Western Panamá’s Indigenous People

Note: I write only of the indigenous people I have observed. The photos are from the Internet, as I am not comfortable filming them or their homes.

My heart really goes out to the indigenous coffee workers for their hard work and living conditions. It seems that all of the housing provided for these workers are long barrack-like structures, most in dilapidated condition. Those nearest me at the time had no doors on what might have been 1 or 2 room accommodations with dirt floors and lacking electricity. I’m told they often have a couple of bunk beds inside and the family members might sleep two to a bed and in shifts through the day and night. I did see some evidence of propane, so there must have been some cooking facility inside.

The men all dress in standard work clothes and rubberized boots, appropriate for working among the coffee trees. The women have  a stylized dress (unique to each tribe) and varies only in color. These are true for the little girls as well. The boys all play soccer during the day. When they get older, they too will work in the fields. The women generally are overweight, probably due to their diet. Despite the poverty, they all seem to have cell phones. The central plaza in Boquete provides free charging stations, so it is common to see these people standing around while their phones charge. It’s hard for me to look at these people and see any hope for a brighter future.

There are seven tribes of indigenous peoples in Panamá making up 12% of the country’s population or about 418,000. Two tribes, the Ngäbe and Buglé (sometimes linked together) are the most numerous, living predominately in Chiriquí Province in Western Panamá. Each of these tribes have their own language and they may not know Spanish. If children are educated in a school, they may learn a little Spanish. If they go to school, they generally attend only up to the 6th grade. This may be due to little availability of transportation or even the lack of roads.

In addition to the coffee workers, there are those working in the greenhouses, growing all the vegetables for the country. Some of these greenhouses stretch as far as the eye can see. Since the workers are inside, they are less visible to the passerby. Still, their life must be on par with the coffee workers. It angers me that all these workers are not treated better or given better opportunities. Panamá does, however, give the indigenous some financial breaks, as the country could not survive without them.

Author: Warren R. Johnson

I am a US citizen living in Cuenca, Ecuador. I have retired from two long-lasting careers: an ordained minister with an exclusive ministry in sacred music (organist-choirmaster), and a book dealer (2 stores and Internet selling). Another shorter career was as a data manager in medical research. Today, I am pursuing a writing career.

3 thoughts on “Western Panamá’s Indigenous People”

  1. It’s really sad to learn of the way some people spend their entire lives, while we in most of the U.S. (with some notable and awful exceptions) have every advantage known to humanity.

  2. Thank you for this educational blog. Like Dawna, I did not realize that each tribe had its own language, and that most of these people could not speak Spanish.

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