Event Report: A Journey through Indigenous Communities in El Salvador and Panama

Peace Boat US co-hosted with the Permanent Missions of El Salvador and Panama to the United Nations a documentary screening on September 23, 2014, at the UN Headquarters in New York, during the 2014 UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. The film, "A Journey through Indigenous Communities in El Salvador and Panama," was created as a collaborative project between Peace Boat US, the non-profit Downtown Community Television (DCTV), and youth from New York City who joined Peace Boat's 84th Global Voyage as participants of the Music & Art Peace Academy (MAPA). Peace Boat US sponsored the ten-day trip for three teenagers from the non-profit organizations Global Kids, DCTV and the Brooklyn Community Media and Arts High School to visit El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama. The film aims to raise awareness about issues faced by local indigenous communities in Central America. 
(The documentary can be viewed in full at the bottom of this page).

Peace Boat International Coordinator Emilie McGlone introduced the organization and the background behind the film to attendees, which included representatives from El Salvador and Panama, indigenous leaders, and the students who participated in the Peace Boat voyage and created the documentary.

The film documented the students' trip through indigenous communities in Central America with Peace Boat, beginning with their first stop, at a Pipil community school in El Salvador. Here, children from the community participate in a language immersion and revitalization programme, in which Pipil women teach Nahuat, the indigenous language, to children. Today, only about 150 to 200 people still speak this language, which is a critically endangered indigenous language according to UNESCO. The project to preserve this language started in 2003, and there are now 11 participating schools, with 2,500 preschool children aged three to five learning Nahuat.

The documentary followed the students to their next stop, the city of Colon, Panama, where the Embera community, consisting of 40 people in eight families, sustain their culture through eco-tourism. In the documentary, their leader Atilano Flaco discusses their goal to improve living conditions for each family member, while younger community leaders discuss the importance of access to education.

The meeting was also addressed by Salvadoran Ambassador H.E. Ruben Zamora, who stated that "in 1932, indigenous people were massacred in my country. [However], we have been overcoming the invisibility of the indigenous communities in our country." He explained that the government is working to devise better policies to improve the situation for indigenous people in El Salvador. An example stated was that "a bonus has been granted to the last Nahuat speakers- trying to encourage them to speak the language in their houses." H.E. Zamora stressed the importance of dialogue between the government of El Salvador and the indigenous people in order to overcome obstacles.

Her Excellency Paulina Franceschi, Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Panama to the UN, congratulated Peace Boat for its work on peace and human rights. She recognized that "there are a lot of things to improve" in the lives of Panama's indigenous peoples, and assured attendees that "there is political will and commitment to their well-being and quality of life." H.E. Franceschi welcomed two indigenous community leaders from Panama and El Salvador who participated in the event, as part of their attendance at the UN Conference to advocate for their communities.

representative from the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous community in Panama, who was working with the Permanent Mission of Panama to the UN during the Conference, began her speech by thanking all of the attendants and stated, "As the highest authority of my community, to express the main concern of my community, I'm here for all of Central America, not just my territory." She invited those at the event to visit her country and see their culture. She explained that protection of indigenous culture and communities are written "in the constitution, but are violated." She said, "it is important to express our concern, since our lands are violated by transnational corporations. We are living in two different countries: the rich and the poor. The poor don't have a voice."

An indigenous leader from El Salvador who also attended the event said, "I am happy to see the children learning the indigenous language. But I think there is a long way to go to strengthen the culture of my people." She noted that the national constitution was reformed on June 12, 2014, and Article 63 now officially recognizes indigenous people and commits to pursuing polices which will improve the situation for El Salvador's indigenous people. She noted that, "this is a very important achievement that we'd been fighting for, for a long time, but we still have a lot of things to do to strengthen the indigenous people in El Salvador." She also added that "as an indigenous woman, I am happy to be here with my indigenous sister. Some efforts have been done, but we have to go deeper into the rights of the indigenous people. The transnational companies want to use our resources but we don't want the interest of the empire to be above the national interests of the country."

The event closed with a discussion session where attendees expressed their interest in the work of the governments of Panama and El Salvador and the efforts they are currently undertaking to improve the conditions for the indigenous communities in both countries

Stephanie Dawn Hawkins