Panama Guaymi

Panama Country Studies index

Panama - Guaymi


The Guaymi Indians were concentrated in the more remote regions of Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí, and Veraguas. Because their territory was divided by the Cordillera Central, the Guaymi resided in two sections that were climatically and ecologically distinct. On the Pacific side, small hamlets were scattered throughout the more remote regions of Chiriquí and Veraguas; on the Atlantic side, the people remained in riverine and coastal environments.

Contact was recorded between outsiders and Guaymi in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Spanish colonial policy tried to group the Indians into settlements (reducciones) controlled by missionaries. This policy enjoyed only limited success in the area of modern Panama. Although some Indians converted to Christianity and gradually merged with the surrounding rural mestizo populace, most simply retreated to more remote territories.

Roman Catholic missionaries had sporadic contact with the Guaymi after the colonial era. Protestant missionaries--mostly Methodists and Seventh- Day Adventists--were active on the fringes of Guaymi territory on the Atlantic side, beginning in the early twentieth century. The Guaymi were impressed by missionaries because most missionaries, unlike mestizos, did not try to take advantage of them in economic dealings.

Present-day contact was most intense in Veraguas, where the mestizo farmers were expanding into previously remote lands at a rapid rate. Guaymi in Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí were less affected. The entry of these outsiders effectively partitioned Guaymi lands. There was a rise in the proportion of tribal members bilingual in Spanish and Guaymi, substantial numbers of whom eventually abandoned Guaymi and disclaimed their Indian identity.

Government schools, especially along the Atlantic portion of Guaymi territory, attracted Indian settlements. Many parents were anxious for their children to attend at least primary school. They arranged for their children to board as servants with Antillean black families living in town, so that the children could attend classes. The outcome was a substantial number of Guaymi young adults who were trilingual in Guaymi, Spanish, and English.

Guaymi subsistence relied on crop raising, small-scale livestock production, hunting, and fishing. In contrast to the slash-and-burn agriculture practiced by the majority mestizo population, Guaymi agriculture was more similar to the type of exploitation practiced in the pre-Columbian era. It placed less reliance on machete and match, and more emphasis on the gradual selective clearing and weeding of plots at the seedling stage of crop growth. The Guaymi burned some trees (that did not have to be felled), but generally left more vegetation to decay. This strategy did not subject the fragile tropical soils to the intense leaching that often follows clear cutting and burning of the tropical forest. The Guaymi agricultural system relied upon an intimate and detailed knowledge of the forest flora. The Guaymi marked seasons not as much by changes in temperature and precipitation as by differences in plants. They noted the times of the year by observing when various plants matured. As an agricultural system it was highly diversified, and the wide range of crop varieties planted conferred resistance to the diverse pests that afflict more specialized farming systems. As an example, Guaymi banana trees produced fruit for sale during all the years that blight had essentially shut down the commercial banana plantations in the region.

Like much of rural Panama, Guaymi territories were subjected to considerable pressure. The length of time land was left fallow decreased. In addition, there were few stands of even well- established secondary forest, let alone untouched tropical forest. In the more intensively used regions, cultivators noted the proliferation of the short, coarse grasses that are the bane of traditional slash-and-burn agricultural systems.

The decline in stands of virgin and secondary forest led to a decrease in wildlife, which affected the Guaymi diet. Domestic livestock grew in importance as a source of protein because larger animals, such as tapir, deer, and peccary, once plentiful, were available only occasionally. Smaller livestock, such as poultry, was extremely vulnerable to disease and predation. Pigs and cattle were raised, but they were among the most consistently saleable products available; as a result, the Guaymi had to choose between protein and cash income. Overall, the diet was quite starchy, with bananas, manioc, and yams the main food items.

Wildlife was adversely affected by modern hunting techniques, also. Traditional hunting and fishing techniques had a minimal impact on the species involved. However, the small-caliber rifles, flashlights, and underwater gear used by Guaymi in the modern era were far more destructive.

The link of most Guaymi to the market economy was similar to that of many poorer rural mestizos. The Indians bought such items as clothing, cooking utensils, axes, blankets, alcohol, sewing machines, wristwatches, and radios. They earned the money for these purchases through period wage labor and the sale of livestock, crops, and crafts (the most unpredictable source of income).

Most Guaymi young men had some experience as wage laborers, although their opportunities were usually limited and uncertain. Some acquired permanent or semipermanent jobs. A few managed to get skilled employment as mechanics or overseers. Fewer still became teachers. The principal employers for Guaymi were the surrounding banana plantations and cattle ranches. Because government policy after the 1950s limited the hiring of foreign laborers on the plantations, Guaymi formed a major part of the banana plantation work force. A number of Indian families settled in towns to work on the plantations. Nonetheless, the wages Guaymi earned proved illusory since most, if not all, of their earnings were spent on living expenses while away from home.

The Guaymi link to the national economy not only provided cash for the purchase of a variety of consumer goods but also acted as a safety valve, relieving the pressure on land. Their dependence on this link was evident during the 1960s, when the Guaymi endured a real hardship because of a decline in demand for labor on banana plantations.

Settlement patterns among the Guaymi were intimately linked to kinship and social organization. Hamlets, each typically representing a single extended family, were scattered throughout the territory. There were no larger settlements of any permanence serving as trading or ceremonial centers. A few mestizo towns on the fringes of Guaymi territory served as trading posts.

Each hamlet was ideally composed of a group of consanguineally related males, their wives, and their unmarried children. Nevertheless, this general rule glossed over residence patterns of considerable fluidity and complexity. At least at some points in an individual's life, he or she resided in a three-generation household. Households, however, took many forms, including nuclear families; polygynous households; groups of brothers, their wives, and unmarried children; a couple, their unmarried children, and married sons and their wives and children; or a mother, her married sons, and their wives and children.

A hamlet defined an individual's social identity, and access to land and livelihood was gained through residence in a specific hamlet. Typically, a person's closest kin resided there. The wide variety of family forms represented in hamlets reflected the diverse ways individual Guaymi used the ties of kinship to gain access to land. Depending on the availability of plots, an individual couple might live with the husband's family (the ideal), the wife's kin, the husband's mother (if his parents did not live together), the husband's mother's kin, or his father's mother's kin.

Guaymi had pronounced notions about which tasks were appropriately male or female; but men would build fires, cook, and care for children if necessary and women would, as the occasion demanded, weed and chop firewood. Women were never supposed to clear forest, herd cattle, or hunt. Nonetheless, a measure of expediency dictated who actually performed the required duties. Because most men migrated to look for employment, a significant segment of the agricultural work force was absent for lengthy periods of time. Consequently, women assumed a larger share of the farmwork during those absences. Their own male kinsmen helped with the heavier tasks. Children began assisting their parents at approximately eight years of age. By the time a girl was fourteen to fifteen years old and a boy seventeen to eighteen, they were expected to do the work of an adult.

Sharing of food and labor was an important form of exchange among kin. If a hamlet needed food, a woman or child would be sent to solicit food from relatives. Kin also formed a common labor pool for virtually all agricultural work. Guaymi did not hire each other as wage laborers. Non-kin assisted each other only for specific festive or communal works. Within the hamlet, all able-bodied family members were expected to contribute labor. Kin from different hamlets exchanged labor on a day-by-day basis. Individuals were careful not to incur too many obligations so as not to compromise their own household's agricultural production. Those who received assistance were obliged to provide food, meat, and chicha (a kind of beer) for all the workers. Moreover, there was supposed to be enough food to send a bit home with each worker.

Marriage was the primary means by which Guaymi created social ties to other (non-kin) Guaymi. The ramifications of marriage exchanges extended far beyond the couple concerned. The selection of a spouse was the choice of an allied group and reflected broader concerns such as access to land and wealth, resolution of longstanding disputes, or acquisition of an ally in a previously nonaligned party.

Fathers usually arranged marriages for children. An agreement was marked by a visit of the groom and his parents to the home of the prospective bride and her family. The marriage itself was fixed through a series of visits between the two households involved. No formal ceremony marked the event. Ideally, marriage arrangements were to be balanced exchanges between two kin groups.

Initially the young couple resided with the bride's parents because a son-in-law owed his parents-in-law labor. Thus, a bride usually did not leave her natal hamlet for at least a year. For the husband, persuading his wife to leave her family and join his was a major, and often insurmountable, hurdle. If the marriage conformed to the ideal of a balanced exchange, however, a husband's task was considerably easier in that his wife had to join him or her brother would not receive a wife.

Young men in groups without daughters to exchange in marriage were at a disadvantage. Although they could (and did) ask for wives without giving a sister in return, the fathers of the brides gained significantly. A son-in-law whose family did not provide a bride to his wife's family faced longer labor obligations to his in-laws and uncertainty about when, or if, his wife would join him and his family.

A minority of all marriages were polygynous. Traditionally, a man's ability to support more than one wife was testimony to his wealth and prestige. Co-wives were often sisters. A man could marry his wife's younger sister after he had established a household and acquired sufficient resources to support two families. Wives lived together until their sons matured and married. At that time, an extended household would reconstitute itself around a woman and her married sons and their wives and children. Younger wives in polygynous marriages had a tendency to leave their husbands as they aged. A reasonably successful Guaymi man might expect to begin his married life in a monogamous union, have several wives as he grew more wealthy, and finish his life again in a monogamous marriage.

In general, there were few external indications of differences in wealth, and there was no formal ranking of status in Guaymi society. Prestige accrued to the individual Guaymi male who was able to demonstrate largesse in meeting his obligations to kin and in-laws. A young man began to gain the respect of his in-laws by providing them well with food and labor. He further demonstrated his abilities by farming his own plots well enough to provide for his family and those of his kin who visited.

An individual might also gain prestige through his ability to settle differences. Historically, disputes between Guaymi were settled at public meetings chaired by a person skilled in arbitration. An individual's prestige was in proportion to his ability to reach a consensus among the parties involved in the dispute. In present-day Guaymi society, a government-appointed representative decided the case. Guaymi gained prestige by proposing settlements more acceptable to the disputants than those of the government representative. As an individual's reputation spread, other disputants sought him out to arbitrate. The entire process emphasized the extent to which indigenous political structures were acephalous and loosely organized. There were no durable, well-organized, non-kin groups that functioned in the political sphere; decision making was largely informal and consensual.

In the 1980s, government plans to develop the Cerro Colorado copper mine, along the Cordillera Central in eastern Chiriquí Province, gave impetus to the efforts of some Guaymi to organize politically. Most of the mining project as well as a planned slurry pipeline, a highway, and the Changuinola I Hydroelectric Project were in territory occupied by the Guaymi. Guaymi attended a number of congresses to protect their claims to land and publicize their misgivings about the projects. The Guaymi were concerned about the government's apparent lack of interest in their plight, about the impact on their lands, and their productivity, and about the effect of dam construction on fishing and water supplies. Guaymi were also worried that proposed cash indemnification payments for lands or damages would be of little benefit to them in the long run. As of late 1987, however, the matter had not been fully resolved.

More about the Ethnic Groups of Panama.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

Guaymi (Ngobe-Bugle) - Minority Rights Group
Guaymí | people |
Ngöbe-Buglé - Panama: Panama
Panama Guaymi Indian Family Retreat 2006 - YouTube
Guaymí language - Wikipedia

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