A name, a nationality, an identity: Registering Indigenous Peoples in Panama


To get to the village of Monte Virgen in the Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous territory (Comarca) in Panama, it is necessary to take a boat, crossing the Laguna de Chiriqui and into a mangrove swamp. The journey ends at a dock, where visitors are greeted by a tiny yet curious crowd.

This was the trip recently made by members of UN Human Rights Office for Central America (OHCHR-CA) in Panama who accompanied a team from the regional branch of the Panamanian Electoral Tribunal. The purpose of the trip was to add members of this indigenous community to the Civil Registry.

Since 2011, the Electoral Tribunal has been working with UNICEF support to decrease the number of underreported births in indigenous areas of the country. However, as the work progressed, the Tribunal noticed a problem: There was major resistance to birth registration among a branch of the Ngäbe-Bugle people who practiced a strict form of the Mama Tata religion. It was estimated that up to 12,000 people in remote regions of the Comarca may not have their births registered.

Nationality but no identity

As part of the joint project, the OHCHR-CA and the Electoral Tribunal conducted an investigation to unearth the reasons for the reluctance to register births. The project aimed was aimed at supporting the implementation of recommendations from several human rights mechanisms by the Panamanian government. One of these was the guarantee of the right of all children to have their birth registered, especially those of African descent, indigenous children and those who live in rural and border areas.

The project revealed that many Mama Tata followers do not register their births for several reasons, including an erroneous belief of the consequences of registration and a deep-seated distrust of the State due to the long standing situation of abandonment of the indigenous territories and their population.

So began a trust-building exercise, between the Electoral Tribunal and Mama Tata religious leaders. The work took time, using other members of the Ngäbe-Bugle population to serve as part of the registration teams, said Bonifacio Bonilla Bururobo, Regional Coordinator of the Electoral Tribunal in the Ngäbe-Bulge area.

“Initially we faced resistance from some of the religious leaders who felt threatened, when people from outside the region want to speak to their people,” he said. “But we continued talking to them to explain our plans and objectives.”

A name, an identity

For the Monte Virgen community, the discussion worked, as the religious leaders agreed to allow the registration to begin. People were informed via the local radio when the registration would take place.

So far the project has reached eight communities in the Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro areas – communities so remote that getting to them can take three days.

“The goal is to cover 100 percent. So the process goes on”, said Bonilla.

Carmen Rosa Villa Quintana, Regional Representative for Central America for the UN Human Rights Office, said the project showed the importance of coordination between national institutions and indigenous authorities to achieve the realization of the human rights of indigenous peoples.

“International human rights standards have recognized the right of indigenous people to develop under their own traditions, exercising their rights through their own political, social and cultural institutions,” she said. “It is therefore important that indigenous people participate in decisions that affect them and these decisions correspond with their needs and lifestyles.”

For the Mama Tata themselves, opinion on the need for birth registration is mixed. A church secretary for the Monte Virgen group said some more conservative elements within the church are against the registrations, others see the benefit of having official papers.

“I believe it is beneficial for the community,” he said. “As more people learn about this, more will come to get their documents.”

13 October 2015

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