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"Survival in the 'Modern' World: The Compromise"

Maggie Padlewska - From the Field / 2011

    Other than the occasional roar of the motor, we glide in silence in a hand carved wooden canoe over water that on this day, is a matte beige colour. “Sometimes it’s clear,” I'm told, “but the rain was heavy yesterday.” Not surprising, this is the rain forest after all - and one of the most captivating places that I have ever seen…


It's during moments like these that I feel most humbled; my eyes wide open as I try to embed every image in my mind, while inhaling deeply to embody the moment as profoundly as possible. Occasionally

I close my eyes, just for a second, only to open them again to see that it is, in fact, real.


Welcome to the Panamanian rain forest, just a three-hour journey eastbound from the bustling urban chaos, fumes, and skyscrapers of Panama City. City folks know it’s here, but few ever come.


This region is, and has been for centuries, home to the Embera Peoples, one of the few remaining Pre-Columbian tribes of Central America. Once considered savages, because of their appearance and tribal lifestyle, it is only in recent years that these communities have welcomed a coexistence with the so-called “modern” world.  Their wisdom, understanding, and knowledge of the natural world has been passed on over generations, with much of it remaining only in linguistic form; that is, the ancient Embera language now threatened with extinction.


Curious of what it may sound like, I ask Embera Drua leader, Johnson Meguimasa, to translate a basic Spanish sentence into the Embera language. It's profound, with a deep chest and nasal-like emphasis, not at all similar to the country’s dominant language. “That’s why, with all the wisdom it contains, that it is important for us to assure the survival of our language” he says with a tone of urgency.



It’s hard not to feel as though Meguimasa is in a race against time - knowing that, he is.


Like many indigenous communities around the world, Embera people have until recently lived independently, sustained their livelihoods on organic diets and food, spoke their own language, and maintained pride in their traditional clothing, customs, and rituals. In 1994, however, when a part of their traditional land was declared the Chagres National Park as way to secure and preserve a major supply of the water needed to assure the functioning of the world-famous, lucrative, and expanding Panama Canal, Embera people were, among other newly-imposed regulations, forbidden from hunting at free will.

“Has this threatened your community’s traditional survival?” I asked Meguimasa which, admittedly in my mind, was more of a statement than a question. "It has certainly changed things,” he says.

Forced to seek out a way to survive, the Embera leaders I met with say they reached consensus, among themselves, and embraced cultural tourism as a way to earn money for their communities.















As an advocate for the protection and preservation of ancient cultures, I struggled with thoughts of cultural exploitation, and the risks associated with external influences as I witnessed busloads of tourists pilling into the tribesmen’s dugout canoes. I couldn’t stop the tormenting flashbacks of Embera children posing with lollipops and Glamour magazines in images that I had seen on the Internet prior to my departure. “How can this be good for a community that had survived almost untouched by foreign influence? They have no access to dentists, pencil thin models have already damaged the images of young women worldwide,” and so on I thought. I couldn't help but be concerned for the health, well-being and the future of the tribe’s traditional survival. My job, however, is to ask and not assume...



“Living in the rain forest was not easy,” says Antilano Flaco, Chief of the Embera Quera tribe, located a few hours north of the Embera Drua village. “Agricultural work is very difficult, we couldn’t write or read, we lived in poverty,” he adds.


When Embera people first ventured out into cities in pursuit of work, they faced extreme discrimination, he says, only able to work in low-paying and heavy labour jobs due to their lack of recognized education and tribal appearance. Traditionally, Embera people wear very little clothing. Men wear a thin piece of cloth covering their genital area held in place with a tightly woven piece of rope, while women wear colourful sarong-type skirts with exquisitely beaded strands of jewelry over their chests. Both men and women paint their bodies with a black ink derived from very specific plants - not only used to adorn and beautify the human body, but also (as per traditional belief) to protect it from illness and harm.

