Indigenous Congress…what an experience!

April 1, 2009 | Eleni, Intern, Emberá Drúa Community

These last 2 weeks have been full of interesting events and learning. Last week I attended my first indegenous congress here in Panama, and it was definitely very interesting and also one of the most boring experiences I have ever had. The congress consisted of 6 Embera and or Wounaan indigenous communities that live outside of thier reservation in the Darien province. This congress was to work out the issue of thier land rights in the Chagres National Park, as they occupied the land before the park had a governmental status, and many many many other issues mostly relating to improving thier respective businesses which relate to tourism, how to demand better working relationships with tour operators who often take advantage of thier sites in promotion of their own agenda, and also aid agencies attended to work with communities in advising and training to move businesses forward. And as the Panamanian national elections are underway, you can be sure that candidates and their parties showed up to earn votes.

The congress lasted 4 days…and the language spoken was spanish and embera. The meetings would start at 7:30am and go until minimum 6pm. Male leaders dominated the floor, and I swear some of them just enjoyed having an audience…so they would carry on and on. Perhaps its my westernized conditionning, but there was absolutley no sense of agenda and i feel like the topics covered in 4 days, could have been completed in a day and a half. The seats we sat on were big logs and your behind would be completely numb by 10am….and then the afternoon heat strikes and its game over. Perhaps the communities are used to this and know what to expect so they seemed okay with it, but nonetheless some people get out of line and fall asleep, or talk to their neighbor, or show up late or not at all….and there is most certainley a price to be paid. There are a minimum of 10 males that stand guard around the meeting with long wooden sticks….some even have thorns, allowing you to use the bathroom only by permission and to castigize anyone who misbehaves. For example, if you fall asleep, you get whipped, if you talk-you get whipped, if you really get out of line, then you are put into a Seppo, a wooden lock for your legs, then your feet are elevated and you are stuck on your behind and left out in the sun for 2 hours, no mercy, as the evil ants here chew away at your behind. I had to ask myself where i was!! and i really really did my best to not drowse off…what a challenge!! and this is how indigenous congresses go here! then we were hosted in a community members home, which was built from concrete, totally different than my tree’house 11 feet off the ground!! It was certainly an experience to be had, but also one that I wish not to repeat…it was some of the hardest work i have done to be seated in such a way, for so long, for 4 days-words cannot describe!!

In the meantime i am preparing my report as best i can with little power ressources i have…the solar panel is just not reliable and i get at most a good 2 hours a day depending on how well i can charge the computers aalong with the priority of teaching computers…my needs have come last! but, such is the way of things here and i will prevail! At the moment I am wondering how i will get back to the port in time as we have to convince a taxi to take a really long, horrible, alternate route to get back to the port because the main road has been closed for a protest demanding water. I wish them luck!! and i also wish to get home tonight!!!

good luck everyone on your reports!!!!


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