December 10, 2015, was a historic day in Panama. After 40 years of struggle, the Embera and Wounaan community of Arimae finally received it’s land title.
Although not a large area at just over 20,000 hectares, Arimae is historically and symbolically significant for the indigenous peoples of Panama. This is where the struggle for recognizing collective lands was born, and where many of its leaders came from. It is one of the communities most affected by the Panamerican Highway, which was built in the 1970’s, plowing through Arimae and bringing with it hundreds of campesinos in search of land and a living in the Darien of Panama.
When it was founded in 1960, Arimae held nearly 200,000 acres – ten times the size of its current title. Over the years, lands were lost to campesinos as the government did nothing. The community, however, organized: it held marches, blocked the highway, got lawyers to file demands, and held hundreds of meetings with government authorities. They negotiated with campesinos, and were able to save the core of their territory. Some campesinos refused to leave however, and brought cases against the community, which ended up in Supreme Court. Finally, the community won: the government promised to hand them their title on December 10, Human Rights Day.
A ceremony was held in Arimae’s community building, with the presence of various government ministers. The title was formally presented to Elivardo Membache, community leader and Cacique of the Collective Lands Congress. Embera and Wounaan women and girls danced and sang, and over a thousand participants partook of food the community had spent days preparing ahead of time.
The titling ceremony was held as the negotiations over a climate agreement end in Paris – and is absolutely relevant to the discussions going on so far away. As Elivardo notes:
“By titling Arimae and Embera Puru, we’re helping stop deforestation. We’re protecting water and animals. We’ve won our territory. We are going to use it sustainably, for the health of our community. At the COP21 that is happening right now in Paris, everyone is concerned with climate change. In titling indigenous lands, the Panamanian government is contributing to preventing climate change.”
With more than 20 collective lands lacking title in the Darien alone, hopefully Arimae will set precedent, and Panama will title more indigenous lands in the coming year.