Most people around the world have never heard of Emberá Drua, and even fewer have visited this remote village. Even so, this small community and others like it are Ground Zero in the current conversation regarding the environment, natural resources and population.  

basket weavers
Women from the Emberá Drua tribe weave baskets, now prized internationally for their craftsmanship.
native children
A group of young boys from the recently discovered Emberá Drua tribe in the Panamanian rainforest. Photos by Joseph White

Emberá Drua is a group of about 125 Emberá Indians, discovered in the dense rainforest of Panama only about a generation ago. This group migrated to the valley of the Chagres River, not far from the Panama Canal, due to the harsh living conditions and violent conflict in their homeland, the Darien region of Panama near the county’s Eastern border with Colombia. Years of fighting between the Panamanian army and Colombian drug cartels had led to a breakdown of law and order in the region, and the Emberá were caught in the crossfire, sometimes wounded or killed, and at other times, kidnapped and enslaved. 

For a period of time, this fledgling community lived in their new home relatively undisturbed. The Chagres is home to one of the largest and most dense rainforests in the world, perhaps second only to the Amazon.  

And getting to Emberá Drua from more populated areas is rather complex. From Panama City, one has to drive about 90 minutes through the mountains to the river bank in Puerto Corutu, and then take a canoe for the remaining 45 minutes of the journey (There are no roads to this village). After reaching the shore near the village, it is still necessary to climb to the top of the nearby cliff, and then the open sided, palm-topped huts come into view. 

When the Emberá Drua tribe was discovered in the rainforest by the Panamanian government, they were informed that they were on protected land. The entire region had been declared national forest by the Panamanian National Congress years earlier.  

The tribe was allowed to continue living there (as were a couple of other nearby Emberá tribes), but they were informed that some aspects of their traditional lifestyle had to change. For example, they were no longer permitted to hunt for food in the forest. They could enjoy the fruits that grow on the rainforest trees, and could continue their practice of spear-fishing for tilapia in the river, but land-animal kills were off limits. 

In addition, the Emberá faced severe restrictions on their ability to grow food in the forest. Concerned about possible clear-cutting of the forest for farming, the government expressly forbade any growing of food outside the few feet of land that immediately surrounds each hut.  

“The government has a lot of control,” says Andrea Lino-Machi, second in command of the tribe (and the first woman to hold this post). “We are glad that they protect the land so we have a place to live, but they won’t let us plant new trees or grow our own food. We want to grow food, but we can’t. We have to buy it. This is difficult, especially when prices are high.”  

These regulations left the Emberá in a dilemma. How were they to continue feeding their families? The Emberá Drua community, along with two other nearby groups, Parara Puru and Tusi Pono, decided on a novel solution — they opened their communities to cultural eco-tourism. 

Opening up community

As one might imagine, attitudes in Panama toward the Emberá vary widely, from the uninformed opinion that they are “savages,” and possibly even dangerous, to the view that their rights and culture should be respected and protected. Despite this range of opinions, everyone is curious about this group who lives much more like our ancient ancestors did.  

And so they come to see — not in large numbers due to the remoteness of the village, but a few people each week come from all over the world to visit this village and get a taste of Emberá culture through traditional foods, dance, crafts and stories. The Emberá are known as some of the best woodcarvers and basket weavers in the world, so many visitors also purchase handcrafts to take home. 

The decision to open the community to the outside world wasn’t made lightly, but out of necessity.  

“We worry about the loss of our culture,” says Neldo Tocamo, chief of Tusi Pono and “Noko,” or overall leader, of the three villages. “Our children are beginning to see less value in our indigenous language, and in our culture and arts. Some of them want to learn English, but they don’t even speak our Emberá language well.”

Opening the community to tourism has brought some modest income that the village leaders can use to buy food to supplement their diets. However, rising food prices during the recent worldwide recession were crippling to the Emberá. “Tourism declined and at the same time, the food prices were much higher, and many families were going hungry,” says Johnson Menguisama, one of the community’s leaders. 

Subtle coercion

The village chief of Emberá Drua, Eneldo Ruiz, points out that although the land around them is officially considered protected, there are portions of it that are sometimes sold off to corporations and developed.  

Chief Ruiz
Chief Eneldo Ruiz of the recently discovered Emberá Drua tribe in the Panamanian rainforest. Photo by Joseph White.

“We are worried when new factories are built nearby,” says Ruiz, “because we worry it will destroy the forest.”

Having heard about the loss of land rights that has plagued other indigenous groups, including the Emberá who live in Colombia, the leaders of the tribes in this region are concerned that the government does not allow them to hold deeds to the land they live on, and they report that the government has sometimes engaged in subtle coercion to keep their numbers low.  

One community leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, stated, “The government tells us that we can only have one or two children because the forest is full. This is illegal in Panama. For the government to dictate how many children we can have, and we worry that if they start to enforce this policy, it could mean the end of our people. Already, there are not many Emberá left.” 

When Ruiz is asked what he would like people who live in the cities to remember about the rainforests, he turns pensive. After a few minutes, he says, “We would like people outside to remember to protect the natural world, and to remember that there are indigenous people who live here in the rainforest, and it is important to protect and conserve the environment not only for the animals and trees but also for the people who live here.” 

Joseph White is national catechetical consultant for OSV publishing and curriculum.