Child of a relocated community now advocates for her people’s rights

What motivated you to become the first female Emberá lawyer in Panama?

I was born in a moment of conflict. My community had been relocated and was seeking ways to survive. Everything was in short supply and there were no opportunities. Women and young people had no voice. My mother was the first female Emberá chief, and throughout my childhood I watched her fight for the rights of our relocated community. From when I was very young, I wanted to go to school so I could become a lawyer and support my mother in her pursuit of justice. I was lucky; my parents understood education was the way to change things, even though at the time it was not normal for Emberá girls to be sent to primary school. I left my village at the age of 15 so I could continue my studies, and thanks to a scholarship from the Catholic Church I graduated as a lawyer at the age of 22. Even when I was far away from my community, I never lost my connection with my village and I always dreamt of returning to help my people in their search for better economic, social, and political opportunities; to fight against the invasion of our territory by non-indigenous communities; and to defend women and indigenous communities from violence and discrimination.

What is the importance specifically of indigenous women’s participation in the fight against climate change, and what progress have you achieved in this regard?

Indigenous women are the guardians of traditional knowledge about planting food, protection of the forest, water, biodiversity, and other ancestral spiritual practices. It has always been women’s role to transmit that knowledge to current and future generations, yet that all-important responsibility has always been made invisible. We were just seen as women at home. Women in our communities have so many tools, but in the past we had no way to put that ancestral knowledge on the table and use our skills to accompany our communities’ process of development. From the fight for territory, the fight for development with dignity, the protection of traditional values, our cosmo-vision, all of these can now be positioned at a territorial and national level. We have worked to bring our role to light and position the voice of women and indigenous communities so that we can exert our influence. Climate change is very present in our communities and women are on the front line of its effects, enduring crop failure and extreme weather conditions for example. We work hard to restore the forest, leading the process, and applying our ancestral knowledge. That is where our greatest contribution lies. Indigenous communities need to be recognized for the hard work we do to confront the challenges facing our Mother Earth. She is ill and we need to cure her. We have the cure, but it is important that our participation be absolute and effective. We need to be listened to at all levels and we need agreements to be met so we can combat the effects of climate change. We demand our ancestral knowledge be recognized as an essential contribution to the future of humanity.

Please describe the significance of territorial lands to you and to other Emberá women.

Our territory, our home, holds all the tools [we] need to advance in society and that are not available to us outside our community. The forest even provides our traditional medicine, so that when we speak of health, we do not refer to pharmacies. Our territory represents the hand that Mother Earth reaches out to us so we can survive.

You helped represent indigenous communities at last year’s COP27 climate summit. What was achieved at the conference and what opportunities were missed from the perspective of these communities?

It is complicated being involved in these political dialogues because each nation-state is in charge, and their indigenous communities are not really taken into account. Our challenge continues to be to keep making an impact so that the rights and needs of the indigenous people in relation to climate change can one day be met. Until now the subject has not been satisfactorily dealt with from our point of view. We demand our rights be recognized, our right to territory be respected, our right to prior, informed consent [on development projects affecting indigenous lands] be respected, and our good environmental practices be acknowledged and valued. There was talk of financing at COP27 [the 2022 U.N. climate summit, which was held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt], but very little of this financing ever reaches indigenous communities. It is time the organizations that work to defend the forests and combat climate change support indigenous communities who have the know-how. This needs to be a joint effort. We cannot do it alone. It is time for bureaucracy-free funding to reach our territory and for our good environmental practices to be acknowledged.

What are your hopes for the future?

I am optimistic that there will be positive change. Those changes depend on us being committed to repairing and restoring our Mother Earth. With our influence, power, and voices we will be able to ensure there are more women leaders who can unify our message in a single voice so that in the near future rights can be respected and there can be full and effective participation of indigenous people and women in the dialogue. I aspire to see more women leading the process of social and environmental justice.