June 4, 2012 will go down in history for the Wounaan communities of Puerto Lara and Caña Blanca, in the Darién of Panama. They received their collective land titles and will become the first to obtain their titles under a new law. This is an important victory for the indigenous peoples of Eastern Panama, who have fought for over 30 years to secure official rights to their lands. Over 600 people attended the ceremonies in Puerto Lara, which included the official hand-over of the titles and traditional dances.
Panama has five comarcas -- large, semi-autonomous indigenous lands. The comarca system, however, left tens of thousands of indigenous people without any form of title to their traditional lands, opening the way for invasions by ranchers and loggers. This includes 32 collective lands in Eastern Panama, which were left out of the Emberá Wounaan Comarca when it was created in 1983. Since then, the Emberá and Wounaan have fought for recognition of their lands, and in 2008, Law 72 was passed, allowing for the titling of collective indigenous lands. In 2010, enabling legislation was passed, setting forth the process for obtaining those titles.
The Wounaan communities of Puerto Lara and Caña Blanca will become the very first communities to receive their titles under Law 72. They will also be the first indigenous lands titled in Panama since 2000. In its announcement, the Wounaan National Congress stated: "On June 4th we will celebrate the titling of two Wounaan collective lands. However, we see this as a beginning: a beginning for these two communities, who will now be able to develop and live in peace on their lands; but also for the rest of the Wounaan and Emberá communities, who still seek official recognition of their collective lands." 39 Embera and Wounan communities, spread over 1.1 million acres in Eastern Panama still lack titles.
More information about how the Rainforest Foundation is working with indigenous communities there and elsewhere can be found here.