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"A Foot in the Door" (Panama)

Copyright 2002 -- story by Luke Shullenberger

You are the last of the true explorers in a world with no frontiers left to cross. Your admirable crusade is to help native communities in Central America at the crossroads of development to come to grips with the idea of a balance between cultural/environmental preservation and market economy. You have a list of aid projects and a map full of needy indigenous communities. And with your belief in the universal acceptance of the philanthropist's creed "good will towards men" you expect to touch down in each wayward hamlet and step through the open door into a warm embrace from the local people.

If you flash dollars you will get all the smiles, but if you plan anything ambitious that involves more sweat equity than budget, be prepared with boundless patience, energy and detailed answers. The past 500 years of interactions with conquistadors, traders, missionaries, military and politicians has created a legacy of betrayal, broken promises and misconstrued intentions. It's a sad and poignant commentary to see the village leaders' brows furrow and lips and eyes tighten with wariness and doubt when you show up and say, "we're here to help you."

For us, the Central American Sea Kayaking Expedition 2000 (CASKE 2000) began in the fall of 1998 with a vision to combine extreme adventure and altruism. Expedition leader Jean-Philippe was well prepared. His resume included stints in the French Special Forces and solo explorations among the Yali and Dani tribes of Indonesia's remote frontier province of Irian Jaya. His planning for the expedition was thorough and detailed. By the time we embarked he had established a network of dozens of contacts in a long list of destinations stretching from Mexico to Panama. It was the result of nearly two years of research and participation in online academic, scientific and political communities and communication with members on the respective mailing lists. When I joined the expedition eight months prior to departure in the winter of '98 I was astounded at the depth of his address book; there was a contact name associated with most waypoints on our itinerary. The problem however was that those points were only the larger towns, the gateways to the indigenous homelands. There was no way to get a feel for the climate of acceptance in the remote villages themselves. All the contacts were made online. They were political leaders, scientists and local tour operators who all had tangential associations with the indigenous communities. They couldn't guarantee that we would be well received. We departed with ambitious plans to produce revealing documentaries and to promote cultural tourism in remote native communities, with no assurances that we would be able to complete any of them. It was a leap of faith.

Our first foray, into the Mayan community of Blue Creek in southern Belize, was remarkably smooth. We arrived at the riverside village as paying tourists and laid the groundwork for a longer stay. Although the village is a poor, marginalized farming community, they know the value of tourism and were very willing to lead us around the community, the surrounding jungle and through all aspects of their lives. With Ignacio Coc and his family we explored wet caves with headlights, tracked iguanas, studied medicinal and edible plants, pressed sugar cane, cooked on the wood-fired comal and caught poisonous snakes and tarantulas by flashlight. It was a great success. We gathered tremendous footage and material for the website and as a result many of our online followers have visited Blue Creek, thus benefiting the local economy. It was perfect. We walked up and they opened the doors to their world. But in a way, it spoiled us. Our first experience should have been more difficult. It didn't prepare us for future challenging negotiations. We would come to realize that many indigenous groups in Central America--who have been taken advantage of and mislead countless times throughout history--are extremely wary and aloof.

In every subsequent village, the first and most crucial hurdle to clear was the clarification of our intentions and our goals and the establishment of rapport with village leaders. Without endorsement from them, often you are no longer welcome to stay. For example, among the Kuna people in the Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands) of Panama, the Saila (head chief) and his council greet you and if they don't approve of your mission, you're off the island before sundown, no second chances. The sad crux of many of our negotiations with them was money. Market economy has come to the most remote corners of the world. Native communities are aware that their culture and their faces are the commodity. It was difficult for the Saylas to believe that we were indeed "non-profit," that we were not looking to capitalize on images or materials gathered in their community. We spent hours explaining the concept of Internet and the idea of a non-profit website that would promote their culture, way of life and advertise cultural tourism programs in their villages. Their curiosity was tempered with great skepticism and we answered endless questions. They were consummate businessmen and politicians.

