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Challenges in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca | Part 2: Social Problems

*First published on the Habla Ya Spanish School blog here on June 4, 2014.*

The top 5 problems currently facing the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé are:

  1. Physical Infrastructure
  2. Social Problems
  3. Education
  4. Labor/Work
  5. Health/Medical Assistance

Today we will cover Problem #2: Social Problems.

Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous baby with mother
Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous baby with mother

There isn’t a community in the world free of social problems. What makes these problems particularly dangerous in these Ngäbe-Bugle communities is their lack of access to the organizations which could support and help those in danger or at risk.

Seclusion

These communities are especially secluded from the outside world, not only physically but also it’s difficult for them to communicate with the outer world. Many communities do not have cell phone service, nor a functioning public phone, and definitely not internet (nor a means to access the internet, such as a computer or cell phone).

Travel time to many villages is several days through jungle and mountains
Travel time to many villages is several days through jungle and mountains

Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a common problem in indigenous communities worldwide. The Ngäbe tribe has not escaped from this disease. Drinking is a traditional part of the culture, especially during certain celebrations, where they drink locally-made fermented beverages from corn, sometimes for days at a time.

Chicha Fuerte, a homemade alcoholic beverage fermented from corn
Chicha Fuerte, a homemade alcoholic beverage fermented from corn

Unfortunately this habit has carried over to non-holiday times. It is common to find bars in large communities inside the Comarca. The men and some women drink excessively, though the cultural celebrations accompanying drinking are dying out. This also is happening in areas where the Ngäbes work outside of the Comarca, especially on weekends after paydays.

Indigenous fighting after drinking a good portion of the money obtained on payday isn't an unusual sight
Indigenous fighting after drinking a good portion of the money obtained on payday isn’t an unusual sight

Domestic Violence

It has been well-documented that alcoholism heightens domestic abuse. Or perhaps it is an easy excuse for pent-up emotions caused by rampant miscommunication in this culture. Regardless, domestic abuse is a common problem, especially in many hard-to-reach communities in the Comarca. Although personally, I have seen this trend diminish as women and men are more educated as each generation passes.

However, it is interesting to note that a Panamanian government agency specifically formed to teach against domestic violence and help women in need, Defense of the Community, only taught about 20 indigenous people in all of 2012.

A community can only truly prosper when its women are allowed access to education
A community can only truly prosper when its women are allowed access to education

Macho Culture

Some communities in the Comarca still have a very machismo culture – even going so far as men having multiple families in different communities. Machismo culture hinders progress, as women are refused the right to study, are not allowed to travel far from the home and are burdened with raising the children and keeping the house while her husband goes to other towns (some of the men visiting their other families).

In this culture, it is seen as a symbol of wealth to be able to “support” multiple families. Though of course this man is actually very poor in worldly terms and really doesn’t have enough to even support one family well. And of course his wives aren’t allowed to even be alone with a man who is not her husband.

Thankfully these communities are the in minority since education is growing at an astounding rate and this behavior is not being replicated in newer generations.

Teen Pregnancy

Teen pregnancy is extremely common in the Comarca (32.5% of all reported pregnancies in the Comarca in 2012 were to mothers ages 10 – 19). Of course, this typically affects the mothers more than the fathers, as only a small percentage of fathers are committed to staying with the mother and providing support for the child (most of the fathers are teenagers themselves).

As most places in the world, teen pregnancy turns into a lonely journey for the mothers
As most places in the world, teen pregnancy turns into a lonely journey for the mothers

As expected, the reality of a baby being born to a teenage mother in the Comarca means that she will stop her schooling and go live with her parents or boyfriend. The percentage who return to graduate from high school after having a baby is extremely low.

However, there are some who decide that they still want to continue studying or live outside of the Comarca and work (or find a husband who has a job), so they leave the child with the grandparents in the Comarca and go on with their life. They will go to visit the child or send money so that the child can travel to where the mom lives once or twice per year during school vacations.

Cultural Decline

Possibly the most important social problem facing the Comarca right now is the cultural decline that is being witnessed and experienced. Of course, this has been happening for years, mainly when the Comarca was created in 1997 and when the first roads were built to the hub cities.

