Deforestation and Destruction of the Majé Water Reserve

Slash and Burn Deforestation
Puts Indigenous Communities at Risk

The Ministry of the Environment in Panama created the Majé Water Reserve in 1996 (Resolution 08-96 of the Board of Directors of INRENARE) in order to ensure access to clean water, control erosion and sedimentation, and improve the quality of life in the region. Today, it is clear that these objectives have not been met.

Instead, illegal settlers have destroyed the rainforest and  to date have eliminated approximately 45%  or 20,850 acres of the forest cover of the Water Reserve. As a result, , the Emberá Union and Majé Cordillera communities, two indigenous communities that live within the Reserve, in a territory they call "Majé Emberá Drúa" are literally surrounded by deforestation and under siege by non-indigenous settlers.

Both indigenous communities had lived in these rainforests long before the creation of the protected area. Based on down the ruling of October 14, 2014 of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, ( "Case of the Indigenous Peoples Kuna of Madungandí and Emberá del Bayano and its Members vs. Panama" ), their land rights need to be recognized by Panama just as the State has recognized the other Bayano communities. 

Since 2004, due to high levels of pollution by the agrochemicals used by settlers, these communities can no longer safely drink the waters of the Majé River. 

In the summer of 2016, settlers forest clearing fires damaged the plumbing of the water intakes of both communities. This clearly shows just how much deforestation is affecting them, to date they  have not been compensated for damages. 

As the dry season begins, everything indicates that illegal logging and deforestation will increase. The clash between indigenous people and settlers is imminent, unless there are immediate changes. In recent years crops and fruit trees, as well as more than 5 Emberá, houses  have been destroyed and burned in the agricultural areas of the Utrí Emberá and Majé Centro rivers. Alerts and complaints have been filed for years about the violation of land rights, violence, and deforestation in Maje. 

The map below may be one of the best arguments for the land rights of these communities. It's clear that without the communities presence the deforestation in the region would be far worse,; it's also compelling evidence that the State is doing nothing to protect the Reserve they claim conflicts with the communities land rights. (You can also access a Spanish- Language study on deforestation conducted by Alvarado and Martínez for COONAPIP in 2016, as well as maps and photos of relevant and recent events.)

The Majé communities were among the first in the country to submit (in January of 2010), a request for collective titling for their lands, based on Law 72 of 2008. It was a sacrifice for the community to compile the extensive documentation required by the state.  As required the communities made plans,  performed a technical study, had an on site  inspection and fulfilled all the other legal requirements, which were endorsed by the appropriate government agencies (ANATI, MiAmbiente, Instituto Geográfico Nacional and other government institutions). The leaders of the communities have also  been exceptionally active and responsive in defending the forests of the Water Reserve because most of it is part of their ancestral lands. 

On April 12, 2016, (Note # 020-2016,) ANATI sent their collective titling file to the Ministry of the Environment. However, due to overlap with the Hydrological Reserve, MiAmbiente has not given its approval to the process; nor has it taken any actions to safeguard the Water Reserve. 

Recognizing indigenous land rights is not only Panama's legal obligation, granting these communities a collective land title is the best way to ensure the objectives that led to the creation of the  Majé Water Reserve. Giving the go-ahead for the land title is therefore an important step both to protect the rainforest and the communities that depend on it. 

The Majé Water Reserve is at risk. It is urgent that the Ministry of Environment, with the support of the Armed Forces, safeguard the Majé Water Reserve, making it clear that its forests are being protected and that its borders are inviolable. In doing so, the State could guarantee the physical security, livelihoods and culture of the indigenous communities legally established within.