11/05/2020 - Culture

In May, do what you like! "En mai fais ce qu'il te plaît "…or the red rags of Colombia...


While Spain now allows some businesses to go back to work, very slowly and under strict conditions, this is not the case in Panama. Villages are still in the same situation, totally blocked and isolated.

People live pretty well in the rainforest villages. It’s an oppressive wait …. but at least they can eat.

Of course, people are not used to staying together in the same house all the time and not being able to walk down to the river or into the rainforest. However, the indigenous people are usually patient and, during our conversations, they very rarely complain about this situation, which is beyond their control.

No positive cases of coronavirus have been found in the villages I work with, so far.

But I’ve noticed a sense of fear. When this virus first appeared, women often told me about the strong fear they felt, even though there were no cases of coronavirus around their villages. But this pandemic coming over from Europe appeared to them as a punishment from God, a biblical plague, and some preachers did not hesitate in telling them what to do to eradicate this plague.

Many women I know were really scared and I tried to talk with them and understand the reasons for this fear.

Today, now that the villages remain unaffected, the feeling of fear seems to be decreasing somewhat, or at least, not increasing.

The situation of indigenous people who moved to towns seems to be much worse.

As you know, Ethic & Tropic works near the Colombian border. Tribal peoples from Colombia have, over the years, moved to other areas, fleeing armed conflict, guerillas and drug traffickers.  Some have come to Panama, while others have moved south to Colombian towns.

In the towns, indigenous people live day to day: at best, they are employed in the building industry but more frequently, they earn money as street sellers. Nobody knows exactly where they live, nobody knows exactly how many indigenous people there are.

In a recent article in the Spanish newspaper El País, journalist Catalina Oquendo described the living conditions of a family from the Embera tribe living in Bogota, eight people living in a single room and being forced, like so many others, to beg to survive.

She calls the indigenous people living in towns "the invisibles". This says a lot about their living conditions.

In these large Colombian towns, where strict quarantine rules have been applied, people have created a code to ask for help.  When people have nothing left to eat, they hang red rags on their doors or windows. This signal, called "SOS del hambre" (SOS, hunger), sends a message to the government or anyone who can help, telling them that the family in this house have nothing left to eat.

Indigenous people are probably the most vulnerable people in these large urban areas.

Those who moved to the towns were mostly fleeing the violence they suffered when the guerillas were active. The dense forests of the Darien were the FARC guerilleros' hiding place.

Now, with the Colombian peace process, the situation has calmed down, even though the region remains extremely dangerous because of the presence of drug traffickers.

Living in the Darien villages remains possible, largely thanks to SENAFRONT, the specialized Panamanian police force who patrol the area. I'm glad I can contribute something to help people maintain this life.