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Plants and Animals in the Life of the Kuna

Plants and Animals in the Life of the Kuna
Edited by Hans Roeder; translated by Elisabeth King; foreword by James Howe

Plants, animals, and their place in the culture of an indigenous people of Panama.

Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies University of Texas at Austin
September 1995
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168 pages | 6 x 9 | 5 b&w photos, 33 line drawings, 3 maps |

"The earth is the mother of all things"; thus begins this original and accessible book on how the Kuna of Panama relate to the natural world. An integrative project involving Kuna traditional leaders and trained scholars, and fully illustrated by a Kuna artist, this translation of Plantas y animales en la vida del pueblo Kuna focuses on Kuna plant and animal life, social life, and social change as a means of saving traditional ecological knowledge and "returning" it to the community.

The authors hope to preserve the Kuna environment not only by reviving traditional technologies but also by educating the Kuna as to what needs protection. While the Kuna have a tradition of living in harmony with the land, the intrusion of the market economy is eroding the very basis of their sustainable way of life.

As a response to this crisis, this book seeks to develop native self-awareness and provide a model for collaboration. It will appeal to Latin Americanists, anthropologists, and ethnobotanists, as well as to a general readership in environmental issues.

  • Foreword (James Howe)
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Baba's Creation (Cacique General Enrique Guerrero with Valerio Núñez)
  • 2. Ready to Change? (Jorge Ventocilla)
  • 3. The Kuna (Jorge Ventocilla)
  • 4. Rivers and Mountains (Jorge Ventocilla)
  • 5. Terrestrial Fauna (Jorge Ventocilla)
  • 6. Hunting in Gangandi (Jorge Ventocilla with Rutilio Paredes)
  • 7. Money Creates Hunger (Elvira Torres with Valerio Núñez)
  • 8. Submarine "Deforestation" (Jorge Ventocilla with Olaidi)
  • 9. The Spirit of the Uaga (Cacique General Carlos López with Valerio Núñez)
  • 10. Medicinal Plants (Heraclio Herrera)
  • 11. The Ueruk Palm (Heraclio Herrera)
  • 12. To Be or Not to Be (Arysteides Turpana with Valerio Núñez)
  • Epilogue (Mac Chapin)
  • Appendix A. Scientific and Vernacular Names of Plants and Animals
  • Appendix B. Kuna Communities
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Authors
  • Index

The earth is the mother of all things, the Great Mother. She is the guardian who caringly watches over all that exists. She has burba and we live on her.

The Great Mother helps us stay in equilibrium. Our fathers teach us that the world has eight spiritual levels, where one finds gold, silver, iron, and many other minerals that sustain Mother Earth. If we allow all of this to be exploited, the trees will die and production will dwindle. Therefore, we have to take care of them, not abuse them.

Our body is the same. We, too, have iron and gold in us. Once you break an arm or a leg, you will never be able to move it as you once did. Remember that your body and Mother Earth are similar. They are the creation of Bab Dummad, Great Father, whom we also call Baba. He and his wife, Nan Dummad, Great Mother, created all that exists.

The rain passes over, just as clouds and winds do. They are attracted by the trees that refresh the environment. Thus, trees are indispensable and we cannot mistreat them. Trees are not here by chance. Their roots penetrate the earth through the sixth level and they emerge onto the surface as well. Trees renew their sap by drinking river water through their roots. Water circulates through all of their branches and leaves.

Trees have sap, resin, and who do you think drinks the sap? Mother Earth. That is how she strengthens herself.

The earth is covered with trees of all kinds, which give it life and strength. This is Baba's creation. Thus, our fathers tell us: "You have to learn all of this to truly love Mother Earth."

The thick cords, like ropes, that you see hanging from the trees are medicinal vines that serve as perches for birds that come to enjoy the surroundings and the trees. Trees never harm us. They protect us and provide medicines to treat our ills.

Trees give their fruit to feed the animals. They don't bear fruit needlessly. If trees didn't produce so abundantly, there would be no collared or white-lipped peccaries, no birds. Therefore, we must take care: trees are our life; they feed us and protect us.

All of this is essential. If, by chance, the breezes don't blow, the mists won't fall. Many times a torrential rain falls, and after a while the sun shines again. The sun is also necessary; our life depends on it.

Nan Gabsus, Mother of the Night who cares for the children, the darkness, is essential as well. We sleep and, at the appointed time, Mother Earth awakens us.

Our prophet Ibeler, or Dad Ibe, who was transformed into the sun, wakes us and invites us to work. Ibeler gave us all of our songs and traditions. Everything that we do is not our own doing; someone urges us to do it.

Ibeler loved nature. He cared for them all: the smallest insects, like the fire ants, the scorpions, the spiders, the vipers. He could not bear to see floating branches, which he rescued and put in a place where they could grow.

