Ngawbe - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. One characteristic of the Ngawbe in the twentieth century has been a shift from a predominantly self-sufficient economy, based on sharing, barter, and reciprocity, to a mixed subsistence and cash economy (although swidden-based agriculture remains the main source of livelihood for most Ngawbe families). Crops raised by the Ngawbe include maize, millet, bananas, plantains, beans, rice, sweet manioc, otoe ( taro/Xanthosoma spp.), ñampi ( yams/Dioscorea spp.), sweet potatoes, squashes, sugarcane, pigeon peas ( Cajanus indicus ), chili peppers, coffee, and pineapples, as well as tree fruits such as peach palms ( Guilielma gasipaes ), avocados, papayas, mangoes, soursops ( Anona nutricata ), guavas ( Psidium guajaba ), oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and cacao. The Ngawbe also cultivate tobacco, century plant (for its fiber), and gourds and calabashes (for use as containers). The crops that make up the bulk of the diet differ from one part of the Ngawbe territory to another, depending on environmental conditions. In Chiriquí and southern Veraguas, where a true dry season exists, maize, beans, bananas (harvested green and then usually boiled), and rice are of major importance. In Bocas del Toro and the Caribbean side of Veraguas, where there is no dry season, the Ngawbe depend heavily on various root crops, bananas, and peachpalm fruits during a part of the year. The livelihood derived from agriculture is supplemented by the raising of a few cattle, chickens, or pigs and, to a lesser extent today than in the past, by hunting, fishing, and gathering. The Ngawbe traditionally hunted deer, tapir, wild pigs, and a number of small forest animals for food, but game of any kind has become scarce throughout much of Ngawbe territory. Most hunting is done with shotguns or .22-caliber rifles; few men today are skilled in the use of the bow and arrow. Fishing is done traditionally, using dams, weirs, nets, spears, bows and arrows, and fish poison; the use of hook and line has caught on only in a minor way. Foodstuffs are occasionally purchased on trips to town or from Ngawbe who have established small stores in the area. Some Ngawbe have formed small cooperatives, to reap the advantage of wholesale purchasing. Temporary wage labor outside their territory on cattle ranches and on banana, coffee, and sugarcane plantations is currently the major source of cash income for many Ngawbe families. Wages are very low and have not kept pace with the rate of inflation in Panama; working conditions are unhealthy in the extreme.

Industrial Arts. The Ngawbe manufacture crude baskets for utilitarian purposes, large wooden trays, net bags of various sizes (some of extremely fine quality), stone pipes, grinding stones, wooden mortars, woven hats, hammocks, fiber string and rope, horsehair rope and bridles, and broad, beaded collars known as chaquiras. Except for net bags, baskets, and string, which all girls and women (and a few men) know how to make, items are made by part-time specialists and are obtained by others through trade. Ceramic vessels have been replaced by metal pots, and all knowledge of pottery manufacture has been lost. Although bark cloth is no longer worn as clothing, it is still made by some women for use as saddle blankets, bed coverings, and sanitary napkins.

Trade. Among themselves, the Ngawbe traditionally bartered manufactured goods for other goods or foodstuffs and exchanged food among kin on a reciprocal basis. Since the early 1970s, cash purchases have become more frequent, even among kin, which is an indication of the strong penetration of the cash-based economy into Ngawbe culture. Since contact times, the Ngawbe have engaged in trade with nonindigenous peoples. Dependence on such trade has increased dramatically during the latter half of the twentieth century and is now largely cash based. Maize, beans, rice, coffee, domestic animals, and net bags are sold to Panamanian merchants in small quantities, especially by those families with no wage-labor income, in order to purchase items of Western manufacture that have become necessities—for example, cloth, clothing, machetes, salt, medicines, metal pots, blankets, and the shotguns, rifles, and ammunition that are used in hunting. Panamanian buyers occasionally travel into Ngawbe territory to purchase cattle. The Ngawbe raise horses for riding and for use as pack animals, and these, too, are sometimes sold to outsiders.

Division of Labor. Men hunt, clear land for planting, weed fields, organize cooperative labor parties called juntas, tend cattle and horses, collect firewood during the rainy season, chop firewood, and engage in wage labor. Women cook, care for children, clean house, fetch water, collect firewood during the dry season, make clothing for women and children (male clothing is now almost entirely purchased), make net bags, harvest cultivated foodstuffs on a daily basis, gather some wild foods, and occasionally work for wages as domestics or as pickers during the coffee harvest, when they may accompany their husbands to the plantations. Both women and men (and sometimes children) plant crops, participate in major harvest activities, and fish. There is some evidence that women have become responsible for an increasing number of agricultural tasks, as men have become more occupied with cattle and wage labor. The division of labor among the Ngawbe is not rigid, however, and both women and men will do whatever needs doing, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Ritual and political activities are primarily organized and led by men, but women do attend these activities and have participatory roles in traditional rituals. Mainly spectators at nontraditional political gatherings in the 1960s, women have come to play an increasing role on such occasions.

Land Tenure. Land is owned collectively by cognatic kin groups, and use rights are generally regulated by the senior male members. Use rights are inherited equally by women and men. In the past, when a man cleared climax forest, the land became his property, and his descendants had use rights. Today, however, climax forest is virtually nonexistent. Although the actual right to use land is complicated by several factors, use rights to land are generally lost if the lineal descendants of a person fail to exercise such rights for two generations and if the person is not living in a hamlet located on the land in question.


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