|Mapping the Darien in Panama
The Pan-American Highway
|The Darien region, with a total
land surface of 16,803 km, is the largest province in
Panama, the most sparsely populated, and the least well
known. It is a region of dense tropical rainforest. Its
indigenous population of Embera, Wounaan, and Kuna live
in settlements scattered along the numerous river
Until 20 years ago, there were no roads in the Darien; now there is a gravel highway cutting through its center down as far as the town of Yaviza, 100 km short of the Colombian border. This 100 km stretch is the only uncompleted piece of the Pan-American
Highway, which connects overland commerce between North and South America. While most of the traditional inhabitants of the Darien travel by river, the highway has opened up the region to loggers, cattle ranchers, and landless peasants from the overcrowded interior provinces. This influx of population is threatening both the indigenous people and the natural forest.
Since the time of the Spanish conquest, those of European descent have called these lands "empty quarters," as if they had no inhabitants. Sadly, this colonial ignorance of indigenous peoples has persisted into the present. Indian lands considered vacant are
prime targets for government colonization schemes. The Indians have been made "invisible," and their claims to the territory they inhabit are not recognized.
This is beginning to change. Indian groups throughout the shrinking tropical forests of Central America are presently fighting to gain title to their territories. Conflicts over indigenous land rights have become one of the most pressing social issues in the region.
In early 1993, the Congreso Embera-Wounaan-Kuna began working with the Centro de Estudios y Accion Social Panameno (CEASPA) on a project to map indigenous land use in the Darien. From May through October 1993, a team consisting of two professionally trained cartographers and 23 local surveyors encuestadores made maps that meticulously depict river systems and show where local communities hunt, fish, farm, cut firewood, gather building materials, and collect medicines. The maps clearly indicate the extent of the territory utilized the indigenous peoples of the Darien and the ways in which they manage their natural resources.
The final map of the Darien, completed in March 1994, is crucial to discussions about the future of the region, which stands on the brink of massive and potentially devastating change. Although the proposed Pan-American Highway would cut through the very heart of their territory, Indians have thus far been given little voice in the matter. The mapping process and public forums are all attempts to change this situation. "We are making [our lands and their uses] clear to our government," said Leopoldo Eacorizo, the General Chief of the Congreso Embera-Wounaan-Kuna, "so that it can understand and coordinate with us on solutions to problems that involve us."
- Mac Chapin
[ Impacto, Influencia, Cambio ]
[ History of Science, Technology and Invention ]