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River: A Lesson in
Community-Based Ecotourism in Panama
By Jon Kohl
bus I just arrived on groans in the heat. I sit on a cement slab by the
Rio Chagres, kicking a few pieces of muddied plastic bags... wondering
when I will be picked up... I reach for my handkerchief to wipe the dust
from my forehead
As I do, a canoe lands and a handsome barefooted
youth moves up the bank, dressed in a bright red loincloth with small
red lassos orbiting his dark chest from left should to right ribs and
swooping patterns of black body paint on face and chest. Jorge parts the
humid stillness - the Emberá have come.
Originally from the Darien region of Panama near Colombia, a few Emberá Indians migrated to the Rio Chagres area in the 1920s, the river that
feeds the Panama Canal. Their numbers have grown since, and although in
the ecotourism business only five years, they are trying to write the
text on community-based ecotourism.
As my motorized dug-out winds up the river into Chagres National Park,
the Emberá hear me coming. We kick around the last bend and a towering
forested wall rockets up on my right side and on the left lies a sandy
On the uppermost dune seven dark-skinned Emberá men play
drums, flutes, and a rasping device. As they tune my welcoming, women
and children run down from their village. They smile and wave. The sunny
reds and oranges of their traditional garb profile them against the cool
background green of the rainforest.
The most expensive hotels in Panama City could not offer a warmer welcome.
Jorge smiles, "Bienvenidos a Emberá Drua."
I had been to a lot of villages in Central America, but I had never seen
one so clean. The center of the village has a plaza surrounded by a thatch-roofed
main building, wall-less houses on stilts, benches, palm trees, banana
plants, and even two basketball posts, nets included. Upon entering the
village, I marvel that the cliché-laden publicity I found on one
tour operator's web site, might actually be on target:
Paradise found in its purest form
These gentle and timid people
look and dress as they did when Columbus showed up in the 1500s
soon [you will] forget the outside world as you submerge in their cultural
dances, music and day-to-day activities.
me, along with other recent tourists to the main thatched house. Inside,
mostly young women, with layers of colorful necklaces covering their breasts,
weave baskets. Jorge seats us down and introduces the village.
His wife, Crecencia, then shows us how they make baskets and the natural
black, brown, orange, and red dyes, how they carve figures in wood and
the ivory-like seed tagua. Later the Emberá treat us to traditional
dances, fried plantains and fish, and body painting. Some tourists hike
the nature trail and others go swimming. Jorge tells me that tourists
can canoe, fish, bird-watch, or just relax. After two or three hours,
the tourists pack up and head down river.
The Emberá lifestyle is remarkably easy for a forest-bound people.
Before the Panamanian government declared the Rio Chagres area a national
park the subsistence Emberá hunted and farmed and struggled for
their rights. With the declaration, they had to look for an alternative.
Most local groups would have fought, as they do throughout Central America
when governments restrict their economic activity, but not the Emberá.
Instead, they had a Renaissance.
They went into business to sell, well, themselves. They revived many traditional
forms of expression and dedicated themselves to, instead of hunting and
cultivating, smiling and inviting tourists into their homes.
It's so easy at first glance - and indeed that's all most tourists ever
get - to be awed by the bright colors, dancing bodies, and flowing river.
It's easy to buy into the tour operator rendition of paradise. But further
observation will earn you a deeper appreciation of Emberá life
and its challenges.
In the Emberá text, Successful Community-based Tourism, there would
surely be a chapter on success factors.
support. The Panamanian Institute of Tourism provides training, guidance,
promotes them and sends Emberá to major tourism fairs around the
world. The US Peace Corps assigned them a volunteer for a year. The US
Forest Service, in coordination with USAID, offers training in ecotourism,
trail development, nature guiding, and web site development. A local NGO,
AFOTUR, has done much work in setting up tourism in the community. Other
organizations have also helped in one way or another.
2. The Emberá
control river access to their village, even though it takes only one hour
by mini-van to Puerto El Corotu from Panama City and 45 minutes by boat
to the village.
