How Rainforest Baskets Help
It may be a mental stretch to link the burgeoning collector interest in a fairly new, world-class art form constructed of natural raw materials with the protection of a fragile rainforest ecosystem from which these raw materials are taken, but that’s precisely what Wounaan basketry is all about.
As the number of serious collectors of fine Panamá Hösig Di baskets grows around the world, so, too, does the awareness by the Panamanian government that the creators of these museum-quality works have the right to live peacefully on their lands without threat of squatters and drug runners.
Panamá, sometimes referred to as a barrier between oceans and bridge between two continents, forms the very southern extremity of North America. Like a branding iron “S” fallen on its back, it curves from west to east. Colombia flanks its eastern border; Costa Rica lies to the west.
At its widest point north to south, Panamá stretches just 130 miles. At its most narrow point, it is a mere 30. The importance of this beachfront real estate centered on the long-ago discovery that it was not at all a barrier between two oceans—the Atlantic and Pacific. In fact, its fortuitous isthmus would earn Panamá the title, “Crossroads of the World.” Today, people of all nationalities as well as 12,000 ships annually pass through its famous canal, a costly venture begun by the French and completed by the Americans. And many of those international visitors purchase tourist-grade Panamá rainforest baskets.
In 1501, long before the canal’s water-filled locks lifted ocean liners a notch at a time up, up and away—sea to shining sea—enterprising explorer Rodrigo de Bastidas pressed his boot in Panamá’s Atlantic coast sands and claimed her in the name of Spain.
A dozen years later, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, acting as governor of Spain’s now new lush colony, led the first expedition eastward, across the isthmus to that massive, glistening body of water that appeared so “pacific.”
What happened next formed the tapestry of Latin American history. Vanquishing the indigenous people during the 1500s opened wide the doors to further conquest and, from these successes, sprang the realization that Central and South America were treasure-troves for the taking.
During the 1530s Francisco Pizarro, having relieved the Incans of their gold, built a stone road across Panamá to transport their unfathomable riches to ships poised to set sail for Spain.
Booty out. Blacks in. The new trade system went both ways. Trafficking able-bodied Africans transformed Panamá into a New World distribution center for slaves. After three centuries, cutting ties with Spain only changed who pulled Panamá’s strings. The Crossroads of the World was now tethered to Colombia as its province. The relationship strained, Panamá revolted against Colombia again and again.
Finally, in 1903, the little beachfront country declared its independence. The new Constitution of the Republic of Panamá granted its citizens freedom of speech and religion, but not freedom from exploitation of its natural resources.
Panamá’s greatest economic resource was no doubt the Canal. Bisecting Panamá into eastern and western regions, the canal was opened on August 15, 1914. In 1977 Panamá and the United States signed a treaty designed to transfer the Canal Zone to Panamá. Two years later U.S. President Carter promised that on December 31, 1999, the U.S. would (and did) place the canal in Panamanian hands. Even though many Americans are now gone, about 98% of Panamá’s population still lives near or west of the canal.
As a crossroads, Panamá became a gene pool for myriad races. Mestizos, people of mixed American Indian and white ancestry, and mulattoes, people of black and white ancestry, make up about 70% of the current population.
By law, children between the ages of 7 and 15 are required to attend school. Within time, schools emerged even in remote villages. Compared to many Latin countries, Panamá’s economy thrived. Today its metropolitan city is service-based, heavily weighted in banking, commerce and tourism. Agriculture employs about a fourth of Panamá’s workers—more people than does any other single economic activity.
Panamá is divided into nine provinces, each headed by a governor appointed by the president. To environmentalists, perhaps the most well-known of these provinces is the Darién. One of the most biologically diverse regions in Central America, the Darién is a lush convergence site for thousands of species from North and South America. Comprising 16,671 square kilometers on the eastern flank of Panamá, bordering both oceans and Colombia, this fragile, already exploited rainforest ecosystem needed additional protection.
Panamá took a step toward preservation in 1980 and set aside 5,790 square kilometers of the Darién as a National Park. In 1981 UNESCO recognized the Park as a World Heritage Site. And it was designated as a Biosphere Reserve two years later. But these efforts didn’t stop the assault on this ecosystem. Special government-issued permits enabled foreign industries to operate within park boundaries. Outside park boundaries mining, farming, ranching and logging persisted. And indigenous peoples of the Darién felt the effects of the squeeze.
