The Guaymi are the most numerous indigenous group in Panama. They are also known by the name Ngobe and are closely affiliated with a small group known as the Bugle. The Ngobe-Bugle (Guaymi) traditionally live in the western provinces of Bocas del Toro, Veraguas and Chiriqui. However, many Guaymi (Ngobe-Bugle) have migrated to other parts of Panama in search of employment.
Most Ngobe-Bugle live traditionally in simple small jungle settings and identify with their communities much more than with ethnicity, which in turn affects their level of national political organization.
The Ngobe-Bugle organized in the latter twentieth century to protect their land and culture. Their society was disrupted by the spread of banana plantations, the construction of the Inter-American Highway through their territory, and the appropriation of their communal lands by mestizo peasants and cattle ranchers.
The 1972 constitution required the government to establish ‘comarcas' or reserves for indigenous groups, but this policy was not universally implemented.
The erosion of their lands caused many to leave and join Panama's migrant workforce where they were generally given the lowest paid and most physically damaging jobs.
However development projects like the Cerro Colorado mining project put Ngobe-Bugle ancestral lands in peril and prompted them to organize politically.
After years of protest beginning in 1972, in the year 1997 the Ngobe-Bugle were granted their own cormarca (reservation). Nevertheless Ngobe-Bugle leadership complain that the allocation covers too little of their ancestral grounds so most Ngobe-Bugle will end up living outside of the reserve. The Ngobe-Bugle charge that the government has withheld rights to most of their land because of interest in the mineral resources.
Inadequate social services continue to be the major issue in the remote areas where Ngobe-Bugle comarcas are located. Although the Panama Government is committed to children's rights and welfare, these benefits often do not reach Ngobe-Bugle areas. The Constitution establishes free compulsory public education up to the 9th grade but indigenous children do not always attend school due to financial and economic constraints, lack of schools or transportation, and insufficient government resources.
Only 18 per cent of children ages 15-19 in the Ngobe-Bugle comarcas had schooling beyond sixth grade compared to the national average of 65 per cent.
In the country's sugar, coffee, and banana plantations Ngobe-Bugle continue to work under worse conditions than their non-indigenous counterparts. They frequently do not receive the basic rights provided by the Labor Code including minimum wage, social security benefits, termination pay, and job security.
Like other indigenous groups the problem of child labor in agricultural areas also affects the Ngobe-Bugle. Migrant Ngobe-Bugle families leave their isolated reserves in search of income. During the harvest of sugar cane, coffee, bananas, melons, and tomatoes, farm owners often pay according to the volume harvested, leading many Ngobe-Bugle laborers to bring their young children to the fields to help with the work.
Due to inadequate education and poor Spanish language skills members of this group are often unaware of their rights and fail to employ legal channels when threatened.
In addition, legal tribunals are unavailable in their comarcas, which in general do not receive much government attention or social investment.
The National Assembly now has dedicated three seats for Ngobe-Bugle legislators and in the last election the Bocas del Toro region elected one additional Ngobe legislator to the National Assembly.
After protesting locally for several months, in April 2008 the Ngobe of Charco La Pava, District of Changuinola, Province of Bocas del Toro, in western Panama launched an urgent appeal soliciting the help of the international community in ending the construction of the Changuinola hydroelectric dam on their traditional lands. This included taking their case to the Inter American Human Rights Commission in Washington D.C. with the help of international rights advocacy groups.