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Rough Cut: Panama: The Last Medicine Woman
Background Facts and Related Links
Read more about the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands and follow links to stories about the growing controversy over biopiracy.

Kuna Indians

Kuna Yala, the indigenous name for Kuna land, is a narrow strip of coastline that stretches about 250 miles along Panama's Caribbean coast and borders Colombia. The Kuna Indians live mainly on the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of about 360 islands just off the mainland. They inhabit approximately 50 of these islands, while the rest of the Kuna have settled primarily on the coastal mainland. In recent years, more Kuna families have migrated to Panama City looking for better jobs and education, but many still practice long-held traditions, keeping the spirit of their ancestors alive.

In the 1940s, the Panamanian government granted the Kuna the right to govern their own territory, making the tribe one of Latin America's most independent Indian groups.

Although about 50,000 people in Panama and Colombia still speak the Kuna language, Spanish is becoming more widely used, especially in schools. Increased tourism to the San Blas archipelago has also brought English to the area.

Just a 30-minute flight from Panama City, eco-tourists and others are discovering a setting where they can still experience Kuna Indian life relatively untouched by the outside world.

With their close proximity to Colombia, Panamanians, including the Kuna people, have been affected by illegal drug trafficking in the region. Boats carrying cocaine from Colombia to the United States traverse the sea north of Kuna Yala. Often, to avoid capture, traffickers have to dump their cargo, which comes ashore on Kuna land. Many Kuna people have capitalized on the washed-up contraband by selling it to visiting drug dealers. But many others have become addicted to the drug, which has driven up crime and domestic violence in their communities.

An array of marine activity and beautiful white beaches have made Kuna land an attractive destination for tourists. With just a 30-minute flight from Panama City, eco-tourists and others are discovering an unspoiled setting where they can still experience Indian life relatively untouched by the outside world.

Tradition of the Medicine Woman

Though many of the Kuna have been influenced by Western life in Panama City, the medicine women continue to use their knowledge of plants in the region to heal the local people. These women carry with them generations of knowledge about the properties of hundreds of native plants. They go by the name "Nele" and treat patients for a variety of problems, from bouts of the flu to more serious illnesses such as cancer and AIDS. Since the San Blas Islands have little vegetation and no natural fresh water supplies, the women rely on the rivers and rainforests of the mainland, but they take only what they need.

More than 10,000 varieties of plants and more than 1,000 species of bird make Panama an ideal spot for scientific research.

Biodiversity in Panama

Panama's incredible biodiversity comes from its unique location at the center of the American continent. The Isthmus of Panama emerged about three million years ago and formed a land bridge that separated the marine life of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But, as the link between the North and South American land masses began to submerge, the distinct plants and animals of the two continents were able to mix -- creating a unique ecological backdrop. More than 10,000 varieties of plants and more than 1,000 species of bird make Panama an ideal spot for scientific research.

Sources: Associated Press, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Los Angeles Times, KNIGHTLine International magazine, Knight Foundation, National Geographic, Resource Center of the Americas.

Related Links

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) opened in 1923 on Barro Colorado Island, home to nearly 4,000 acres of tropical forest in the Panama Canal Zone. The Panamanian government invited the institute to conduct the Panama Biological Survey, an extensive biological census of the region. As part of the Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian Institute, this tropical outpost employs approximately 40 scientists and attracts 900 visiting scientists a year.

"Kuna Indians Face New Foe: Cocaine"
The land inhabited by the Kuna is located just south of a transit route for Colombian drugs on their way to the United States. This Los Angeles Times article reports on how cocaine trafficking off Panama's shores has impacted the Kuna Indian community.

Knight Foundation
Since its creation in 1950, the Knight Foundation has granted $300 million to journalism projects. The foundation aims to support the advancement of journalism and freedom of expression.

Biopiracy: A New Threat to Indigenous Rights and Culture in Mexico
The geographic diversity of Chiapas in Mexico has attracted pharmaceutical and biotech companies looking to benefit from the region's rich resources. This report from the nongovernmental group Global Exchange concludes that many organizations are engaging in "biopiracy," the illegal use of biological resources and traditional knowledge. In 2000, a coalition of medical organizations in Chiapas suspended a project funded by the University of Georgia.

"Mexican Mayans Fight University 'Biopiracy'"
This article describes the controversy surrounding the Chiapas biopiracy conflict. While scientists say research on plants in the area could lead to medical breakthroughs, critics of these projects point to the exploitation of indigenous people and their medicinal knowledge.

Compiled by Sonia Narang