BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 May 2006, 10:53 GMT 11:53 UK
Cuna Indians aim to strike tourist balance
By Jane Monahan
In the San Blas region, Panama

With its narrow stretch of rainforest on the Caribbean coast and its almost 400, mainly uninhabited, coral islands, it is no surprise that tourist operators have long sought the development of resorts in the autonomous region of Panama's Cuna Indians.

Cuna women at a girl's passage to womanhood ceremony
Age-old ceremonies still take place on the islands
There is no doubting the appeal of this region, where on the 50 or so islands where the Cuna live, in densely-inhabited villages of bamboo huts near the quays, age-old customs are still an integral part of their life.

A girl's passage to puberty, for example, is still marked by a ceremony in which men play reed flutes and women dance. They wear gold nose rings, bands of beads round their arms and legs, sarongs, necklaces and blouses covered in what are now considered Panama's most famous traditional handicraft - "molas" or Cuna textiles.

But while the Cuna - who fought off the Spanish conquistadores 500 years ago and who have managed to preserve a great degree of political autonomy - have so far resisted proposals to build resorts in the archipelago, there are signs that the influx of tourists is having an effect on the Cuna way of life.

Turbulent history

Relations between the Cuna and the tourist industry have not always been easy.

One of the San Blas islands
Outsiders are not allowed to own Cuna land
A few decades ago, after small planes started flying between Panama City and the San Blas region, the Cuna let outsiders, including Panama's official tourist institute (Ipat), build hotels on the islands.

However, when these tourist operators failed to consult the tribe's highest authority about their projects, and did not let local groups share in the revenue - in accordance with Cuna egalitarian principles - violent incidents broke out.

By the 1990s all outside tourist ventures in the Comarca had closed or been expelled.

Next, the Cuna started owning and running small hotels on their own.

Some tourists complain that the Cuna took too much for granted, expecting tourists to adapt immediately and live in bamboo huts without bathrooms.

But most tourists recognise, however, that the Cuna have become deft in other tourist practices, such as guided tours, boat trips to other islands, snorkelling excursions and tasty meals.


Now, according to Ipat, tourists number about 160,000 a year, a figure which does not include the passengers on the increasing number of private yachts and cruise ships that pass through the area.

A Cuna woman selling sea shells
Cuna women sell souvenirs for tourists
This, locals say, has already led to a greater acceptance of "Western" values by Cuna youth.

A member of the tribe's tourism commission says that many young Cuna men now prefer to work for tourists for cash rather than in the tribe's traditional, collectively-owned, agriculture.

And many of them also wear baseball caps, trainers and T-shirts, and have started shunning the making and tasting of chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane, during ceremonies.

The developments have prompted a Cuna guide, to ask, pessimistically: "Will all the work of our chiefs to preserve our culture for so many years be supported by Cuna youth or will it be destroyed?"

Meanwhile "molas" - brightly coloured squares of fabric sewn together and decorated with Cuna landscapes, fish and birds - made by Cuna women are now sold exclusively to tourists.

As a result, designs are changing to suit tourist tastes. There are now "mola" can holders and "mola" mobile phone holders.

Some women are reportedly also losing their knowledge of the old designs and their meanings.


Cuna leaders realise they cannot completely control the impact of tourism on their culture. However, to minimise tourism's negative effects, they have recently drawn up a set of rules.

These establish that the only forms of tourism allowed in the autonomous region are eco-tourism and cultural heritage tourism.

Map of Panama
All tourist ventures, the rules establish, must first be approved by the Cuna leaders and contribute a share of the revenues to the Cuna General Congress as well as to island councils.

Tourists are not allowed to engage in certain activities - they cannot photograph Cuna without permission, nor can they water-ski or do deep-sea diving.

"The Cuna are not against the influence of other cultures. But what's important is they also maintain their own cultural values, language, history and a sense of belonging," says Dialys Ehrmann, the only woman Cuna lawyer in Panama, who runs the Coordinadora de Pueblos Indigenas de Panama, a non-government organisation for indigenous groups.

Meanwhile, to avoid misunderstandings between Cuna and tourist operators in future, Ipat is also helping the Cuna draw up rules on outside investment to the region.

These rules, Ms Ehrmann says, will probably be published later this year.

Outsiders will still not be allowed to own Cuna land, however. Indeed, such transactions would be extremely complicated as currently the Cuna have no individual land titles. The entire region is collectively-owned.

Timeline: Panama
21 Apr 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Panama
13 Apr 06 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific