Working with Indigenous Peoples to Protect Forests in Panama

Related Expertise: Advisory Services
Date Initiated: 2017

As the world’s governments, conservation organizations and Indigenous communities struggle to protect forests and fight climate change, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Fellow Javier Mateo-Vega hopes to build a powerful model for others to follow.

In 2012, Mateo-Vega joined the research group of Prof. Catherine Potvin, an ecologist with McGill University in Montreal and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who has paved the way for more collaborative research with the Emberá, Wounaan and Kuna in eastern Panama.

Prof. Potvin, Mateo-Vega and Emberá leaders began planning a forest carbon monitoring campaign in the remote forests of Darién, an area abutting the border with Colombia, with support from the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Bank. For their efforts, Mateo-Vega and his crew of trained Indigenous technicians got access to forests that virtually no scientists had ever studied. The crew’s measurements revealed that some of the forests were far more carbon-rich and replete with biological diversity than anyone had documented.

Armed with data, the Indigenous communities set about figuring out the next step: how to use it. The consensus was a series of land use planning workshops to map out how land use decisions would affect their forests in the future. Through these workshops facilitated by Mateo-Vega and Indigenous counterparts, the Kuna and Emberá are exploring what their forests will look like if deforestation continues as is, or if they revert to traditional, sustainable forms of land management. In the latter case, the forest would come back. The communities would go back to eating bush meat and gathering medicinal plants. They would build their traditional houses again. Working with these community members, the Smithsonian and its partners is creating maps to visualize each scenario. Based on these conclusions, these communities can now work to manage and protect forests based on their own desires, expectations and needs.

Learn more about this Project

How Scientists And Indigenous Groups Can Team Up to Protect Forests and Climate in Panama