After 10 years of fighting, the Wounaan of Puerto Lara recovered their rainforest lands from those determined to clear the forest and raise cattle in the heart of the Wounaan ancestral lands. The Wounaan are beginning the process of healing the land, making future land use and reforestation plans. How did people take over part of their rainforest to begin with? They simply walked in and took it, confident that the government wouldn’t worry about protecting indigenous land rights.
“Ever since we were founded, the Puerto Lara community has focused on fishing, chunga basket weaving and traditional agricultural practices.” explains Nariño Quiroz. However, this quiet way of life was interrupted when the Arboleda family took over a patch of rainforest that seven Puerto Lara families were purposefully leaving untouched after having harvested it for a couple of years. “We were following our traditions, letting the land lie fallow for 5 to 8 years before working it again– this way the land remains fertile.”
The Arboleda family lived close to, and in harmony with, the indigenous community for many years with some land just across the river from the Indigenous community. When they saw that the community was no longer growing food in the area or harvesting native plants, the Arboleda’s argued the land was abandoned. They crossed the river rand began clearing the land. Then, they rented out the newly cleared fields to cattle ranchers.
Wounaan community cuts the barbed wire fences the ranchers put up on their rainforest lands.
The Wounaan asked the Arboledas to leave explaining that the land was theirs, went to the authorities and began the long process of defending the rights to their lands. After years of pressuring the Panamanian government, court hearings and petitions the Wounaan’s right to the land was affirmed. However, the State did not act beyond decreeing that the ranchers had to leave the land. The cattle’s feces began to contaminate the waters, killing much of the aquatic life making it harder for the community fish. Then a young girl died, sickened by virulent bacteria from the river her community used for drinking water.
Finally, the State stepped in and insisted the ranchers leave the land. Today the Wounaan are celebrating the success of a long struggle, but continue to fight to have all of their land rights recognized. In particular they fight of their right to have the mangroves they have built their houses on recognized as their ancestral land. Despite the fact that most of the communities homes are in the mangroves the State insists that mangroves cannot be considered land, and as such are not part of their territory. The Wounaan community of Puerto Lara explains, “One of the lessons we have learned is that we have to guard our lands and ensure we analyze our maps, all legal documents, agreements and accords so that we don’t have problems in the future. It’s not possible that the State refuse to consider the mangroves as our ancestral land— this is where most of our homes are and is our principle source of food and survival.”
Panamanian Public Forces come in to evict cattle ranchers occupying indigenous rainforest lands. Wounaan community begins planning how to heal the land.