A Rich Heritage. An Even Brighter Future. | WWF

A Rich Heritage. An Even Brighter Future.

Posted on
18 October 2010
With a culture that is rich in tradition and heritage, Panama’s Emberá-Wounaan are a beautiful and unique people. Dwelling among the Darien rainforest, Panama’s largest forest remnant, these communities have a history that is inextricably intertwined with the natural environment that surrounds them. Extremely valuable to the Emberá-Wounaan because of the abundant resources of flora, fauna and environmental services they contain, these forests allow for their survival and also provide vibrant ancestral and cultural value.

Despite their importance of these forests to the livelihoods of these communities, the rights of the Emberá-Wounaan were not always recognized. Historically, timber was extracted with little regard for the forests integrity or recognition of the value owed to these communities. As a result, the Emberá-Wounaan’s livelihoods became as impoverished as the region’s remaining forests.

Purchasing standing trees well below their real value, timber merchants earned large profit margins by going after the most valuable wood species that were once abundant in the Darien. But with the help of WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network, this stormy past is turning into a brighter future.

A Challenging Past

Raúl Majoré, a member of the Marragantí village and manager of the El Bálsamo Community Forest Enterprise, reflects back on the challenges of the not all too-distant past, saying “We never worked with a contract. The price of timber was imposed by the wood traders and those prices were below the real value of wood.”

According to Majoré, this gave traders the greater advantage, by undervaluing the timber and then selling it for much more. “This was totally unfair business for us,” he said. “It’s like an old saying from our people: having your horse tied up and setting the jaguar loose; it’s an unfair fight.”

He shared that typically traders would only deal with two or three members of the community, forming oral agreements and providing small cash advances, without taking into account that the forest belongs to the entire community. “Even still,” related Majoré, “the traders would share only a small portion of the profits from selling the timber, keeping the majority for themselves. They were also only interested in one or two species that have high commercial value.”

By harvesting only these species, with little regard for the health of the entire forest, this unscrupulous extraction lead to soil erosion, degradation of ecosystems and overexploitation of these valuable timber species—putting the livelihoods of the Emberá-Wounaan in jeopardy, remarked Majoré.

“All of this has led to the loss of value in our forests now that there is a low abundance of high value species. This also caused wildlife to migrate deeper into the mountains, making it more difficult for us to hunt for food,” he said. In addition, uncontrolled logging on the edges of bodies of water, such as the Chucunaque River, lead to soil erosion and landslides—he recounted—making these shallow rivers un-navigable during the summer.

All of these issues lead to a singular dilemma. Despite the immense wealth of their shared natural capital, indigenous communities become poorer when only a few members of the community reap the benefits, damaging both the forests and their collective livelihoods. What can solve this dilemma? Responsible forest management, answers Majoré.

A Brighter Future
With support and extensive training from WWF and the GFTN, the Emberá- Wounaan’s future looks brighter as they set out on their journey towards responsible forestry. Earlier this year, the community signed a 10 year contract with Green Life Investment Corporation, a Franco-Panamanian group that will market the wood from these communities’ responsibly managed forests to international buyers.

By supporting the community with the tools and resources necessary for community self-management, WWF has showed the way forward, empowering the region’s communities to protect, conserve and enhance their resources. WWF helped the communities expand their knowledge base, equipping community members to train larger crews on reduced impact logging.

“Our partnership with Green Life Investment is an achievement and we are privileged to have a business partner of this nature,” he remarked. “This was the dream of communities to establish a commercial alliance that is secured through a 10-year contract and ensures benefits for the community.”

These benefits include a fair price of timber from a dedicated buyer as well access to the international market for both established commercial species and lesser known varieties. Similarly, as Green Life Investment is seeking Chain of Custody certification, it also ensures the responsible management of these forests as the agreement prioritizes adequate forest management within the principles and criteria of FSC certification.

To date, the communities and Green Life Investment have sold ten shipping containers of timber. Due to the timing of the agreement and the on-set of Panama’s rainy season, the community was only able to harvest about half of the allowable cut and expects to start operations again this December, with plans to double the amount of timber.

Creating Better Livelihoods

“This partnership is creating a better livelihood for these communities. From employing community members as the harvesting and production workforce to training them on machinery use, resulting in better wages for more specialized work, this commercial alliance is having a significant impact on the entire region,” shared Juan Sève, Project Manager for WWF’s Community Based Forest Enterprises (CBFE) project.

“From money in the pockets of the workers, to payments to the community forest enterprises to help them capitalize their operations with equipment all the way to taxes collected by the local authorities—the income generated from this collaboration is making a tangible difference.”

With closing ceremonies for the CBFE project in the Darien planned for late December, Sève views the Emberá-Wounaan as a model that can be replicated in other parts of the world. But he also shares that there is still work to be done to ensure its success.

“You can’t fight poverty without creating wealth,” asserts Sève. “And you can’t create wealth without commerce or commerce without enterprises. We hope to be able to continue working with these community forest enterprises to improve the skills necessary to achieve FSC certification, help them develop strong business disciplines and learn how to invest back in their operations to create a long-term and sustainable livelihood for the region.”

For more information, contact:
Juan Sève (juan.seve@wwfus.org)
By uniting the entire community behind a common goal and helping them realize that there is more to gain by working together to responsibly manage their forests, there is a different future for the Emberá-Wounaan than the past, says Raúl Majoré, a member of the Marragantí village and manager of the El Bálsamo Community Forest Enterprise.