The jungle where the wild animals live—the snake, the puma, the jaguar—rarely frightens us when we go into her interior because Ibeler guides and protects us.

Olodualigipileler, the moon, father of Ibeler, is also important to us. He notes our ages. When I see a small child I ask: "How many moons does this child have?"

The elements of nature are not here in vain. Each has its function. When a hard rain falls, it is to let us rest. But even more, it is to clean the natural world, which gets dirty during the summer. Thus, the rivers overflow their banks, removing the debris that has fallen in during the dry season.

Our forefathers lived on the mainland along the banks of the great rivers in the mountains before they came to know the sea. The rivers were places that they chose for their dwelling places. Our fathers were strong because they were nourished by the plants and trees that surrounded them.

The rivers that they cared for so much were full of stones and had strong currents. Our fathers drank from these rivers, so they were strong and they understood the natural world well. The rivers touch the roots of many medicinal plants and therefore we have akwanusagana. This is why the old people then were much stronger than the men who live on the islands today.

The elders also knew of the existence of four continents and that one day white people would arrive in Abya Yala, as we call the American continent. All of this was prophesied by the nelegan, our traditional doctors, who see by means of dreams. In their dreams our fathers saw tall bearded men.

The Spanish sacked our towns and killed our wise grandmothers, who wove hammocks and made marvelous things with clay. Our grandmothers made necklaces. The Spanish came to claim the gold in our rivers. They also killed the great specialists in botany and sacred song.

We know, as our fathers have told us, that there would be those who would offer us money and promises in exchange for the resources that we have in our territory. So that we would not be fooled, the caciques Simral Colman and Nele Kantule, among others, created schools. The first school was created in 1907 by Gasso, the priest. And in 1931 a little school of three grades was opened in Usdup, a result of the Dule Revolution. Before, the uagmala (outsiders), called us brute Indians and savages. Now they respect us, and they know that we are as well educated as they are.

We look upon Panama as our father. But the Government does not help us with anything that happens in our territory, which has been invaded by colonists.

We supported the Government with our vote, and now that the elections approach, they say that they consult us, but they have not respected our demands. Thus it is said of us: When will they ever learn? How long will they continue to allow themselves to be deceived? But we will continue to advance. We can rely on people who are well-trained university graduates. We are not going to act as we have before. Our decisions will be firm.

When work on the road to Gardi began, I was in Udirbi, where the road to El Llano enters our territory. I expressed my interest in the conservation of our forests as well as my wariness of transnationals who come to offer us their dollars; they become millionaires while we remain poor.

Unlike them, none of us are millionaires. We work the earth. This is our tradition and our culture.

Let us talk about lobsters and iguanas. Our fathers did not sell lobsters. And the iguanas were abundant in the suu. One could find them in great numbers.

Our fathers did not use the hunting weapons that are used today. Moreover, they hunted only to survive.

If we begin to hunt indiscriminately, we will put an end to lobsters and iguanas. We know this from warnings that our fathers, who were well informed about these subjects, left for us. The same thing is happening to the turtles. We ought to let them reproduce. We cannot collect all of the eggs that they lay on the beaches. We would like to regulate the sale of lobster but we have not been able to restrain the buyers. Our General Congress has made statements to this effect. It is not true that the caciques are not doing anything. The Government is familiar with the problem and has acted in our favor, but beyond that, nothing happens.

In essence, the sea is like a forest populated with different plants and animals. We should take care of our natural resources. A group of Mexican Indians who visited us impressed this on us. We should be aware of what is happening at this moment in the mines of Río Pito, near the Colombian border, where Chocó and Colombians are in the process of extracting gold illegally.

In 1925, Simral Colman and Nele Kantule launched the Revolution. Why? They did it to oppose the abuses of the colonial police. Nele Kantule said:

Bab Dummad gave us culture. So that my culture is not lost and so that we recognize ourselves as the Olodulegan, our sisters must continue to wear their molas, their gold nose rings, their earrings and gold breastplates.

I am happy that we have gandurgan and that there is communal labor in the construction of houses and canoes. This is how we establish our worth, the feeling that we are brothers and sisters and that we have a culture. If we start to lose our culture, we will be going down another road, right away things won't be as they were, and everyone will think in terms of money. This is why I established the school, to defend our culture.

This is how Colman and Iguanibiginya spoke.

Now our grandmothers and grandfathers have gone to Panama, and I don't know what they are doing there. They didn't need to go. Already, they don't think about coming back; already they have made the city their home. They have forgotten their culture.


No one is here forever.

I know that I'm going to die.

I would like to leave all that I know to the new generation.

I want to leave ideas so that everyone can benefit from them. This way they will remember me forever as an individual who dedicated himself to planting mangoes, cacao, and coconuts. He dies, but his plants remain for the good of his children.

