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Indigenous Panama found their voices.

December 27, 2018

Panama is a country with many faces. The main and best known is that of its transoceanic canal, followed by that of its skyscraper capital. But there is one that is little known and that is crucial in its constitution as a country: that of its seven indigenous peoples, who represent more than 12% of the population.

Your situation is not easy. The vast majority live far from those skyscrapers, in areas rich in nature, but difficult to access with few basic services and a huge income gap. According to the Indigenous Latin American report of the 21st century, in Panama, indigenous men earn, on average, 57% less than non-indigenous men, while indigenous women earn around 70% less.

Since 2012, and following a violent episode, the government and the indigenous authorities have been conducting a permanent dialogue in order to close historical gaps in public investment and make them part of the country’s development, but in accordance with the vision and priorities themselves. In this interview, Dianna Pizarro, senior specialist in social development at the World Bank and manager of a new loan to support the implementation of this plan, explains what is being done to include indigenous communities in one of the most powerful countries in Latin America. .

Question. Panama is one of the countries that has grown the most in recent years, but there is an indigenous population that has not received the benefits of that growth. How to close the inclusion gap?

Answer. Certainly, Panama has achieved a very significant rate of economic growth and poverty reduction, but the benefits of that growth are not reaching indigenous territories in the same way. Panama, among the countries of Latin America, has the greatest inequalities in indicators of well-being, poverty, and access to basic services between the indigenous and non-indigenous population of the country. For example, being indigenous in Panama means that you have a life expectancy of almost a decade less than the national life expectancy. If you are an indigenous woman, you have five times the risk of maternal mortality than a non-indigenous Panamanian woman. Poverty reaches 86% of the population in indigenous territories compared to 12% of the non-indigenous population in Panama. The reasons for this reality of inequality are multiple, among which stand out a historical deficit of public investment in indigenous territories and decades in which there has been a lack of capacity and coordination between the Panamanian State and the indigenous authorities in the planning and implementation of the investment that has been made.

P. Recently, a World Bank project was launched to finance the Plan for the Integral Development of Indigenous Peoples in Panama. What is the plan? What are the main points?

A. The plan is a proposal of the 12 Indigenous Congresses and Councils to the Panamanian State for a national development policy for their territories. The plan, unprecedented in Latin America, was born from a dialogue table and a consultative process of indigenous communities at the national level between 2012 and 2014. This table was convened after a violent confrontation between the Ngabe People and the Government in 2012 when the Ngabe took to the streets to protest their rights to consult on investments in their territory, which resulted in the loss of life of two Ngabe and almost 89 injured. The plan proposes actions of governance, productive development and investments in basic infrastructure with quality and cultural relevance. The plan is unique for three reasons: first, it represents a national approach of all the indigenous peoples of the country. Second, it proposes an integral development, which requires multisectoral actions and inter-institutional coordination and planning by the State. Finally, the plan states that the same peoples should be partners and protagonists in their development process, so it is not about public programs developed by the government for indigenous peoples, but rather, public investments defined and implemented in conjunction with the government. them and based on their own vision and priorities for their territories.

Q. How do you see what the impact of this plan will be in the short and medium term in the communities?

R. In the short term, improvements are expected in the infrastructure and equipment of health, education and water and sanitation that has been prioritized by each of the 12 indigenous territories. In the medium term, a higher quality and cultural relevance of the provision of services in these sectors is expected. In the long term, a strengthened governance and coordination capacity is projected between the State and the Indigenous Authorities so that, in a proactive and fluid way, they respond to the needs and development priorities of the territories.

P. Mentions that this plan and the project financed by the Bank mark a milestone for Latinoamérica How can it be replicated in other countries with a large vulnerable indigenous population?

A. To replicate an experience, it is necessary to extract the elements of the model that have been key and that could occur in other scenarios. Each country in Latin America has its unique characteristics in relation to the capacity of its governments and the historical situation, organizational level and recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples. From this experience there are several innovative aspects that are replicable. In the first place, it is clear the need to preinvest in a robust process of consultation and articulation of a vision, plan or proposal from the beneficiary communities so that what is proposed has a great maximum of appropriation and commitment. In Panama, this process with the plan was facilitated by the United Nations Development Program. The second key aspect is the existence and investment in a permanent dialogue platform between the indigenous authorities, the State and other donors, which allows a fluid, continuous dialogue and a structured space to make decisions and resolve conflicts. The consultation required in these co-design processes is continuous and reiterative, which is why they can only work with structured and legitimate spaces for dialogue. The Government of Panama has shown a commitment and openness to make the decisions and proposals established in this space a reality, thus achieving a greater level of trust and showing good faith with the indigenous peoples. A third key aspect has been the participation of the indigenous authorities in each aspect of the preparation of the first project – financing by the World Bank – and that they will implement the plan, which creates coresponsibility in the decisions taken and appropriation for what is to come. Finally, the role of external actors, such as UNDP and the World Bank, not only gives greater guarantees to sustainability and facilitates mediation in times of conflict, but also allows the Panamanian process to draw on the global experience.