PANAMA CITY – Members of Panama’s Embera-Wounaan tribe living in the Darien jungle on Tuesday defended their management and exploitation of their forests as “sustainable” and in compliance with international conservation standards, despite recent accusations over alleged illegal and indiscriminate lumbering.
“Yes there’s a deforestation problem, yes there’s a problem with illegal tree-cutting, but it’s outside the Embera-Wounaan administrative district, it’s in the rest of Darien,” said Hector Huertas, the legal adviser for the tribe’s congress, the political entity that autonomously governs the district.
Within the district there are five sustainable forest management programs covering about 100,000 hectares (around 250,000 acres) of forest and they are sponsored by international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, he said.
The programs, he said, plan for the sustainable exploitation of forest resources and help the community prosper, given that they obtain income from the controlled sale of wood.
Several local media outlets recently reported that the tribe had complained that the Panamanian Environment Ministry had authorized massive felling of trees in Darien, something that the ministry denied.
“We are very clear about the fact that we cannot fell a tree that is not designated for cutting. We run the risk of $5,000 fines for each tree,” said top district official Edilfonso Aji.
The heavily forested Darien zone, on the border with Colombia, is exposed to deforestation, with many of the tree species there protected from exploitation, and Central America’s largest national park comprising 579,000 hectares (some 1.45 million acres) is also located there, a zone declared a World Heritage site in 1981.
The local indigenous people also denied that they were selling their forest exploitation permits, adding that the WWF, along with the ministry, had helped them implement a forest control system to monitor tree growth and wood production.
Some 400,000 indigenous people – 11 percent of the population – live in Panama, belonging to seven main tribes, including the Embera and Wounaan peoples, but some 97 percent of them live below the poverty line with chronic malnutrition affecting 72 percent of the children under age 5, according to the latest official survey.