Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Cuna have traditionally been horticulturists and hunters who also practice fishing. They cultivate maize, rice, sweet manioc, cacao, ñame (yams), certain tropical fruits, and sugarcane. They work the land by slash-and-burn techniques, which imply rotation of fields and a fallow period that has tended to become shorter in recent times as a consequence of the arrival of outsiders on their land.
Hunting is an important subsistence activity that is practiced by men. Bows and arrows have been replaced by shotguns that the Cuna get in San Blas, Panamá, and other cities. Today, the Cuna of Darién only make small, flat-pointed arrows, used for frightening the birds that pick in the maize and rice fields and as a toy for children. Traps are constructed with poles and sticks; if small animals fall in them, they are freed. This contrasts with the White approach, which makes no distinction in the size of catches. Men may fish individually or as an extended-family pattern of production; the Indians utilize nets, fishhooks, and barbasco , a vegetal poison obtained from different plants. Barbasco is used only when the families need a great quantity of fish for ceremonial meetings. Modern Indians of San Blas work for wages as sailors, land workers, and at other jobs. Many Cuna are professionals, including medical doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Nowadays, Indians from Colombian and Panamanian communities have additional incomes from selling handicrafts, such as baskets and molas (multicolored blouse-dresses with intricate appliqué designs), to tourists.
Industrial Arts. Basketry and molas are important handicrafts made by Cuna Indians. In the San Blas Islands women make pottery for burning chili and trade them to Colombian Indians for shamanistic sessions. The Cuna from Darién are famous canoe makers and they sell them in San Blas to other Cuna men.
Trade. Trading activity has been undertaken by the Cuna since pre-Hispanic times. Postcontact trade with Europeans included gold, coconuts, cacao, and other products. In San Blas coconut is an important commercial commodity that is smuggled to Colombia. Commercial activity is greater on the islands than on the mainland. The mainland economy continues along traditional lines despite the White and Black settlers, except in the community of Caimán, where a road crosses the territory and where many Whites have settled. In general, however, mainland Indians have no markets and trade is sporadic. They trade canoes, cacao, maize, and game for shotguns, fuel oil, canned foods, and other goods. In San Blas there are some native commercial agents who store modern merchandise.
Division of Labor. Hunting, sailoring, fishing, and clearing the agricultural fields are male activities. In mainland communities, baskets are also made by men. Planting, harvesting, cooking, and transportation of water from the rivers are female work. Both sexes sew molas.
Land Tenure. Land is passed from parents to sons and daughters; if parents die, the land is shared among siblings. Husbands work the land possessed by their wives, and, as the traditional pattern of residence is matrilocal, the father-in-law of the man keeps watch over it. Therefore, a husband may work both the land he inherits and that inherited by his wife. Generally, on the islands and on the mainland, people may take land for cultivation and clear new fields; in some cases, they announce it to the saila (community leader). No individual or family property taxes exist for wild land used as hunting territory. In San Blas, private property is the result of the modernization process.