This text represents the thoughts of the Kuna cacique Enrique Guerrero (1912-1992), recorded by Valerio Núñez in the community of Ogobsukun in April 1992. The cacique died two months later.

For a number of years, we have been developing environmental education programs in Kuna Yala. There has been a great deal of discussion about the principle of saving traditional ecological knowledge and about how to "return" it to the community.

We began with several projects. We have held workshops with schoolteachers and have encouraged the revival of traditional technologies (such as reforestation in Ukupseni with the ueruk palm). Now we are beginning to work directly with children, because we believe that environmental education should be part of their training from the beginning. In the Children's Art Workshop in the community of Gardi Sugdup, we are working to rescue ecological and cultural ideas via painting, theater, poetry, and other art forms as practiced by children. Through trial and error, we have provided continuity for the evolution of environmental education in Kuna Yala.

Thus, we are extremely pleased with this book. In its Spanish-language version it is primarily intended for the Kuna public: for Kuna grade school and university students and their teachers, both those who live within Kuna Yala and those who live outside the Comarca. We also hope that the translation will allow a non-Kuna audience to become interested.

We have made an effort to write in clear and accessible language, to overcome the limitations of scientific discourse while insisting on the accuracy of the information and the indispensable rigor of a text that treats the people, the flora, and the fauna of Kuna Yala.

The book is a guide to the physical space in which the majority of the Kuna live. By physical space we mean the tangible environment that surrounds all living things, including human beings.

As environmental educators, we are aware that no one loves what she or he has not learned to understand, that one has to want to protect the environment. To want to protect the environment, one must first understand what needs to be protected. To this end, the book gives, for example, the names and locations of the principal rivers and mountains of Kuna Yala, including the first published maps to integrate this information. It also describes physical characteristics of the sea as a natural resource because it is from the sea that the Kuna people obtain much of their nutritional and material livelihood. In addition, the book contains a wealth of descriptive information and illustrations of the flora and fauna of Kuna territory-the land that forms the basis of the Kuna's lives, their traditions, and their culture.

The other focus of the book is the interpretation of Kuna knowledge and Kuna cultural practices in the context of their environment and illustrated by a discussion of subsistence methods in several communities. The structure of their subsistence economy lets the Kuna use the resources necessary for their "sustainable" method of survival. But unfortunately, as we will demonstrate, the Kuna themselves are eroding the base of their sustainable way of life.

What is subsistence? Bernard Nietschmann, a geographer who has studied the Miskito on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, puts it well: "The very word'subsistence'conjures up images of a hard, marginal life, continuous work just to survive, inability to produce surplus, low return from labor, little security of life, poor diet and nutrition, and a universal level of livelihood which is an impediment to economic development." But when one tries to understand the economies of societies considered to be "primitive," first one has to remember that "there are two roads to affluence, by either satisfying wants through producing much, or by desiring little. The assumption in our economic system is that man's wants are great and his means are limited. For many primitive peoples, however, wants are limited and means are great."

We have been very interested in the consideration of subsistence; it is a basic theme that ought to be included more often in the discussion of the environment. A discussion of subsistence leads us to ask ourselves four fundamental questions:

  1. What are our real needs?
  2. What do we need to satisfy them?
  3. Is it possible to reconcile the voracity of societies that have market economies and the availability of natural resources?
  4. What kind of society is sustainable?

These are difficult times of transition for indigenous cultures whose lives are intimately linked to the tropical forest. In the case of the Kuna, the problem is exacerbated by colonists who have already arrived in their territory and who are destroying the forest and the land that in one way or another have traditionally been the Kuna's birthright. This intrusion weakens the basis of their survival as an ethnic group within Panama's multicultural and multiethnic state. Indigenous people have always

experienced encounters with Western cultures and economies as violent shocks from which they emerge extremely battered.

The calls of indigenous peoples for the maintenance of their territorial boundaries must be heard. Indigenous people need their territory to subsist, that is to say, to survive.

If we admit that societal changes are inevitable, and moreover, that our culture is no longer sustainable, then we had better prepare to change.

The voices that we hear in the pages of this book are, for the most part, Kuna. They are voices that, like the four interviews, represent the wisdom and the material and spiritual impetus that can motivate us to make the necessary change.

There are innumerable signals that indicate that we have very little time left to accomplish an urgent necessity. Are we ready to change?

—Jorge Ventocilla


Plants and Animals ... documents Kuna culture, subsistence strategies, and traditional ecological knowledge while warning of the dangers of increased involvement in market economies. It does what many advocate but few accomplish by presenting indigenous views of ecology and culture. Written in large part by the Kuna for the Kuna, this book is one of the first comprehensive publications on ethnobiology that represents indigenous voices, giving ousiders a rare opportunity ‘to eavesdrop, to listen as they exhort each other, to wake up, and to change.’”
Cultural Survival Quarterly


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