Although the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index has ranked residents of Panama as the leaders in “well-being” for two consecutive years, three weeks in communities of the Darién province exposed me to the destitution and gubernatorial neglect that blankets this eastern region. Inhabitants of the Darién have been stigmatized, leaving them to persevere without access to clean water, health care facilities, or economic opportunity. My experience led me not only to question the validity of the Index, but also to consider the ways we can empower a forgotten sub-population.
“A little further down the road, you’ll find that it comes to an end,” my local Panamanian guide remarked while en route to the compound where we reside for the following three weeks. At the time, the idea of a place with no road was beyond comprehension. How could people stay connected? How could they receive supplies? The answer to these questions is simple -- they don’t.
Soon after arriving in Panama, I began to comprehend the “Darién Gap” — a 99-mile swath of undeveloped swampland and forest located within Panama’s Darién province — as a symbol of the many development projects that have been discontinued in the region over the past decades. I found that the double-edged sword of indigenous isolation offers cultural preservation on one side, clean water and healthcare deficiencies on the other.
The border between Panama and Colombia is the only one in the world that remains unpaved! While the decision to stop construction of the Pan-American Highway provided benefits to some groups, such as law enforcement officers against drug traffickers and indigenous inhabitants of the Gap who wish to preserve a traditional lifestyle, it also resulted in neglect of an entire region. With the fastest-growing economy in the Americas, Panama now has an opportunity to improve the quality of life for all its citizens. Yet despite the recent boom, the nation has the greatest economic inequality in the Americas with nearly 40 percent of the country living in poverty. Many of those who endure economic destitution live in the eastern half of the country, particularly in the Darién.
My three weeks in Panama were dedicated to community visits throughout this beleaguered province. Meeting with officials as well as individual households, we conducted surveys to determine the accessibility of fundamental necessities, such as clean water, health care, and education. I was an intern for a nonprofit based in Panama City, but which conducts most of its projects with American undergraduates serving communities of the Darién. This nonprofit creates partnerships with communities located in proximity to a road or a rocky pathway that Panamanian officials call highway. More indigenous groups are sheltered within the Darién Gap, undisturbed and unacknowledged.
According to community members who responded to our surveys in July 2014, lack of access to clean water is the main problem affecting daily life for an appreciable number of residents in the Darién province. Although the Panamanian government’s Ministry of Health is responsible for water distribution by means of aqueduct systems, complications such as project incompletion, water shortages, pipeline damages, and contamination from pesticides/animals inhibit achievement of the goal. Residents described complex, inconsistent, and seasonally based methods for receiving water. In the past, families might go two months without water when a government-constructed pipeline to a water tank is broken. When water finally arrives, it will sometimes come out dirty or contaminated from passage through farmland.
Observation and conversation with members of various communities taught me that collaboration between locals and external, resource-rich groups has been a driver for successful growth in this area. Yet one person I met described the Darién province as “the temple of abandoned development projects” for the number of missionary and nonprofit groups that have attempted and failed to provide assistance to families in the greatest need. In an indigenous community named Emberá Puru, I noticed little blue water filters strewn about the property. The leaders explained that a missionary group had provided over 100 filters, but not explained how to use them. The group left after a week of what could be described as “voluntourism” — volunteering abroad that resembles a tourism opportunity — and the community was left with pieces of plastic polluting the land.
The neglected Darién province is not a unique case. Panamanians from other parts of the country (like Panama City) expressed surprise and/or distaste when my group revealed we were working in this eastern region. These people hold onto misconceptions, such as the idea that the Darién is filled with dangerous members of drug cartels or that it’s a completely unlivable swampland.
While the “Darién Gap” might lack a constructed road, the population of this area has done its best to overcome deficiency through resiliency. When a government or its people show indifference toward improving the lives of an entire population sector, outside measures need to be taken to reduce inequality. But “outside measures” should also be performed through culturally conscious and responsible mechanisms in order to achieve sustainable success. No clear-cut solution exists to resolve problems such as clean water, healthcare, and education inaccessibility in the Darién province, Panama. However, creative and collaborative efforts have the power to mediate substandard conditions and to catalyze change – one household at a time.
Sarah is an undergraduate at Yale University and a content editor for Mission.tv. As a traveler who has visited 30 countries (and counting!), she feels passionate about international development through sustainable mechanisms. Sarah has taken an interest in the intersection between public health and theater, and hopes to create a program that utilizes these disciplines for community empowerment. She is a fluent Spanish speaker with plans to take residence in Latin American after graduation.