicine. 

The fact that traditional medicine is so prevalent among the Indians prompted the government to pass a resolution in July of this year to increase the amount of funds allocated for the pandemic and to encourage the development, promotion, use and protection of this type of medicine as a way to combat COVID-19 in indigenous areas. 

Figures released by the Ministry of Health show there were 92 confirmed cases of COVID-19 the Emberá Wounaan region by 14 August 2020. In response to this situation, the National Council for the Comprehensive Development of Indigenous Peoples of Panama approved a fund of two million dollars from the World Bank to purchase supplies and equipment in the country's 12 indigenous territories. Of that amount, $174,752 went to the Emberá Wounaan region, as outlined in a press release from the Deputy Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Ausencio Palacios, who added this is expected to include supplies for herbal remedies.  

According to Tito Ortega, who is the head of the nokos, the aid also should be used to provide his people with food, since they currently receive only about 20 dollars a week, which is not enough to buy what they need.  Fortunately, they grow cassava and plantains, hunt animals that are not in danger of extinction, and fish, which gives them some food and prevents them from having to rely on government aid, as occurs in other parts of the country.
 

The Emberá Wounaan in the community of El Salto No 2 in the Darian Province of Panama prefer to rely on traditional medicine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo: archivo personal del noko Genaro Pacheco Tocamo.

Carlos Sanchez, who coordinates the Panama Solidarity Program, which was created to benefit the most vulnerable families with COVID-19, says more than 25 thousand families in the Darien Province and the Emberá Wounaan region had received parcels with food and vouchers by mid-August.  Sánchez verified they have three cruisers, 50 motorboats and an equal number of vehicles to reach the more remote indigenous communities along the border with Colombia. 

For the Emberá Wounaan, the Darien is more than the land of their ancestors. It is the place where nature is synonymous with freedom and security, where the trill of the birds is the melody that announces life goes on, in spite of the difficulties, says Tito Ortega.

Note. This article is part of #DefenderSinMiedo, a journalist series that tells the stories of women and men who struggle to defend the environment in a time of pandemic. Developed by Agenda Propia, in coordination with twenty journalists, editors and allied media in Latin America, the series is made possible thanks to support from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a global NGO.