Getting to know our Indigenous People in Panama: The Ngobe

The Ngobe People (also spelled Ngäbe or Ngöbe) is the largest and most populous of Panama’s three indigenous comarcas.

The Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé was created in 1997 when the Panamanian government finally granted land rights to the group.  Their land covers approximately 6968 square kilometers comprising part of the vast Chiriqui, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro mountain range and some Caribbean side.

The Ngobe traditionally referred to themselves as the Guaymí– a term that simply means “people” in the Ngäbe language. The term is infrequently used today. More often, the Ngobe are referred to as Ngöbe Buglé—this is a union of the Ngobe (Ngöbe) and the Bokota (Buglé) Peoples who live together in the Ngöbe–Buglé Comarca (an indigenous province that signifies a high degree of administrative autonomy). Although both Indigenous Peoples are closely associated, the Ngäbe and Buglé are two separate linguistic/indigenous groups whose languages are mutually unintelligible.  Collectively, these two groups make up the largest indigenous population in Panama.

Historically, Ngobe subsistence relied on crop raising, small-scale livestock production, hunting, and fishing; however, external pressures on the Ngobe’s land has led to a significant decrease in local wildlife, which has forced many Ngobe to take part in a cash economy. As a direct result of this, the Ngobe-Bugle are considered to be the most impoverished of all indigenous Peoples in Panama.

Lack of sufficient infrastructure and under provision of social services by the government is often the root of many problems that plague the most rural areas of this communities.

Despite their past and present-day challenges, the Ngobe have largely maintained their customs, traditions and language. According to some estimates, there are more than 250,000 Ngäbere speakers.

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