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At a glance: Panama

Indigenous leaders in Panama promise a better future for their children

© UNICEF Panama/2010/Ostrander
An Emberá indigenous girl embraces her mother in Vista Alegre, a two-hour boat ride from Yaviza, Panama, near the conflict-affected Colombian border.

By Marti Ostrander

YAVIZA, Panama, 29 July 2010 – In the small remote community of Yaviza, in Panama’s Darién province, the ‘caciques’ – leaders of the communities in the Emberá Wounáan Indigenous Territories – gathered together and promised that they would become a ‘child-friendly’ area. It is the first time that leaders of an indigenous territory have prioritized children in this way.

A child-friendly territory, district or municipality understands that children have rights and places those rights at the centre of its agenda. It also supports education and health services and creates participation spaces in the community.

Child-friendly committees

Eighteen of the 20 communities along the Tuira and Alto Tuira areas, including small towns near the conflict-affected Colombian border, have formed child-friendly committees.

© UNICEF Panama/2010/Ostrander
The Tuira-Chucunaque river in Panama is the lifeblood of the Emberá Wounaan indigeous communities.

These communities are in isolated locales accessible by canoe.

“We need to remember that together we can do a lot. Alone, we can´t,” said UNICEF Representative in Panama Una McCauley. “Together we have a higher voice to benefit all boys and girls.”

Ms. McCauley also praised the work of the indigenous leaders in their territories. “It´s you that work in your communities, giving your personal and collective compromise. Now, let´s make it a legal compromise that unites us and gives us a route on how to improve the lives of this generation.”

A common struggle

She added that while a child-friendly ‘comarca,’ or indigenous region, is unique in the world, they are not alone. There are districts, municipalities and even child-friendly towns that share the same challenges – the fight against poverty and the lack of access to basic services such as education and health.

© UNICEF Panama/2010/Ostrander
Indigenous leader Benicio Cancarí and UNICEF Representative in Panama Una McCauley meet during an event where the leaders promised to put children first.

The Emberá Wounaan territories, in the Darien province, is the poorest area in the Republic of Panama. It is estimated that 55 of every 1,000 children here die before the age of five – about double the national average. The rate of children repeating grades in elementary school here is 17.5 per cent, while the national average is under 6 per cent, and the vast majority of its population does not have access to drinking water.

The Emberá Wounaan have their own culture, beliefs and language. Schooling, however, is still conducted in Spanish, Panama´s official language.

‘Agents of change’

Aureliano Itucama, a traditional leader from the comarca, made his commitment to children very clear.

“We need to take care of them, since they are vulnerable,” he said. “The boys and girls need support from the Estate, and we promise we will work on it.”

Benicio Cancarí, an indigenous leader from Panama’s Tuira-Chucunaque area, said the communities are now working together for children. “It is our turn now to be agents of change, so that we can all understand that we need to compromise and we are promising to be friends of children.”



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