As a "western" woman who just flew in from Canada, I felt under-dressed in my homely work clothes (cut off jogging pants, tank top, and my well-traveled shirt) among such stunningly beautiful people. And yet, despite my initial sense of plainness upon arrival, none of that seemed to matter. Unlike the stereotype and discrimination that this community had put up with for centuries, I, despite my appearance (not only poorly dressed but also blindingly pale and freckled), received an incredibly warm welcome as, what felt like, a friend - a longtime friend.




















Like my new Embera companions, I ditched my shoes quickly realizing that in this rain forest, at this particular time, thick soles and constrained ankles were completely unnecessary. I felt my toes grab on to the exposed roots of trees, oval rocks, and beautifully woven vine-like plants as we walked over a slippery path of silky red mud…I felt a heightened sense of balance and stability, and a profound connection with the pristine land of this of this ancient tribe. I felt incredibly privileged to walk among a group of people - recognized by many as the keepers of the rain forest...


I began to follow natural healer, Dr. Elia Ruiz, as he led me towards his well hidden (and 'nondescript' to a botanical layperson life myself)  garden of medicinal plants. "This one, we use to treat breathing problems and asthma” he says while pointing to a small plant, “this one is for joint pains and arthritis, and this one for gum and tooth aches” he adds as he hands me a tiny piece of twig while gesturing for me to eat it. Without any hesitation, I do just that. My mouth becomes pleasantly numb within seconds. I laugh, he laughs while nodding his head in a “I told you so” kind of way as we continue on our path of medicinal exploration. Dr. Ruiz can describe the properties of what seemed to be every bush, leaf, and branch that we passed as we made our way through the rain forest...

The doctor’s knowledge of natural remedies however, is not as simple as the twig had proven to be. Natural healing entails a long, complicated, and complex process involving multi-plant mixtures, preparations, and specific methods for human intake and application. None of which, he reveals freely to outsiders. Embera people, I am told, are well aware of pharmaceutical exploitation, and as such teach and share wisdom very carefully; revealing ancient secrets and healing practices only upon heavy debate, lengthy discussion, and upon reaching consensus among the tribe’s leaders and community members.


Knowing that the poaching of information by deep-pocketed companies has been ruthless and rampant in recent history, it is a necessary safeguard I'm told, to ensure the ongoing respect and protection of natural land, the wisdom passed on from ancestors, and credit where it is due.




























So does a coexistence with the outside world truly benefit the Embera tribe?

Chief Flaco says, “it does,” and on many levels. "First, by providing our community with a source of income (especially money to buy food), second by allowing us to send our children to school, and third by fostering a sense of pride in preserving traditional culture among the younger generations now well-aware of the lifestyles of people living in the outside world. The community is proud to display and celebrate its culture for an appreciative and interested audience” he says. “Contact with outsiders has not only motivated our youth to preserve and protect our traditions, it has also allowed us to affirm our unique cultural identity,” he adds.


As a result of the interest of outsiders, Embera people have found a way to assure their traditional survival through sustainable tourism and the safeguards resulting from increased awareness, both nationally and internationally. Not too long ago, seen and stereotyped as savages, they have successfully taken control of a situation that could have led to their cultural extinction, and instead using it to reinforce their traditional way of life and securing its long-lasting existence. As more people become aware of the community's existence and the ancient wisdom embodied within its culture, traditions, and language, an increasing number of people recognize the need to respect, preserve, and protect the community. The profound knowledge of Dr. Ruiz, a man believed to have cured cancer, is but one great example…an example perhaps of what could be lost should the so-called “modern” world embark, or in some cases, continue on a path of cultural ignorance.


Just as the Embera people have found a way to benefit from a respectful cultural exchange with outsiders, so perhaps, should the world…just as I have while breathing easier knowing that no matter what drives decisions in this so-called “modern” world of ours, Embera people won’t be abandoning their ancient traditions or vacating the Panamanian rain forest any time soon.

(Initially heading towards the side, I was asked to place myself in the middle of a group photo as a welcomed guest)

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