After our success in Belize, we faced our first resistance in a Pech Indian village in the Mosquito Coast region of Honduras. We arrived expecting to be accepted, no-questions-asked, wherever we went. In some way we believed that our strong convictions and altruistic mission endowed us with an aura that would broadcast our intentions, that upon arrival we'd be given the royal welcome. Like self-righteous religious missionaries, we were deluded by the grandeur of our "worthy cause".

We paddled our kayaks nearly 300 miles from southern Belize along the coast and eventually up into the Rio Platano Biosphere. And all along the way we were curiosities, two gringos in alien "cayucos", and we were treated extremely well. But we were tourists; only stopping for the night, and knowing that, they welcomed us in the way a friendly innkeeper welcomes weary travelers. Yet when we tried to go deeper, we noticed hesitancy. When we reached Las Marias, 30 miles up the Rio Platano in the heart of the biosphere, and expressed our interest to stay for a week and immerse ourselves in and document the culture, we ended up spending an entire day negotiating with the political leaders of the village. And as it turns out, you can't just buy faith, you must earn it. I mostly sat listened and watched while Jean-Philippe spent hours explaining our project. The long day at the political round table was worth it. Once they understood, they warmed up and we spent an incredible week learning about traditional agriculture, edible plants, thatched roofs, hunting, Pech oral history, the legend of the lost city Ciudad Blanca, and other aspects of their daily lives. It turned out to be as successful as our project with Blue Creek and we continue to receive mails from visitors who saw that section of the website and decided to take off for a jungle adventure in Las Marias.

In all of our travels over the past three years, Panama has presented us with the most logistical obstacles. The five major indigenous groups are more politically organized than those in any other country in Central America. The feisty Kuna people led the way 75 years ago when they staged a revolution and secured the right to autonomous rule of their territory. The other main groups, the Embera, Wounan and Ngobe-Bugle all have representation in the national assembly and their own political agendas. And in most communities, all projects initiated by outsiders are examined very closely. We made successful visits, gathered wonderful documentary material and made great friends in most places that we visited but the negotiation that preceded each stay was a triumph of will.

When it comes to negotiation, I usually stand back and observe Jean-Philippe in action. His exploratory first attempts at diplomacy in Belize and Honduras have now become an art form. Within minutes of the first encounter, he is usually able to establish a warm, candid rapport with people. However, in Panama the memories of the violence and betrayal of the Noriega regime are still fresh and that combined with a new, heightened sense of entitlement among the indigenous groups has created a shell of skepticism that is hard to crack.

First on our itinerary was the remote Kuna Yala archipelago, the land of the Kuna people, and as we came to realize, getting there was the least of our worries. Their territory, also known as the San Blas islands, extends for 200 miles along the Caribbean coast of Panama from the canal-zone to the Colombian border. It is entirely controlled by the Kuna and governed by a Kuna Congress that is represented in the national assembly in Panama City. Tourists may visit a number of islands that have "approved" lodges and programs. Sailors may cruise the archipelago and anchor offshore of the islands. However, no wagas (outsiders) may be in any Kuna village after dark unless staying at a Kuna-operated lodge. The Kuna keep a tight reign on all marine resources; for wagas there is no fishing, spearfishing, diving for crab or lobster, etc. allowed. No wagas may marry or have relations with Kuna. All immediate interactions must go through the Saylas of the village. Other business and large projects must be brought to the Kuna Congress. And as far as I can tell, nothing is guaranteed. You cannot hope for consistent policy and rational decision-making. Their whims change as often as the wind. We joined the authorized Mtn. Travel Sobek paddling tour for a week with the understanding that we would continue island hopping on our own for two more weeks. Yet even the presence of a Kuna guide was of no assistance to us in most island villages. Saylas willing to consider our projects demanded exorbitant permit fees and by others we were told matter-of-factly, "it is not for wagas to document Kuna culture."

Weeks later, while paddling the Pacific coast, an injury to Jean-Philippe curtailed our itinerary and we considered a return to the Kuna Yala. It had been our goal all along to produce in-depth, insightful documentaries of all major indigenous groups along the way and, there were serious gaps in our coverage of the Kuna. We yearned to document a puberty ceremony, one of the most important socio-religious events in Kuna culture. We were hopeful but knew that our chances were slim.

