Interview by Nuria Bolaños, Rainforest Alliance
“Fundación para la Promoción del Conocimiento Indígena directs an ecological and cultural tourism project in the Kuna Yala Comarca in Panama.”
Inatoy: The first phase of this project involved doing an analysis to identify ecotourism and cultural resources, completing a marketing study; holding three workshops for 10 communities in the Kuna Yala Comarca, with participation from 20 people who are ecotourism promoters in their respective villages….
We chose communities that have not developed any type of tourism activities. Residents make their livings from fishing and farming. They are communities that those that are located near the border of Colombia. We chose them to awaken their interest, via the seminars, in the use of natural and cultural resources as tourist attractions that they could take advantage of and manage themselves that would emphasize the difference in traditional beach and sun tourism that they are accustomed to developing in the western part of Kuna Yala. In that region there are more coral islands, reefs, and beaches, so they are more often visited and are the communities tat have suffered negative socio-economic, cultural and environmental impacts.
The most marked negative impact is reflected by the traditional tourism, for example: in the selling of molas, which are the blouses worn by Kuna woman. Creating molas is an art that began with designs that reflected the conception of the world, of nature, and of the spiritual life of the Kuna Nation, and now that it is transformed into a commercial trade, through tourism, is losing its spiritual value and quality. This is changing the designs of the molas according to the interests of the tourists, and at the same time, the Kuna women are losing their knowledge of the old designs and the interpretations and meanings of the mola designs. Also, young people no longer go to the fields to farm; they only wait for the tourists in order to sell some crafts and animals they trap in the forest in order to earn a few dollars.
At first only the North Americans or Latin Americans operated tourism hotels, but since they did not respect the rules of the communities or did not have codes of conduct, the tourists were kicked out in the 70s. Since then, the active participation of Latinos in hotel investments is no longer permitted. Recently two similar cases occurred. Two ecologically sophisticated hotels were built on unpopulated islands in the Comarca by Latino investors who were associates of the island owners, but without the legal consent of the General Kuna Congress, and the result was the same. (The hotel operators were kicked out.)
As a result of this, only the Kunas receive permits from the General Kuna Congress to operate small hotels, with the maximum capacity of 48 bed. In all of the Comarca, 12 hotels exist… and their growth is slow, due to lack of access to bank credits and support from the Government institutions that are responsible for promoting tourism. In these last few years, tourism has become more important and its growth has increased in the Comarca without any controls in certain instances, such as yacht tourism, cruise ship tourism and ecological and adventure tourism. For this reason, the General Kuna Congress is trying to make new regulations, which includes requirements that the tourists respect the Kuna culture. A tourism commission was created to control and guide this economic sector.
The diverse experiences and their impacts that the Kuna Pueblo has endured over the past 35 years have caused the communities to reject all tourism projects and all tourism activities. For the Kuna communities, the word ‘tourism’ has many connotations and the older people remember tourism as a bad experience. That’s why our project had certain problems in being accepted and getting the 10 communities to participate at first. The first thing we did to solve this problem was hold work meetings with the directors of the General Kuna Congress, to explain in detail about the project and leave copies of our plan for them to read.
After many meetings and explanations, we sought the approval of the General Kuna Congress. Then we proceeded to do the same explanations and discussions with the 10 communities involved in the project. During the workshops, we found we had three problems to overcome:
- Facilitators who understood the what ecotourism was, as opposed to traditional tourism.
- Facilitators who understood the Kuna language and some of the elements of the philosophy of the Kuna Pueblo.
- Implementation of the “Guide to better ecotourism practices in protected areas,” by Ana Baez, which was recommended by the donor, PROARCA/CAPAS as the handbook for the workshops.
Those three problems caused us to reorganize. The technical team took the responsibility of researching and documenting what ecotourism is (the truth is, there’s very little literature about this in Panama). Our own experiences and those of the communities with traditional tourism helped us to differentiate between tourism that is developed and tourism that is completely indigenous and that can be applied by rescuing and spreading our ancestral, cultural values. We can also adopt the recommendations in “Guide to better ecotourism practices in protected areas,” to our own reality with the experiences and needs of the Kuna Pueblo to manage our natural resources within our territory for the well being of the next generations, without turning away from the essence of our patrimonial culture.
As the project’s second phase, we developed a strategic ecotourism development plan for the Kuna Yala Comarca, three pilot plans for ecotourism development in the communities of Ailigandí, Ustupu y Muladupu, and solid waste management plans, plus gave training to three young people in how to be an ecotourism guide….The indigenous tourism pilot plan will be administrated, operated, promoted, and marketed by the Kuna, and our organization could do consulting and analysis work with interested communities.
Our experience shows us that ecotourism activities with an indigenous cultural base are nothing new; only the word is new. Different forms of tourism existed among our ancestors. For example, my grandfather is a medicine man a medicine man — a specialist in mental illnesses — and when he wanted to deepen his knowledge and learn about other medicinal plants, he would go to a neighboring community where there was another specialist. He would go with my grandmother, taking some plaintains and smoked fish to pay for their stay.
That was a form of tourism, exchanging knowledge. At other times, it was purely for fun, to hold parties, or religious encounters. In that sense, indigenous tourism must come from our own conception and not as a cultural or ethnic tourism package. The indigenous communities cannot be part of a tourism attraction, like an object for sightseeing.
Unfortunately, some institutions that promote tourism still use indigenous communities that way, so their daily lives remain socially, culturally and economically dependent on visitors. They put on a show to distract the visitors — that is not our intention with this project. There is also much talk about patrimonial tourism, visits to historic and archeological sites that are tourist attractions. But there’s a difference between colonial history and indigenous history. The indigenous villages have their own stories to tell.
If I’m going to bring tourists to indigenous communities, I have to speak about my own history: where the Kuna come from, their conception of the world, their dance, spirituality, their knowledge. For example, there’s site where Vazco Nuñez de Balboa was decapitated that could be a tourism attraction, but what this person symbolized for us is quite in contrast to Panamanian history. We can take visitors there and explain what the arrival of the Spanish, the colonial invasion, meant for us. This is why we are trying to use the term, “indigenous tourism,” to mean something different. We have to take part in the discussions about tourism development with other Indigenous Nations in Panama, like the Ngobe Bugle and the Emberá-Wounan, in order to obtain a consensus of all the Indigenous Nations about the concept of tourism in our communities.