Tribe in Panama Wins Landmark Case Granting Them Stewardship of 400,000 Acres of Pristine Ancestral Forests

A landmark ruling from 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.

The Naso live in small villages in Northwest Panama where they practice subsistence farming and maintain their own forests, language, and culture.

During the 20th century, several Panamanian tribal groups were granted comarcas, including the Guna on the Caribbean coast, the Embera, and the Wounaan peoples.

As a deeply rain-forested country, the biological diversity of Panama has been safeguarded through much of the Industrial Age through stewardship and legal rights of its nearly half-million Indigenous people, who through their comarcas exercise legal authority for forest preservation, for which the government aids them with public funding.

The Naso however only number 3,500, and sit within the most important forest in the country, La Amistad, which was enshrined as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Home to great biodiversity, La Amistad 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 resplendent quetzal—a locus for many Mesoamerican mythological beliefs.

Full court press
“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 ruling, which was made in October, 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.

Powerful business interests, lack of political will, and sheer lack of the government’s capacity to enforce laws, meant that for 50 years, the Naso have been left largely to their own devices.

“Without the comarca people can come in here and do whatever they like,” one Naso villager, Lupita, told Land Rights Now. Lupita, a mother of four, remembers a time when her parents would talk about having a comarca when she was a child.

Even still, rates of deforestation in La Amistad, as was demonstrated by the Naso as part of their legal case, are much lower on the proposed comarca than in other parts of the country, and other parts of the forest.

It was in 2000 that 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.”