Tribe in Panama Wins Landmark Case

After a 50 year struggle, Panama’s Supreme Court has ceded much of the largest nature reserve in Central America to Indigenous land claims.

The Naso tribe will share management responsibilities of 400,000 acres of land within La Amistad National Park and Palo Seco Nature Reserve after the court granted them authority to create a comarca: a semi-autonomous tribal kingship, in the two parks.


“This is an act of justice that will restore tranquility to the Naso by securing our land,” says the King of the Naso, Reynaldo Santana. “We will be able to continue what we know best and what our culture and way of life represents: taking care of our mother earth, conserving a majestic forest, and protecting the country and the planet from the effects of climate change.”


The Naso live in small villages in Northwest Panama, within the most important forest in the country, where they practice subsistence farming and maintain their own forests, language, and culture, reports Rainforest Foundation.

Home to great biodiversity, La Amistad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983) is largely unexplored by science. Sitting on an important biological corridor, through which species from North and Central America mingle with those in Colombia just to the south, La Amistad contains five species of big cat and hundreds of birds, including the glorious quetzal (pictured), key to many Mesoamerican mythological beliefs.


The court ruling comes at a time when the small tribe’s land was under quasi-attack from farmers and cattle ranchers who, due to a lack of boots-on-the-ground park law enforcement, rarely suffer consequences for deforestation.


“Without the comarca people can come in here and do whatever they like,” one Naso villager told Land Rights Now.


20 years ago, legislators put a halt to issuances of new comarcas, switching instead to village-based lands with smaller claims and less autonomy. Not letting the good be the enemy of the perfect however, the Naso kept on challenging until they were rewarded with their kingship.


A statement from Rainforest Foundation U.S., who provided significant help to both the Naso’s legal challenge and deforestation-fighting capacity, described the ruling as “deeply gratifying to see those investments pay off in this landmark victory, which will secure rights for the Naso and other Indigenous peoples in Panama.”

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