ATTUNE: Panama and the Subjectivity of Wealth

While some measure wealth in financial assets, many indigenous people consider themselves rich because they have a connection to nature and have managed to protect their culture. "It's certainly true that when you look at the different measures of wealth and poverty, indigenous peoples end up falling to the bottom of the ranking. However, they often are offended by having their wealth judged only by those measures that were established by Western standards."

By Stephanie Ott - Al Jazeera

Panama City, Panama - Celso stands on the tip of a canoe, looking out into the Panamanian rainforest. He steers the boat along the shallow river that weaves through Chagres National Park. The 25-year-old is a member of the Embera, one of Panama's seven indigenous tribes. "Some Indians move to the city, but many come back," he says. "Life is simpler here. It's too fast in the city."

Celso went to high school in the capital for four years, but decided to return to his village, where his seven brothers live. "I prefer living here. We are freer than the people in the city," he says.

Just an hour's drive south lies busy Panama City. There, seemingly worlds away from Celso's village, glass and steel skyscrapers line the harbour front, home to the offices of multinational firms.

Right in the heart of the capital is the office of a law firm that is at the centre of the biggest leak of confidential financial data in the history of journalism: Mossack Fonseca. The so-called Panama Papers exposed a global web of 214,000 offshore shell companies, involving heads of state, athletes, financial institutions and criminals.

Around 8 percent of global financial wealth - approximately $7.6 trillion - is held in tax havens such as Panama, according to Gabriel Zucman, the author of The Hidden Wealth of Nations: the Scourge of Tax Havens.

Clemens Fuest, the president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, says: "The fact that there are offshore companies and that some are used for illegal activities like tax evasion and money laundering is known. Panama is not the only tax haven."

Panama's indigenous population

Panama's GDP grew by 6.2 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank, and the country has been one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America, due to infrastructure projects such as the $5.3bn Panama Canal expansion, to be completed this year, and foreign direct investments. But according to Fuest, the local population barely profits from the rising wealth.

According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, around 12.7 percent- around half a million people - of the total population are indigenous, and many live in rural areas and lack access to water, healthcare and sanitation.

A recent World Bank study on indigenous communities in Latin America found that they benefit less from economic growth in their countries and are more likely to be poor.

According to Osvaldo Jordan of the Panamanian NGO Alianza para la Conservacion y el Desarrollo, indigenous people who move to urban areas often work in low-paid jobs. "There is prejudice and discrimination against them among the Spanish-speaking Latin population. Some think the Indians are less intelligent, which damages their self-esteem," he explains.

Despite Panama's booming economy, poverty among the indigenous population is above 70 percent.

But while some measure wealth in financial assets, many indigenous people consider themselves rich because they have a connection to nature and have managed to protect their culture.

"The idea of Indians being among the poorest is complicated," explains Mark Camp, the deputy executive director of Cultural Survival, a US-based NGO that supports the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide.

"It's certainly true that when you look at the different measures of wealth and poverty, indigenous peoples end up falling to the bottom of the ranking. However, they often are offended by having their wealth judged only by those measures that were established by Western standards." READ MORE

Photo: Celso, Photo Credit: Stephanie Ott/Al Jazeera


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