Home Institution

University of Colorado at Boulder

Publication Date

Spring 2006

Program Name

Panama: Development and Conservation


This study investigates the role played by traditional, plant-derived bags known as “chácaras” or “kra” in the Ngöbe indigenous culture of Panamá, with a focus on the market for chácaras as experencied by a Ngöbe women’s artesanal association.

Chácaras have played an integral and versatile part in the lives of the Ngöbe for centuries, functioning to carry heavy loads of bananas, cradle babies while they sleep, and everything in between. However, in recent decades the previously isolated Ngöbe culture has experienced exposure to mainstream Latino culture, resulting in a dwindling cultural regard for chácaras and traditional Ngöbe culture as a whole. This Latino influence is largely due to the high percentage of Ngöbe men who migrate from the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca in search of work every year. The vast majority of the wages earned by these men never reach their families, in turn exacerbating the rate of poverty in the Comarca, which is the highest in Panamá. The Ngöbe people are caught in a struggle between surviving on now insufficient traditional means, such as slash and burn agriculture, and entering a cash economy that currently has little room for more people.

Chácaras may provide the means to break into this economy while simultaneously strengthening a waning cultural identity. Numerous Ngöbe artesanal organizations have been founded to promote the practice and sale of chácaras and other traditional arts. The Asosiación de Mujeres Ngöbe (ASMUNG), or Ngöbe Women’s Association, works to improve women’s economic status and the living conditions of their children through the sale of their own handiwork, reducing the need to rely on absent husbands for income. But many challenges affront the efforts made by ASMUNG and other artesanal groups, for the market is developing slowly, with little coordination, and with competition from non-indigenous vendors of Ngöbe artesanal knockoffs. This report represents an attempt to examine the traditional and potential values that chácaras hold for the Ngöbe and an investigation into what it takes to make them.


Anthropology | Economics | Growth and Development | Social and Cultural Anthropology


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