Emberá and Wounaan - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Emberá and Wounaan economy is largely a closed system united by family ties. Subsistence requires cooperation between households, and many tasks are performed communally. The historic previllage economy reflected the settlement pattern: one zone of levee lands contained the house site, animal pens, plantain and banana groves, and orchards and gardens of fruit trees and other useful plants; a forested barricade confined dooryard animals; and amid fallow lands and uncut forest patches was a patchwork of slash-and-burn plots on which grains and tubers, such as maize, rice, and yams, were cultivated. Gathering traditionally occurred close to home. Village organization caused spatial reorganization of subsistence activities. It may now take several hours to walk to fields; preferred hunting, fishing, and gathering spots are even farther. The concentration of people into villages has caused the overexploitation of forest nearby resources.

Spears, bows and arrows, blowguns, and darts were the Emberá and Wounaan hunting weapons until the shotgun and the .22-caliber rifle replaced them in the early twentieth century. Easier access to firearms attracted Indians from Colombia to Darién. The Indians are crack shots; in the previllage era, game depletion brought about settlement relocation. Fishing is done with nets, spears, arrows, traps, hooks; formerly, poisons were also used. Underwater spear fishing developed when diving masks became available in the mid-twentieth century. Freshwater shrimp and crabs are speared from river banks. Prehistoric animal husbandry was limited to the Muscovy duck and tamed forest animals. Today chickens and pigs have been introduced and they fit well into the economy; turkeys and Peking ducks are less prevalent. Dogs have been traditional domesticates; cats are more rare. The extraction of forest resources continues to provide fruits, nuts, roots, construction materials, weapons, dugouts, medicines, and ornaments.

Commercialism developed commensurately with the desire for Western products. The Indians have extracted rubber and other forest products, panned gold, and cut lumber for cash over the past 150 years. Pig husbandry also formerly provided cash. Banana and plantain cropping afforded them the first opportunity for sustained market production.

Industrial Arts. Indian women once fashioned beautiful ceramics, including huge vessels with anthropomorphic designs, in which chicha (beer) was stored. They still weave useful items from palms, including the carrying and storage baskets found in all households. Today beautiful palm-leaf baskets with intricate designs are made for the tourist trade. Men made spear shafts and points from palm wood. They fashion beautiful dugout canoes with distinctive bow platforms and carve hardwood into household benches, stools, and kitchen utensils. Some specialize in carving intricate figurines and shafts ( bastones ) for ritual use by shamans and for sale to tourists.

Trade. Bananas became a commercial crop during the 1930s, bringing Indians into the cash economy, but "Panama Disease" reduced production around 1960. Since then, plantains have been the most important cash crop sold to boat merchants who work between the capital and Darién's historic river towns—Sambú, Río Congo, La Palma, Chepigana, and Yaviza. The Pan-American Highway, which reached Darién during the 1970s, has become a focus of economic activity. The Indians have diversified their cash crops to include yams, maize, rice, avocados, oranges, and beans that they sell to truck merchants. The village economy centers on stores and cooperatives that sell merchandise that has become basic to the local inhabitants, including packaged foods, dry goods, tools, and toiletries.

Division of Labor. Men clear and plant the agricultural fields; women help with weeding and harvesting. Men cut and fashion trees and forest products for dugouts and house construction. A system of communal labor ( cambio de mano ) organizes kin for demanding tasks such as house construction. Hunting is a solitary male activity. Women fish with hooks and spear shrimp and crawfish near the village; Boys fish with nets, and also spearfish wearing diving masks. Men normally make cash transactions with outsiders. Women apply themselves to the domestic activities of cooking, sewing, basketry, pottery, and child care.

Land Tenure. Landownership develops with usufructuary rights; both men and women own land. Men normally prepare fields before marriage, but, because they often have traveled some distance to marry, fathers-in-law frequently give them land (Torres de Araúz 1966, 75). Today, with open farmland increasingly scarce and agricultural colonists pushing onto Indian lands, Indian families have begun to mark boundaries and want legal titles. The Comarca law (Ley #22 of 1983) recognizes indigenous land-tenure systems. The comarca's regulating document (Carta Orgánica, 1993) recognizes family, community, and "comarcal" landholdings and prohibits sale or lease of comarca lands to outsiders.

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