Via a mutual friend, Jean-Philippe set up a meeting with the president of the Kuna Congress and went to meet him at a popular diner in Panama City. Not knowing what to expect, he showed up early and waited. In the door walked a diminutive, round little man with a long nose and barrel chest typical of Kuna men. However, the man had one attribute that caught Jean-Philippe completely off-guard. He was albino, entirely pale and freckled with sandy red hair. A man, who in any other culture in the world would be an outcast, was the most powerful politician of a fiercely proud people.

Jean-Philippe made a very complete presentation. He pulled out photos from past projects, showed him the website, and explained thoroughly the manner in which online promotion could benefit a limited tourism industry in the Kuna Yala. He spared no efforts and turned on all his charms. The president seemed impressed. Jean-Philippe sensed that he was ready to capitulate and raised his hopes. And in the next moment they were dashed. The whole thing boiled down to an issue of money. The concept of unlimited online promotion and growth of the tourism industry appealed to the president yet he was highly skeptical that the family and the village leaders would be able to grasp the concept of a broad documentary project and its extended benefits for the whole Kuna economy. The realization that capitalism and its attendant craving for immediate gratification had taken deep root in this culture was a big blow to our idealistic notion of indigenous peoples. It was a crushing lesson in the power of economic development and the responsibility of those who initiate and promote it.

The poor Ngobe-Bugle communities of western Panama live literally between a rock and a dry, hard place and they have learned a lot about political organization the hard way. During the eight-month dry season, they scratch out a living in the parched high country growing coffee for sale and corn for sustenance. They have seen the Kuna pillage their marine resources. They have seen the rainforest-dwelling Embera and Wounan lose their forestland. They have seen their own youth leave for the ghettos of Panama City and any menial labor they can find. They want more for themselves.

The Day we arrived in the dusty village of Soloy, the open-walled church had been turned into a veritable legislature. Leaders from all the villages in the area had mustered for the meeting. There were committees, sub-committees, investigations assigned, reports given using stats and charts scribbled onto blackboards, etc., etc. It was incredible. Jean-Philippe wanted to talk to the "mayor" to get permission to do a three-day documentary and we had to wait for five hours for the meetings to adjourn. We were then directed to the town office, a crumbling cement building (besides the school house, the only non-wood structure in town) where we were obliged to pay a small tax and purchase a reasonably-priced "Authorization" from the town government. We then sat with three different sub-committees while Jean-Philippe presented our ideas and project proposal and showed them examples of past work on our little portable computer.

Innocence lost! These days when you wander into a remote native community that from the outside appears to be stuck in time, surviving on subsistence agriculture and limited trade, you never know what forces you may find stirring behind the scenes. In this case, despite the inconveniences, it was inspiring to see them agitating for improvement. Small-scale, self-managed, responsibly operated tourism usually speaks for itself as a development solution. It took us as two enthusiastic advocates and two hours of multi-media presentations to get them to buy into it, but they did and as a toast, onto the table set in the sweltering, dusty 90 degree shade of a huge tree they plunked down steaming mugs of fresh-brewed, local, highland coffee and we sipped, sweated and communed.

Throughout the past couple years as mostly a spectator to most of the negotiations I noticed a pattern in the way Jean-Philippe's approach. To the village leaders he stressed the importance of creating an important and enduring archive of beautiful images and educational content about their culture as a way to promote a sustainable local economy of cultural tourism. The most important key words that he repeated regularly were things like, "local," and "self-managed," and "sustainable". He stressed that their lifestyles, traditions, art and knowledge of their environment were the true enduring resources, renewable ones that could form the basis of a small economy that in turn could provide improved health-care and education. The idea that small groups of tourists would be interested in and would pay to be led through the every-day activities of villagers was an epiphany to many. Their eyes would widen, almost visibly emitting rays of curiosity, as if a door into a brightly lit house had opened just a crack. Then Jean-Philippe would cross the void, unfold the computer, slide his foot in the door and let vivid images of native peoples from other far off places spill across the screen.

Luke Shullenberger


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