3. The village
has two NGOs, one for development and one for tourism, and numerous committees.
Their organization can be seen even on the ground as every day rotating
squads rake clean the village. Supervisors watch over to make sure it
4. The Emberá
know the outside world. All adults have visited Panama City. Many work
outside. Some are police in Darien, the priest works for the Canal, and
Jorge spent time working on the docks. When a helicopter flew by the village,
the little kids all looked up, but none looked surprised. They knew what
they were missing, but knew even more what they were avoiding.
5. The village
sits in an idyllic location. The rainforest river valley and sandy beach
contribute to the experience.
6. The people
are attractive. Not only physically and personally, but culturally as
runs long - it would seem almost too good to be true.
Staying even one night, however, allows you to peep behind the cultural
curtains the Emberá draw every time another canoe-load of tourists
comes ashore. You can spy civilization creeping in, like an old canoe
slowly leaking water.
Dominant societies around the world assimilate indigenous cultures at
different rates, Emberá included. Indeed some signs in the village
are obvious even to starry-eyed tourists: outboard motor, basketball court,
Latin-style cement-based school, widespread Spanish.
Others are camouflaged: electric generators, coolers with coke bottles,
electric lights, and Western clothes donned when tourists are not around.
The village even has a telephone booth covered in thatch.
Embracing Modern Communication
In fact the Emberá have whole-heartedly embraced modern communication
to promote their tourism. Aside from the phone that allows tourists to
call the village directly, tourism committee officials carry cell phones,
use email, a web site, and are even beginning to learn English.
But true assimilation occurs less through objects than how social processes
unweave and transform, how the indigenous begin to see the world as their
assimilators do. In fact, the Emberá have been assimilating Christianity
as have native peoples throughout the Americas.
The village is divided
into Evangelicals and Catholics. The former does not participate in the
culture-based tourism and has assimilated to a much larger degree. The
Big City, even with all its dangers, entices teenagers. Some even feel
embarrassed to wear traditional clothing, preferring city clothing.
The community faces other threats as well. Its population has been growing
steadily. In 1998 it had 80 people and now has around 96 and they like
to stay. Jorge after working on the docks in Panama City and having run-ins
with gangs, decided to start his family in the forest.
The park does not allow the village to expand and increasingly the Emberá
want more tourists to satisfy their growing population. This need coupled
with recent tourism success has led to the attitude of "We want more
and more tourists." They do not yet understand the impacts more people
can cause, both residents and tourists. One such impact is on the visitor
When I visited, a tour-group of some 30 white-haired Americans arrived,
enthralled with simple sights and sounds. My cultural immersion dissipated
as people clapping, dancing, and listening to the city-slicker tour guide's
childish jokes surrounded me.
The Emberá will have to write new chapters, then, in their text
about managing visitor experiences, visitor impacts, and how to balance
civilization creep with the exotic pre-Columbian style village. As Johnson
Menguisama, the head of the ecotourism committee, says, "The challenge
that awaits us in the next five years is to conserve our tradition and
not lose it completely as the Embera in Darien have."
Jon Kohl is
a freelance writer and conservationist currently living in Guatemala.
This is his second article for GoNomad.com. Visit his website at jonkohl.com.
The village adopted the name Emberá Drua in 1996 to reflect
cultural identity. It is easiest for visitors and most profitable
for the village if you operate directly with them. You can do that
by first visiting their web site. Then you can email or call the
village or its committee members when you arrive to schedule a visit.
If, however, you speak no English or want the convenience of an
organized tour, then the tourism committee recommends the following
TERRA TOURS - Tour Operador
(507) 227-1024, Cellular 623-2355
Learn about the Embera communities in Panama, including the Embera
Drua, Good cultural and historical background as well as many photos. visit
you are interested in coming to visit us, please contact our community
organization Tránchichi Emberá Chagres cellular telephone:
(507) 698-6576 in Panama.
You may send us a message via Mobil Phone beeper at number
(507) 264-5155. Leave a message for Emberá Drua, account
Please remember that we only speak Spanish and our native language.
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