Wounaan

Introduction

The Wounaan are a Panamanian group based in the Darien region. They are also known as the Wounana, Wound Meu, Noenama and by the homogenizing name Choco used to group together numerous Indigenous groups in this locality. They are a sub group of the Embera-Wounaan people, have a population of approximately 6,800 and speak Wounaan dialects originating from languages of the Chocoan family.

Most Wounaan specifically inhabit villages within or just outside two Embera-Wounaan Comarcas, semi-autonomous democratic indigenous administrative areas. Outside of these Comarcas some still live along the Darien rivers and others are increasingly moving to more urbanized locales. Traditionally the Wounaan are/were semi nomadic people and lived by hunting, gathering and practicing swidden agriculture to grow bananas, corn and roots amongst other crops. Male members of the Wounaan are particularly well known for their bowl haircuts and elaborate body painting achieved using woodblocks. The Wounaan are also famed crafts people, creating intricate basket work and carvings. The goods produced by these talented artisans provide an important source of economic income for groups today.

It is suggested that the Wounaan first moved into the Darien area and began to practice their lifeways in the late Eighteenth Century to escape expanding Spanish towns. They appear to have lived for some time in relative isolation from outsiders until the mid Twentieth Century which saw the Wounaan brought into more concerted contact with a cash economy, trading crops and forest goods for cash and industrial products. With involvement in this sphere came school construction and missionary activity. In the 1960’s, allegedly encouraged by explorer Henry Baker Fernandez, the Embera-Wounaan peoples began proceedings to form a Comarca in order to secure greater autonomy and guarantee access to land and resources. A new political and village system was established to achieve this goal and two districts covering 4,180 square kilometres subsequently received Comarca status in 1983.

Today the Comarcas contain over forty villages and despite the relative autonomy of the Wounaan in these districts land security remains a concern. Recent years have brought clashes with loggers guilty of illegal encroachment amongst other problems. The Wounaan continue to fight for their lands and are currently seeking greater legal title to be able better protect them.

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