The “Kuna Yala”, sometimes spelled as “Guna Yala”, is the name of an autonomous territory in Panama that includes most of the northeastern Caribbean coast of this beautiful country. Remote, and wild, typical panoramas of the Kuna Yala include white sand beaches, tropical islets, and groves of coconut palms. The owners and caretakers of this tropical coastline are also an inherent part of the local scenery and have given this land its name. Known as the “Kuna”, they are an indigenous tribe that has resided in Panama for centuries.
When the first Spanish conquistadors arrived in Panama, Kuna Yala people lived in many parts of the isthmus. To escape enslavement and extermination, the Kuna Yala moved into the thick jungles closer to the Caribbean coast and traded with pirates and other seafarers that plied the waters of the San Blas archipelago. Upon realization that these islands lacked the diseases that plagued the mainland, the Kuna Yala eventually relocated to them and set up a number of small villages. They presently inhabit 40 or so islands and also live in a few areas on the mainland.
The Kuna Yala live off of the natural resources that abound in the tropical waters and forests of their territory. As befits living in close proximity to rich coral reefs, fish make up a large part of their diet. Small farms on the mainland provide a wide range of fruits and vegetables as well occasional chickens and pigs. In stark contrast to other parts of Panama and Latin America, the Kuna Yala don’t raise cattle. In fact, they are against raising cattle and this has protected the biodiverse rainforests that cover much of their land. Used for gathering medicinal plants and some ecotourism, these tropical forests also protect valuable watersheds. While the Kuna Yala is found from El Porvenir to the Columbian border, it only extends inland for 20 kilometers. A short mountain chain makes up much of the inland part of the territory.
A brief history of the Kuna Yala
Although the Kuna Yala have resided in their present day territory for at least 200 years, they didn’t always have the autonomy they experience at present times. They were mostly left to their own devices when Panama was part of Colombia but after independence in the early twentieth century, the newly formed Panamanian government established a larger, non-Kuna presence in the area. The Kuna Yala were strongly encouraged to give up many of their traditional ways and language by Panamanian police stationed on some of the islands. This backfired in the biggest way in 1925 when the Kuna Yala rose up in rebellion and ended up killing several policemen along with a few Kuna Yala people who were government sympathizers.
This short rebellion ended when the Kuna Yala pledged their allegiance to the Panamanian government after the promise that no Panamanian police would be stationed in Kuna Yala territory expect for the more modern community of Nargana. Guarantees were also given regarding the cultural and political autonomy of the Kuna Yala. As the twentieth century progressed, further autonomy was given to the Kuna Yala and they continue to have control over the Kuna Yala autonomous territory or comarca. Their official flag can be seen in some Kuna Yala settlements; a swastika (an ancient Kuna symbol) on a yellow background with orange borders.
During the 1970s, the Kuna Yala became concerned about encroachment on their territory as settlers were encouraged to clear forest in much of Panama. Very few Kuna Yala lived along the southern border of their lands and they were especially worried about an area where a road was built as this could provide access to settlers. Some Kuna Yala people attempted to protect this site by setting up farms but this was thwarted by poor soils and high rainfall. To help the Kuna Yala protect their lands and forests, researchers from the Costa Rican Tropical Agriculture Center for Research and Teaching (CATIE) worked with the tribe to devise plans for setting up a 60,000 hectare protected area. This was established and is known as the PEMASKY Nature Park.
**If you would like to bring gifts to Kuna Yala, please bring school supplies. No gum or candy.