Bayano Watershed (Gabriel Yahya Haage [Bridge21 Scholar])

Introducing the Principle Study Site

Panama Region

Panama Region

In this project, the primary study site for the application of a Water Poverty Index is the Bayano Watershed in Panama. This watershed has a surface area of 5028 km2. The Bayano region is bounded by the Darien region in the east and ends approximately 80 km from Panama City in the west, in the Chepo District. It is a humid tropical forest, but its extent is greatly reduced, mostly due to deforestation, agriculture and cattle raising.

The Bayano Watershed is home to several different types of communities, including the indigenous Embera and Guna, as well as the Campesinos.

The Bayano Watershed is home to several different types of communities, including the indigenous Embera and Guna, as well as the Campesinos.

The event that has most affected the region, both in terms of chronic water issues and social factors, occurred with the formation of the Bayano Reservoir, commonly called Bayano Lake, which was created when the Bayano Dam, completed in 1976, led to the flooding of surrounding land. The ecosystem was greatly affected with algal blooms and biodiversity loss. The flooding also led to the resettlement of several indigenous communities.

As the water issues of the communities around Bayano Lake are a key focus of the project, it is important to outline some of their features. The Bayano Watershed is home to several different types of communities, including the indigenous Embera and Guna, as well as the Campesinos. The Campesinos, often referred to as Colonos, are Panamanians of non-indigenous descent who settled in the area. Land conflict issues have long existed between these groups and this was exacerbated by the building of Bayano Dam. Before the flooding, the Guna had 10 villages in the region. They were in a position of having recognized land claims, with two areas in the region designed as Comarcas, namely Guna Madungandi and Guna Yala. A Comarca is a geographical area granted to an indigenous group, allowing them to use its resources and apply their own governance system and political method. This is in contrast to a Reserva Indigena, in which a group is simply granted the right to own the land and use its resources.

Only some segments of Guna Yala are found in the Bayano Watershed, while Guna Madungandi falls squarely within this watershed and the Guna were resettled from this region. The Guna Madungandi Comarca was essentially established in 1934, and while the legality of this was still contested, it was largely recognized by the government.

The Embera started moving into the Bayano region in the 50s and 60s. Unlike the Guna, who established several villages, the Embera lived in smaller groups of closely related families. The largest “town” was Majecito, which was founded by a few families in 1970. While there are recognized Embera Comarcas in Panama, the Bayano Embera were too far from the nearest ones to have the same level of rights that the Guna had in land claims. This became key in how they were resettled and their current tenure status.

The Bayano Reservoir flooded 80% of the Guna reserve and 7 of their 10 villages.

Construction of the Bayano Dam began in 1972 and the relocation of the Guna and Embera was carried out from 1973 to 1975, with the dam completed in 1976. The Bayano Reservoir flooded 80% of the Guna reserve and 7 of their 10 villages. When they were relocated, the Guna were promised that the government would redemarcate their reserve as compensation and keep non-indigenous groups from entering this land. The Comarca was eventually redemarcated and there is a currently recognized Guna Comarca. However, there have been ongoing land conflicts with some Campesinos who began entering this land, with lumber extraction and cattle-raising as their main economic activities.

During the resettlement period, the Embera were mostly resettled to 2 towns, Piriati and Ipeti. Such village life was contrary to their usual form of communities. As such, several Embera families left the towns and settled elsewhere, nearer to their agricultural lands. As they did not have a recognized reserve before the damming, they were in a more tenuous land tenure position. For instance, they generally had to deal with the Bayano Corporation in their land claims, having little direct access to the government. Eventually, Piriati and Ipeti were both given the title of Tierra Collectivas. Piriati received it in 2014 and Ipeti received it in 2015. Other communities, like those of the Maje Embera Drua, have not been given legal rights to their land.

All these factors, both the historical and current, have made this region one in which communities face chronic water issues. It is also a good place for this project, as there is variability in several of the factors that affect water poverty. These communities were also partly chosen due to having been previously surveyed, resulting in available secondary material, and their variability in land tenure, size, infrastructure and culture.


Two documents that offer a good background on the Bayano region are:

Wali, A. (1987). Kilowatts and crisis among the Kuna, Choco, and Colonos: National and regional consequences of the Bayano hydroelectric complex in Eastern Panama. Boulder, USA; San Francisco, USA; London, UK: Westview Press.

Wali, A. (1989). In eastern Panama, land is the key to survival. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 13(3), 25.

David Jhave Johnston