Emberá - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Emberá are tropical-forest horticulturists who hunt, fish and gather as complementary activities. Maize and bananas are the basis of their diet. Tapir, peccaries, pacas (Coelogenys paca), and armadillos are the most highly prized game animals. From the Spaniards they adopted the raising of domestic animals, especially pigs and chickens, which they use as trade items rather than for consumption. On inland slopes they raise cows and horses. During the nineteenth century, depending on the characteristics of each region, the Emberá have adopted commercial cultigens like coffee, cacao, rice, and sugarcane. In the Chocó they cut timber, floating rafts of logs downriver to be sold to White-owned lumber mills, located at the estuaries. In areas of White colonization, many Emberá have become temporary or permanent agricultural wage laborers. Crop production for sale and wage labor provide cash income that enables the Emberá to participate in the market economy. Products such as food, clothing, radios, tools, and other items have become indispensable to the Emberá. In some places, families or single individuals complement their income with the manufacture and sale of handicrafts in markets characterized by uncertain demand and low prices. Especially in mountainous regions, the government has promoted and financed the formation of cooperatives (e.g., to produce brown sugar, process gold, raise cattle). Such enterprises are small in scale, however, involving only a small sector of the population.

Industrial Arts. Emberá material culture is well known for the variety of its basketry, which, rich in form, is woven of plant fibers and has predominantly geometrical designs. Canoes, staffs, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic carvings of fine woods, ceramics, textiles made from the bark of balsam wood, and blowguns for poisoned darts are also important items of their material culture (stone tools, however, disappeared in the mid-twentieth century).

Trade. There is no evidence of Emberá trade with other ethnic groups during the pre-Columbian period, but internally the subgroups exchanged common and regionally specialized items such as gold, blowguns, and toad poison for blowgun darts. From the beginning, Spanish colonialists forced the subjected groups to participate in commercial activities. The Indians supplied the White settlers and Black crews of gold extractors with food and bought merchandise imported from Spain, especially products made of metal and cotton. Since the nineteenth century, commerce has become an integral part of the Emberá economy. Except in a few instances, however, the Indians do not dominate the market.

Division of Labor. Women were traditionally responsible for harvesting crops, making baskets and pots, preparing food, carrying water and firewood, gathering plant and animal foods, fishing with baskets, and caring for children. Men's work traditionally included clearing of land for planting, hunting, woodworking, making blowguns, obtaining toad poison, and conducting warfare. Planting, fishing with barbasco poison, building houses, and making necklaces and ornaments are shared activities. Nowadays, the production of handicrafts for the market is an almost exclusively female task, whereas it is mostly the men who take charge of marketing the artifacts. Commercial agriculture and wood extraction are men's work. The care of domestic animals falls to the women and children, with only minimal male intervention. Girls and boys participate from an early age in activities that pertain to their sex. In areas of White settlement, young women are recruited to work as domestic servants. In the mid-to late twentieth century, some young men and women have become teachers or low-level government functionaries. Shamanistic activitity is open to both sexes, but in practice most practitioners are men.

Land Tenure. In former times, a whole river or a segment of it was occupied and owned by a group of relatives whose members were entitled to cultivate, hunt, fish, and gather within its territory until it was exhausted. The dispossession of Emberá lands since the Conquest has changed this tradition. During the colonial period, the Spanish Crown created indigenous resguardos or reserves, in recognition of the communities' collective property; these resguardos were only a fraction of their ancient lands and they were administered by an indigenous council, or cabildo, consisting of a captain, a chief, and a governor appointed by the Spaniards. The Republic of Colombia recognized these resguardos, and this form of landownership still obtains. In the Chocó plains, the natives maintained possession and usufruct of lands that the Colombian state considers wasteland. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many resguardos were divided into parcels and dissolved, and the Emberá became private owners of the resulting plots. In other instances, they became tenants on their ancient land, now in the hands of landowners. Since 1970 the Emberá have struggled to regain their land, forcing the Colombian government to reconstitute former reserves and create new ones, especially on the Pacific coast, to guarantee the communities' collective ownership of their territories. Councils, now formed and designated by the natives, assign families the necessary land for their activities, keeping other tracts for common use. In 1983 the Panamanian government created the Comarca Emberá del Darién, recognizing Emberá rights to collective ownership of their land and prohibiting its private appropriation and transfer. The land is under the management of native authorities, and the right of the Emberá to exploit its resources is recognized.


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