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The radio station giving indigenous people a voice

By Grace Livingstone
Business reporter, Panama City

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Dad NebaImage source, Grace Livingstone
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Dad Neba says that the radio station allows indigenous peoples 'to speak for ourselves'

The high-rises and glass towers of Panama City gleam in the sunlight.

But on the other side of town, there's an old office block where if you go up the stairs and you'll find a tiny makeshift radio studio.

From here, Panama's first indigenous people's radio station, Voces Originarias Panamá, is now broadcast across the country.

Panama has almost half a million indigenous people, who make up 12% of the population, and speak seven different languages. Dad Neba, the station's coordinator, says it's time they had a voice.

"Historically we've been bombarded with information from outside, and now we want to speak for ourselves," he says. "We want to show the needs of our peoples."

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Image caption,
The modernity of the centre of Panama City is in marked contrast to how rural most of Panama the country remains

The idea of the station emerged during the Covid pandemic, when it was vital to get health information to isolated communities. "We had programmes in seven languages about prevention," says Mr Neba. "In each language we'd say 'you must wash your hands'."

He operates the station with DJ Olocunaliler Ferrer who, in between programmes about history, current affairs, indigenous rights and culture, plays a range of music from traditional songs, to indigenous rock and rap.

It was launched last year by the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of Panama (COONAPIP), which represents all the traditional indigenous authorities of Panama.

They see the radio station as an important tool to defend the culture, land and social and economic rights, of indigenous people.

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"From every corner of the country, indigenous people can send news to the station in their own language," says Marcelo Guerra, the president of COONAPIP.

"They can talk about the problems they face in their territories, whether that be incursions onto their lands, lack of health facilities, or clean water."

There are seven different indigenous peoples of Panama - the Ngäbe, the Buglé, the Guna, the Emberá, the Wounaan, the Bribri, and the Naso Tjërdi.

Mr Neba is a Guna from Guna Yala, an indigenous territory spread across hundreds of islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. He's worked voluntarily for years in community radio, and is now travelling to indigenous communities across the country, teaching people how to make radio programmes.

Arona Membache attended one of his workshops in the small community of Arimae, in the province of Darien in eastern Panama. "We learnt how to write a script, gather information, record sound, basically everything about radio," she says.

Image source, Grace Livingstone
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Arona Membache now files reports to the radio station

Like most people here, Ms Membache is a subsistence farmer cultivating plantain, yuccas, yams, rice and maize. In her spare time she teaches children traditional dances that were taught to her by her mother.

She now sends the radio station reports in the local language, Emberá, and audio recordings of the songs and drums that accompany the dances. "Using our cell phones, we can send reports from here showing our culture, identity and language," says Ms Membache.

Caselina Bacorizo, 79, a fellow resident of Arimae, says: "I didn't know anything about radio before, but after going to the workshops, I can see that having our own radio station is so important. We could use it to teach our children about our culture, and to maintain our language."

Arimae has a population of 997. Many residents live in wooden houses with thatched palm rooves, while others homes are made of breeze blocks and corrugated iron.

Image source, Grace Livingstone
Image caption,
Arimae is small community of basic homes

The people in Arimae are from two different indigenous groups, the Emberá and the Wounaan. They came together and founded this community in 1969 to defend themselves from road builders. The Pan American Highway, which began construction here in the early 1970s, was built right through the rainforest where they lived.

"When the road came, we had serious problems here," says Abrego Membeche, one of the founders of Arimae. "Outsiders began to arrive and take over the land. We had to challenge these people and demand the government take action."

The community finally got a title to their lands in 2015, but it's a much smaller area than they once had. Over the past 50 years, they've lost more than 600sq km (232sq miles).

Much of that was virgin forest, cut down by loggers and farmers who came after the road was built. Many people here want the radio station to highlight the importance of protecting nature.

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Image caption,
Panama's indigenous groups have had to battle against deforestation

José Bacorizo is president of the Arimae's elected congress. "We should have a [radio] programme teaching our values, how we value the land, and why it's important to conserve nature,' he says.

"The forest is what gives us life. It gives us oxygen. Without it we wouldn't be able to breathe. So, we have to care for nature because nature cares for us."

More than half of Panamanian territory is covered by rainforest. It also has large areas of mangroves.

Although the Panamanian government has strengthened environmental laws over the last 20 years, deforestation remains a concern for indigenous peoples.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Deforestation such as this continues to be a significant problem in Panama

The government recognises five separate 'comarcas' or semi-autonomous indigenous areas in Panama, comprising 23% of the national territory. But dozens of smaller indigenous communities do not have formal titles to their lands, which are under threat from cattle ranching, logging, agriculture and, more recently the mining industry.

The country's largest mine opened in 2019 and the government is considering several more mining concessions.

Between 2001 and 2019, Panama lost 414,000 hectares (or 7.3%) of its tree cover, including 73,000 hectares of primary rainforest, according to the Rainforest Foundation. In that period, Darien province - where Arimae is located - saw the greatest level of deforestation, totalling 104,000 hectares.

Arimae resident Mariela Sabúgura agrees that the radio station could be used to talk about conservation. "Human beings themselves have destroyed mother earth," she says. "Now we need to conserve it and turn it back to how it was - virgin forest.

"We could use the radio station to raise awareness and come up with ideas. We could replant the forest, plant fruit trees, timber trees."

Image source, Grace Livingstone
Image caption,
Abrego Membeche says that his community had to fight to protect its land

By enabling indigenous people to defend their lands and the environment, the radio station may also protect their livelihoods, which in rural areas is either growing food for their own consumption, or a mixture of subsistence farming and small scale agriculture, aimed at local markets.

Voces Originarias Panamá is a digital radio station. Cell-phone coverage is patchy in some isolated communities, so it can be hard to hear the radio station online. Many residents of Arimae said they'd like the government to allocate the station an analogue terrestrial radio frequency, so it can be picked up by traditional radios.

The radio station is in its early days. It's run by volunteers in the offices of COONPIP.

It received financing from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a network of governmental and non-governmental agencies, but now funds are running low.

Dad Neba, the station's coordinator, however, is determined to keep it going. "The radio station is a fundamental tool for the indigenous peoples of Panama to protect their rights and strengthen their culture, their identity and their languages." Above all, he says, indigenous people want their voices to be heard.