The Emberá and Wounaan survive on subsistence agriculture supplemented by limited fishing and poultry raising. Historically both groups were more reliant on slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting, which are practices now restricted in the national park. Increased commercial rice and maize plantations offer work for seasonal migrant laborers.
The Emberá and Wounaan are also exceptional woodcarvers and basket weavers. Boas, frogs and birds were traditionally carved from dark reddish-brown cocobolo hardwood, and now tiny animal figurines are also made from tagua nuts. The women (especially the Wounaan) produce some of the finest baskets in Latin America. Woven from palm fibers, each requires months of intensive labor. These products fetch a high market price and provide a much-needed secondary income for most communities.
Built on stilts 3m to 4m off the ground, Emberá and Wounaan homes are extremely well suited to the rainforest. Flooring uses thin but strong strips of plentiful palm bark, and the vaulted design protects occupants and food from ground pests and swelling rivers. Medicinal plants and edible vegetables and roots are grown below. Many homes are thatched and open-sided for breezes, with barbecues and mud ovens.
Western clothing is replacing traditional attire, except among older women. Traditionally they wore only a skirt but they are increasingly donning bras and shirts. Many wear traditional jewelry, especially wide silver bracelets and elaborate silver-coin necklaces. They also stain their bodies with purplish-black designs made with juice from the jagua fruit. The henna-like dye is believed to have health-giving properties and wards off insects.
Like the Guna, the Emberá and Wounaan have a strong measure of political autonomy, though this is under threat by increasing external pressures. These include encroachment by interioranos (interior people), the 'Hispano-Indians' that make up the vast majority of the Panamanian population from Los Santos and Chriquí provinces, and habitat destruction by loggers, accelerated in recent years due to the paving of the Interamericana. Missionaries, particularly evangelicals, have almost entirely eliminated the traditional religious values of both groups. Youth move to the cities for their employment prospects, or work for drug traffickers as mules, both of which have prompted fears that the Emberá and Wounaan cultures are under serious threat.
Deforestation in the Darién
As little as 50 years ago, more than 70% of Panama was covered by forest. Now, deforestation is the country’s gravest environmental problem. Trees continue to be felled at a rapid pace, with the Darién serving as the ecological ground zero.
Logging trucks and river barges move the trunks to mills. Floated lumber is sprayed with a chemical that prevents rot but also wreaks havoc on the environment, particularly agricultural plots and fish stocks.
At stake are not only local animal populations but also migratory animals seeking seasonal food supplies. Rainforest destruction also threatens the traditional cultures of the Emberá and the Wounaan. Deforestation results in regional water shortages during the dry season, as well as a number of other environmental problems, ranging from pollution to erosion.
For much of the rural population, hunting and logging have been a way of life for generations. Many communities feel that their economic welfare is dependent on these practices. In 2011 Panama's national environmental agency sought the protection of the UN-backed convention governing trade in illegal species (CITES) to help regulate trade in its rare hardwoods because of rampant illegal logging, which continues today.
Fighting the problem isn't easy. Panama’s national parks are sparsely staffed, but their territory is colossal. In the Parque Nacional Darién, just 23 rangers of a total 255 protect 5790 sq km.
For more information on the environmental situation in Panama, visit the home page of ANCON.
Responsible Travel in the Darién
Travelers should carefully consider the impact they might have if they visit Emberá and Wounaan communities in the Darién. Unlike Guna Yala, the Darién sees few foreign visitors. Yet the Emberá and Wounaan are very hospitable.
Make an effort to respect the sensibilities of your hosts. Although some women still go topless, these are fairly conservative societies. Most villagers are happy to pose for a photo, but you should always ask first. Photos of communities sent back in thanks (via a guide) are treasured.
Instead of giving out candy or coins to village children, consider buying dictionaries, Spanish-language books and much-needed stationery supplies to donate to local schools.
Tourism has a long way to go in the region, which is one reason that a visit to an Emberá or Wounaan village is so refreshing. Visitors must work together with locals to promote cultural preservation.
Practical Tip: Know Before You Go
To visit the Parque Nacional Darién you must pay lodging fees before you go. Call the Ministerio de Ambiente in Panama City for the direct-deposit account number for the 'Cuenta de Vida Silvestre' at BNP (Banco Nacional de Panamá). Visit any branch, but be sure to keep your receipt to show at the Sede Administrativa Parque Nacional Darién in Yaviza, where you must stop to register (note: it's open only on weekdays until 4pm). If you somehow forget, the closest BNP branch to Yaviza is in Metetí.