Ngawbe - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There are no social or economic classes. Women and men cooperate in household decision making. Men dominate in the public arena, occupying most leadership positions in political and ritual affairs, but elderly women are listened to with respect. The cognatic kin group is the locus of socioeconomic power and authority. Cooperation in work activities beyond the household level is accomplished by reciprocal labor groups (juntas), organized by men. These labor groups, a major aspect of the structure of production, are normally made up mostly of consanguineally related men living in the same hamlet. Additional participants are recruited from among consanguines and affines in nearby communities. When a man organizes a junta, he owes equivalent labor to each man who helps him. The distribution of food to kin is a major feature of the structure of consumption. Formal patterns of sharing serve to distribute food on a large scale among near and distant kin during periods of localized scarcity. Men who are able to provide regularly for needy kin gain prestige, which can also be gained through sponsorship of rituals.

Political Organization. Ngawbe oral history is rich with descriptions of great caciques (chiefs) of the past, who supposedly exercised authority over regions within Ngawbe territory. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a system of appointed native governors existed. The actual power of the governors was directly related to their personal prestige. Throughout the twentieth century, men have been appointed by outside officials as corregidores (magistrates), with responsibility for keeping the civil registry and serving as judges within their corregimientos (municipalities). Since 1972, the Ngawbe have elected their own representatives to the National Assembly. In addition, there are currently three individuals who are recognized by the Panamanian government as provincial chiefs. Each has personally appointed several assistants, who represent the chief at the local level. Each of these chiefs has a personal following, but their authority is not recognized by all Ngawbe. In fact, the locus of Ngawbe political decision making remains predominantly the kin group, despite the current overlay of other political structures. Since the first Ngawbe General Congress in 1979, the provincial chiefs have organized several general, regional, and special congresses to discuss the problems that face the Ngawbe and to decide on courses of action. Legal title to their land has continued to be their greatest concern. Despite years of negotiation, the Panamanian government has refused to grant title.

Social Control. The kin group regulates the behavior of its members and provides moral and sometimes economic support in the disputes that individuals may have with members of other kin groups. Disputes over land rights and crop destruction by cattle are common. When disputes or crimes of any kind occur, the usual procedure is to select as arbitrator a man of acknowledged prestige and ability who is acceptable to both sides, whether or not he holds the official office of corregidor. The case is then discussed at a nightlong meeting by all present, after which the arbitrator renders his judgment. Arbitrators are chosen for their acknowledged ability to render judgments that are deemed fair and equitable by both sides. If the accused and his or her kin do not agree with the judgment, however, they may attempt to reopen the case at a later date with a different arbitrator. The Ngawbe seldom seek outside authorities to settle either civil or criminal cases.

Conflict. Internal conflicts may occur over land, cattle, crops, women, or unpaid debts; arbitration is usually sufficient to resolve them (see "Social Control"). Most violence involves the use of alcohol. Current relations with the outside world have produced divisiveness, which sometimes threatens kin group solidarity: traditionalists wish to minimize contact with the outside world, liberals argue for greater involvement, and moderates prefer a middle course. Conflict between the Ngawbe and outside agencies has resulted in strikes on the banana plantations over wages and working conditions, public protests over government refusal to grant reserve status to Ngawbe lands and over other human-rights violations, and confrontations with government officials over the proposed open-pit copper mine at Cerro Colorado, in the heart of Ngawbe territory.

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