Up the River: A Lesson in Community-Based Ecotourism in Panama
By Jon Kohl
The decrepit 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 beach.
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 an 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.
Jorge escorts 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 downriver.
The Emberá lifestyle is remarkably easy for 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.
Embera’s Success Factors
In the Emberá text, Successful Community-based Tourism, there would surely be a chapter on success factors.
1. Strong 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 is tourist-ready.
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 well.
Their list 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 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 its 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 experience.
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 has.”
Visiting the Embera Drua
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 operator:
TERRA TOURS – Tour Operador
Learn about the Embera communities in Panama, including the Embera Drua, Good cultural and historical background as well as many photos. visit website
If 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 810-01-01
Please remember that we only speak Spanish and our native Embera language.