Monitoring exploitative big business in Third World countries, global non-profit organizations spoke out. The World Rainforest Movement (WRM), in its April 2002 bulletin No. 57, states: Although the government of Panamá says, on the one hand, that it promotes the conservation and protection of the remaining forests, on the other hand, it wants to promote the mining activity within the national territory, and even inside protected areas.
Almost all indigenous territories are included in the requests for mining exploration permits, even though mining activity is against the religious and spiritual principals of the indigenous peoples. It is thus necessary to adopt measures for the recognition of traditional rights of the indigenous peoples to their
It had seemed as though the world took greater interest in the preservation of Panamá’s rainforests than did the country itself. In fact, much of the conservation efforts on behalf of the Darién have been made possible by the financial support of international organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Agency for International Development, World Wildlife Fund—U.S., and World Wildlife Fund—U.K., among others.
Commerce requires transportation routes. About one-third of Panamá’s roads are paved. The major road is a section of the Pan American Highway, a 29,525-mile route from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
The concept of linking North and South American with a viable transportation corridor had sprung up in the late 1800s. By 1940 more than 60% of the highway between the U.S. and Panamá had been completed. It penetrated Darién Province in 1973. Still an unpaved road, ominously in 1984 it reached, then ended, at the small but busy commercial stopover of Yaviza, a mere 24 kilometers from the National Park.“
The Darién Gap, as it is now known, is that missing link in the transcontinental highway. Deliberately left incomplete my mutual agreement of Panamá and Colombia to help control drug trafficking and cross-border crime, the Gap stretches from Yaviza through 107 kilometers of dense jungle to the other side of the Colombian border. But despite the outcry of indigenous peoples, secondary roads have already opened some of the Darién’s interior to resource exploitation. And one of the resources of a rainforest is timber.“According to a Smithsonian Institution study, Darién timber has been an important export and, unfortunately, wetland areas have been prime logging sites. But logging isn’t the only intrusion on the rainforest’s residents.
This same study also contends that an increasing number of colonists from western Panamá “disrupt cultural values of the indigenous peoples of the Darién.” The Wounaan and Emberá manage only small agricultural plots, mostly along rivers and streams and conduct limited hunting. Their impact on the rainforest remains relatively low.
A Smithsonian fact sheet summarizing results of its field study states: “The construction of the Pan American highway through part of [indigenous peoples’] homeland has resulted in deforestation and colonization by outsiders. With their traditional resource base eroded, indigenous villages near the highway are finding other ways to survive. Producing a sustainable income from the intact rainforest, tagua and other natural, non-timber forest products (NTFP) can provide both stability for rural people and an alternative to rainforest destruction.”
The Wounaan and Emberá peoples, who share the Darién with pockets of non-related Kuna Indians, not only learned to live off this land in what is one of the most remote territories in the hemisphere, but they’ve also learned to rely on NTFP as a primary income source. They weave natural fiber baskets—the highest quality found anywhere in the world, according to some collectors and museum curators. Opening the Darién to resource exploitation could change all that.
“Paving to Yaviza is OK, but not all the way to Colombia,” says a Panamá City businesswoman whose commitment is to her rainforest home and her Wounaan family still living there. The first Wounaan master weaver invited to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, she and her Emberá husband make the arduous journey to Darién villagesmany of which are accessible only by dugout canoe and river travelabout once a month. Tirelessly, they work with Wounaan and Emberá weavers (as well as with skilled male carvers) to help promote their indigenous art form and bring the artisans' creations to market.
Their mission is to help their people build a strong economic base. Mirroring the convictions of an increasing number of educated, far-thinking tribal leaders, this husband-wife team believes that achieving financial security translates not only to more secure family units, but also to a greater potential for indigenous people to protect their valuable rainforest resources.
Santa Fe photographer Lorran Meares, invited presenter at past annual Wounaan Congresos, spoke on the issues of conservation and preservation by indigenous peoples. Throughout the Congresos tribal representatives emphatically voiced their concern that completion of the Pan American Highway literally would pave the way for “more Colombian guerilla activity, drug trafficking, logging and destruction of the rainforest.”
