A dozen indigenous people of Emberá community have become agricultural teachers for a few months and are engaged in explaining their neighbors in the Panamanian Darién jungle the new cultivation techniques they have acquired in a UN program aimed at revitalizing production systems.
Linea Bacorizo, an Emberá indigenous person from the community of Arimae, 200 kilometers east of the Panamanian capital, has been growing bananas, yams, corn and yucca for more than 25 years in the lands she inherited from her parents.
Until six months ago, she used to sow in an anarchic and disorderly manner. Now, however, she is aware that it is better to plant in line and leave one meter distance between each plant to exploit it and manage more efficiently the land and avoid deforestation.
"We planted according to what our grandparents taught us, we used too much wood, in one hectare I used to plant 100 yam seeds, but now I only need 20 square meters," Bacorizo told several neighbors of the neighboring village who were listening to her attentively.
In the adjoining plot, her companion Julia Membach tells another group of Emberá indigenous people the fertilizer cannot be applied directly on the plant of ñampí (an American tuber), but must be placed at least four fingers away to prevent the root from “burning” (dying).
She also tells them it is important not to pick up or burn the leaves that have been pruned, since these become a very nutritious natural fertilizer for the crop.
Both women are part of a project jointly promoted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Panamanian Government, which aims at improving the productivity of indigenous fields by combining ancestral techniques with small agricultural innovations.
"If we bring sophisticated techniques of intensive production, chemicals and other tools, we will turn them into dependent producers and a time will come when the costs will be so high that they will not be able to produce," the Panamanian deputy minister of Indigenous Affairs, Feliciano Jiménez told Efe.
The project includes, in a first stage, about fifty Emberá families from the Darién jungle, who attend technical training for a year. Of all of them, those who have better capacity for public speaking are those who become "promoters" and those who are in charge of communicating what they have learned.
The initiative will be spread in other indigenous communities of Panama, such as the Bri-bri, Guna, Naso or Wounaan.
"Producing under the conditions of a tropical humid forest like this one is very difficult, since many fungi proliferate destroying the crops; there were many people who were leaving the field and many seeds that were being lost like the baboon yam," said the FAO official of Production and Plant Protection, Jorge Samaniego.
Darién, an impressive jungle that makes a natural border with Colombia, is a virtually inhospitable territory and is the only point on the continent where the Pan-American Highway, which runs from Alaska to Ushuaia, in Argentina, is interrupted.
"Everyone in the city eats plantain and we use yams to make our soups, these products are cultivated here; improving the indigenous crops not only helps the indigenous security of these people, but the whole country," said the technician.
In Panama about 400,000 indigenous people represent around 11% of the total population and who are grouped into 7 ethnic groups.
Although the Central American country is one of the fastest growing in the region, the situation of indigenous people is precarious: poverty affects 96.7 percent of the people and chronic malnutrition affects 72 percent of children under five years, according to the latest official survey.
"The Panamanian State has an outstanding debt with the indigenous people, whose development has never been a priority in the government agendas," said the vice minister of the sector.