The Daily Pilgrimage - Reflections from Kuna Yala

In January 2014, Land is Life and a team of graduate students from New York University's Wagner School of Public Service traveled to the community of Ustupo located in Kuna Yala, an independent indigenous territory in northeastern Panama. The trip was a part of a year-long project that aims to address the issue of waste and plastic disposal in Ustupo. Over the course of the coming weeks, Land is Life will share some of the insights and reflections from the team. 

 

THE DAILY PILGRIMAGE OF KUNA MEN
by Diego Riagno

Since early ages, humans have connected and adapted to land in diverse ways. Being able to understand what land can provide us has been a critical factor for surviving, and it still is. We all depend on land for food and shelter, even if we live on islands where land is a very scarce resource.

I spent 6 days on a small island called Ustupo located in the Caribbean Sea in southeast Panama. This island is inhabited by approximately 3,000 Kuna people and is the most populous in the Kuna Yala territory. As the largest and most thriving community, Ustupo is a town where the past and present of Kuna culture coexist. Influence from western civilization is present in many details, especially in goods, but their ancient traditions are so strong that I would not dare to state that Kunas are losing their culture. It is more like a long-term adaptation process in which Kuna people are learning what they need from outside to stay strong and prevail.

One of those ancient traditions that is still preserved is working and living from the land. Although the Kuna currently live on islands, they came from the continental territory that today is northwestern Colombia. They moved north through the Darien Gap and ended up living around the beautiful and idyllic archipelago of San Blas in Panama. However, they never detached from the forest in the continental territory. One of the most remarkable characteristics of the Kunas is that they own farms on the mainland. The forest is a crucial piece of their way of living and the autonomous territory denominated Kuna Yala not only contains the archipelago but a big portion on the mainland as well.

Photo by Diego Riagno

Photo by Diego Riagno

While I was visiting Ustupo I slept in a hammock facing the sea, the shore, and mountains on the mainland. Sometimes I woke up at dawn and I saw Kuna men on their ‘Kayukos’ (canoes) rowing towards the mainland. If one stares long enough it is possible to see many of them doing the same. This somehow resembles to me people in the cities commuting by hundreds every morning to go to their offices. This caught my attention and I asked my Kuna friends about it. They told me that for ages Kuna men have woken up every day before sunrise to go work their farms located deep in the forest. They go there to keep their crops healthy and to pick ripe fruits. They cultivate mostly coconut trees, plantains and yucca. Coconut is the base of their trading economy with people from Colombia and Panama. Kuna men return to their home around noon to eat and rest after a highly physically demanding workday.

Photo by Diego Riagno

Photo by Diego Riagno

As a traditional behavior, this sort of daily pilgrimage speaks about a living indigenous culture where the land takes a central role in society. Despite the constant influence of commerce and technology from outside, Kunas understand that their most precious asset is their land. The land allows them to be independent and connected to Kuna’s traditional values. An honest man is a hard working man that understands the forest and knows how to manipulate nature to sustain his family. In Kuna culture there is no substitute for their duties towards their farms. Actually, because Kunas families are matrilinear, no man owns land until he has worked his father-in-law’s farm long enough to prove he is worthy of it.

As a resident of New York City, I wonder how we can reclaim this kind of understanding of the interdependence between humans and land. We all cannot turn to be small farmers again but, as consumers, travelers and voters we have the opportunity to make smarter choices to help to protect the environment and to educate others about it. We still depend on land to survive even if we do not work it with our hands. As Rufino, a traditional Kuna doctor, said: “Where is God? Is He in Heaven or here in Land? People tend to think He is on Heaven but I have not seen him grow trees, fruits, plants and flowers on the skies."