Paving the often-washed-out, deeply rutted road to bustling Yaviza not only would eliminate some hardship for local residents, but it would ease travel from Panamá City to villages splintered off this axel-breaker. “But beyond that, it’s…well…it’s sacred rainforest,” echo Congreso representatives.
There are many ways to stop the Pan American Highway, a few pipe up. Sabotage of giant earth-movers—actions reminiscent of the U.S.’s Monkey Wrench Gang—is just one of them. For the moment, gratefully, that shoe doesn’t fit.
“I would rather get a brujo!” blurts out one leader. Instantly heads nod in agreement. “A brujo working with the spirits could be much more powerful than the machines,” he puffs.
In 2005 the Latina newspaper La Prensa gave over a full-page, four-color spread to cover the continuing conflicts of highway, guerillas and, increasingly, brazen squatters who claim Wounaan and Emberá lands. To the horror of indigenous peoples of the Darién, squatters are pressuring for federal support to lay claim not only to small plots, but also to an entire village. At this moment, the village’s fate is hanging in the balance because government recognition of Wounaan rights (and to a lesser degree, rights of the Emberá) is so much dust on the wind. A few handfuls of concerned Americans have joined forces with the Wounaan to garner international attention to their legal battle and provide organizational support.
A recent newsletter published by the Rainforest Alliance, one of many global conservation non-profits, states that satellite photography shows nearly 10,000 square miles of irreplaceable habitat—more than 6,000,000 acres—were destroyed throughout 2002 in Brazil’s famed Amazon alone.
Wounaan Congreso leaders fear sufficient opposition to this kind of exploitation of the Darién could be too little too late.
The Smithsonian study mentioned earlier validates their concerns. Among the threats to the rainforest, it reveals, cattle ranching ranks high. In fact, researchers have determined that ranching has contributed to the destruction of more than half of Central America’s jungle since the 19th century, with most of the conversion taking place in the last 50 years. The degradation takes place in two short phases. Squatters’ cleared farmlands, useless after a few years for growing much other than grass, can be bought cheaply by politicians and big businessmen and run as cattle ranches.
In a recent newsletter, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), an intergovernmental organization promoting the conservation and sustainable management, use and trade of tropical forest resources, states that the main threat to the Darién comes from deforestation, “as colonist fronts move into the province following logging roads and other access points.” Colonists’ slash and burn policy can have devastating effects. “In the dry season of 1998, assisted by the effects of El Nino, colonists’ fires escaped into 8,000 hectares of unexploited Darién forest.”
The encroachment of squatters and others on indigenous lands, “where communities lack land rights outside the legally recognized reservations and, therefore, are subject to the destructive activities of those who do not utilize nor value the non-timber forest products,” cannot be ignored, ITTO says.
Watchdog organizations are plentiful. Many lobby successfully for protection of earth’s fragile places and its indigenous peoples. Others speak loudly and carry a big stick. Will it be enough? The rainforest is not only home to the Wounaan and Emberá, it is also their source for the raw materials that maintain their cottage industry—basket making.
In his opening address to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Roundtable on Intellectual Property and Indigenous Peoples, Geneva, July 23-24, 1998, Roberto Castelo spoke loudly: It is my hope that this Roundtable may advance appreciation and understanding of the fact that human creativity springs from many different sources of inspiration and achieves expression in many different forms. I also hope that we may begin to see a path forward towards ensuring that the benefits of all human creativity, wherever and however generated and maintained, may be protected, respected and shared according to commonly recognized and respected principals.
That is also the hope of the Darien’s Wounaan and Emberá peoples. To preserve their intellectual property and rainforest homeland, they believe, is to prolong their traditional lifeways. There is a sense of urgency. Destruction of the Darién’s fragile ecosystem is a stone skipped across a pond—its ripples far-reaching. Wounaan leaders implore government officials who have met their concerns with closed eyes and ears to awaken. Awaken…before the brilliant butterflies and flowers of yet another once-pristine rainforest exist only as intricately woven designs on weavers’ baskets.