As Ngäbes left their communities in search of work and a better life, they left behind their heritage and assimilated into Panamanian culture. It’s estimated that 70,000 Ngäbes live outside of the Comarca.

Many indigenous leave their homes to go pickup coffee in the mountains of Boquete every year
Many indigenous leave their homes to go pickup coffee in the mountains of Boquete every year

Sure they might return to visit every year or two, but many continue with their new life and start chasing the “Panamanian Dream”. Sometimes they send money to their family in the Comarca and ask them to travel to visit them in their new city rather than going back to visit or live in the Comarca.

And of course, they begin having children in their new adopted town and they are raised away from the traditional indigenous culture.

This has many bad effects. Most obvious is the loss of language, natural medicine remedies, traditional dress, dances and ceremonies. Who ARE the Ngäbe tribe if they have no culture left?

Many of the Ngäbe's traditions are being lost as they are not being passed to the new generations after they leave their communities
Many of the Ngäbe’s traditions are being lost as they are not being passed to the new generations after they leave their communities

Most notable of the bad effects is that the brightest of the Comarca are leaving and not returning. I think that they are still proud to be indigenous, proud of their homeland, but they become so busy with work and life that they feel they just don’t have enough time to make a difference (Panamanians typically work 6 – 7 days per week, especially for unskilled labor).

Racism against them

On top of this is the problem of racism against the indigenous in Panamá. It’s very hard for an uneducated person (or under-educated) to stand up for themselves when they don’t even know what their rights actually are.

If you have been treated a certain way by a majority group your entire life, would it dawn on you to question this treatment? To question if it is right and just and fair? As we saw in the United States, it took a few stubborn people to finally bring the longed-for change for the entire black population, even though racial segregation is still a very real problem in the USA. We’re still waiting for the persistent few Ngäbes to hold their stand against the Panamanian government for all of the Comarca.

One of the very few things at which the Ngäbe-Bugle have been successful at protesting against is dams or mines being built in their lands
One of the very few things at which the Ngäbe-Bugle have been successful at protesting against is dams or mines being built in their lands

Lack of Education

Meanwhile, those left in the Comarca don’t understand their legal rights (many have only traveled short distances from their hometowns), are uneducated (the majority aged 30 and older did not continue schooling past 6th grade), do not speak Spanish as their first language, and certainly do not have the resources (connections, money, education) to wage a truly spectacular effort. What’s more, they just don’t know where to begin nor what is needed to truly rise from their social position. All they know is that the government will continue to give handouts to keep them just above the extreme poverty line.

Group of indigenous waiting in line to receive handouts from the goverment
Group of indigenous waiting in line to receive handouts from the goverment

Positive trends

There is some good news to be shared. A few dedicated organizations realize the hurt on these communities and have made it their mission to help improve these social problems.

The Jädrán Association is an independent group in the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle recognized by the General Congress in the Comarca. With 2,000 members, they aim to be the voice for all in the Comarca who live in poverty and to fight for the rights of their people. Their mission is to demand training and development in the Comarca because they understand that the only way to change the situation of extreme poverty is with real opportunities, dignified jobs, and just and equal opportunity without any form of discrimination.

Orphanage and multipurpose building constructed by Jädrán Association
Orphanage and multipurpose building constructed by Jädrán Association

Another organization supporting the development of the people of the Comarca is Acción Cultural Ngóbe, created by priests and bishops of the Catholic Church who live and work in the Comarca to support the Ngäbe culture and to provide advice and help networking with larger institutions, especially focusing on strengthening legality and development of the indigenous population. However, it doesn’t seem that they have been active in recent years.

A wonderfully dedicated organization that works in an island indigenous community just outside of the Comarca is Give & Surf. They now provide a slew of services mainly focused on education, sustainability and community development. They have a strong base of foreign volunteers, either expats or short-term travellers, which provide critical ongoing support to the community. Floating Doctors also provides health services in areas of difficult access.

Last but not least, Faithful Servant Missions is an organization with connection to the Christian Church and they have built an orphanage in a town outside of the Comarca where many Ngäbes migrate to for seasonal work. They also provide food staples for around 40 families each month, many in remote areas in this region.

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This entry was posted on February 7, 2015 by in Minority Race/Poor/Indigenous Rights and tagged , .
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