Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kuna practice slash-and-burn agriculture and use intercropping techniques. Although plantains are now their primary subsistence crop, they also grow rice, maize, yucca (manioc), sugarcane, coconuts, fruits (such as mangoes, pineapples, lemons, limes, and oranges), and hot peppers. Fishing, hunting, and gathering supplement the Kunal diet. Some households keep a pig to slaughter for a special occasion.
The most common source of cash income is the export of coconuts to Colombia and molas (multilayered panels of cloth cut away to reveal intricate patterns and then carefully hand stitched) to the United States, Europe, and Japan. Coconuts have been exchanged with Colombian traders for goods or cash since the late 1800s. Molas were commercialized in a major way starting in the 1960s. Kuna women sew mola panels into their blouses (also called molas), and sew panels and other items (e.g., small mola patches, animal pillows, pockets, purses, Christmastree ornaments) specifically for sale. Mola commercialization occurred concurrently with an increase in Kuna male migration in search of wage labor and a consequent decrease in subsistence-agriculture production. Lobsters and, to a lesser extent, crabs and octopuses began to be harvested for export starting in the 1960s; however, because diving for and preserving the catch require special equipment, and because only young men dive, the impact of this commercial activity has not been as widespread as that of the production of molas.
Kuna men seek wage labor opportunities especially in the Canal Zone, Panama City, Colón, and on Changuinola—a banana plantation. Outside San Blas, few job opportunities are available for Kuna women, but within the region, wage-labor opportunities are equally accessible to Kuna men and women. Such salaried government positions as those of teacher and health worker are filled by both sexes. A few positions, such as air-traffic controller, national guardsman, and agricultural-extension worker, are occupied only by men, but either men or women can be airport attendants, accountants, or store clerks within the community.
Tourism, primarily concentrated in the western third of San Blas, increased dramatically during the 1960s. Most tourists visit the region in luxury cruise ships. Some visit one of several Kuna- or foreign-owned small hotel resorts.
Industrial Arts. Sewing molas is the primary art form for Kuna women and for omekits (Kuna men who are socially defined as women). Some women have special gifts for creating and cutting mola designs and for fashioning wini, strings of tiny colored beads worn wrapped around the forearms and lower legs of Kuna women to form geometric designs. Wini, mola blouses, wraparound skirts, head scarves made from imported cloth, and a gold nose ring are considered "traditional dress" for women. Most women in San Blas dress "traditionally." A few elderly women still make hammocks and ceramic vessels, but these traditional crafts are rapidly disappearing as commercial goods become increasingly available. Kuna men make baskets, ladles, wooden stools, and fans that women use to keep the fires burning. Some men make their own clothing: a solid-colored shirt with pleats in the front and a pair of pants, also without designs. Most Kuna men, however, wear Western clothing. Men who live in the area frequented by tourists carve small model boats and balsawood Kuna doll heads to sell to visitors. Dugout wooden canoes are handcrafted by men who have learned this special skill.
Trade. Starting in the 1600s, the Kuna engaged in lucrative trade with the Scots, the French, and with the British colony of Jamaica. Kuna chiefs learned European languages and traveled throughout the Caribbean. The Kuna also traded with pirates as early as the 1600s. A Scottish colony was established in the area in 1698. Alliances and trade relations with Kuna communities were developed and maintained until the 1700s, when the Spanish expelled the Scots.
In the 1700s the French began to trade with the Kuna and to forge military alliances that protected both parties from the Spanish and British. Relations were sufficiently amicable to allow intermarriage. In the 1740s, however, the French began to cultivate cacao for export and, soon thereafter, to use Kuna labor. Relations between the two groups deteriorated; the Kuna rebelled, attacking the French settlers and driving them from the region. Taking over the production of cacao (about 100,000 trees on an estimated seventy-three properties), the Kuna began to trade with the British for guns, ammunition, tools, and cloth. By the 1850s, maritime trade with pirates and merchants was well developed, and trade continues to provide the Kuna with a steady source of goods.
Nowadays the Kuna are actively engaged in commerce with Colombians on boats; they trade coconuts for sugar, rice, cocoa, or cash. Trade boats, most of which are collectively owned by Kuna villages, travel to Colón (an international trade zone), returning to San Blas with a wide range of goods. Kuna storekeepers and itinerant traders acquire their merchandise either directly from Panama City or from the trade boats. Interregional trading of agricultural produce is minimal; plantains and roof thatch, abundant in the east, are mostly sold to communities in the west, where they are needed. Molas, coconuts, and lobsters are the region's primary exports. Although the Kuna still produce much of the goods they consume, they import a wide range of consumer goods including boat motors, cookware, clothing, shoes, certain staples (cocoa, rice, sugar), cement, guns, harpoons, lanterns, tape decks, and radios.
Division of Labor. Concurrent with commercialization of coconuts and relocation of many mainland villages to the islands, Kuna men increasingly took over subsistence-agricultural production as women turned their attention to the coconut trade. This shift did not occur in all Kuna communities, nor did it happen all at once. Despite the variations, however, men generally took increased responsibility for plantain, maize, rice, yucca, fruit, and sugarcane production. Both men and women still planted, weeded, and harvested coconuts, but the women from each household were usually the ones to exchange them for goods or cash.
Women continue to be responsible for child care; food gathering, preparation, and preservation; hauling water; and other tasks related to household maintenance. They also sew molas for themselves, their daughters, and elderly mothers. Men continue to engage in agricultural production and to hunt, fish, build houses, and craft many necessary household items. Women in the eastern region of San Blas and older women throughout the region are active in agricultural production. Women who spend most of their time sewing molas for sale are the least involved in agricultural and household-maintenance activities. Omekids usually work alongside women but may also participate in men's activities. Many omekids in the region are known as outstanding sewers of molas.
Land Tenure. Private property did not exist among the Kuna until the mid-to late nineteenth century. Increased population pressure and the cash cropping of coconuts are factors that precipitated this change. Since 1938, all lands located within the comarca of San Blas have been owned collectively by the San Blas Kuna, although they do not own subsoil rights. The Kuna recognize individuals' rights to land. According to Kuna law, whoever first clears a plot may pass the land to his heirs. Because only men clear land, women generally inherit easily accessible, already producing fields. Women's brothers are expected to clear unclaimed land and often inherit fallow plots. Heirs retain their rights to land even if it has not been cultivated for many years.