Panama: The Kuna Indigenous Group and the Use of Technology

It was a great moment when I learned about Gilberto Alemancia and his profound contribution to Panama’s tourism industry as a multilingual guide in the Panamanian rainforest indigenous areas, and in the most colorful of the jobs ever, capturing nature and people with the lens of a digital camera.

Gilberto Alemancia is an independent eco-tourism consultant – he is also an advisor on various eco-tourism programs in indigenous communities for Central America, Asia and Panama. He has given talks on ecotourism, conservation and culture at universities throughout Central & South America, Asia and Europe. He has also spoken at various international eco-tourism conferences for Outside and National Geographic Magazines. (from

One of the first things he mentioned when we were first corresponding by e-mail was that he is from Kuna origin. Then, he went on and mentioned it again in another e-mail, without me even asking. It was then when I reacted and wondered, “…well, he might be a person who has experienced in his lifetime the cultural stigma that labels people with indigenous roots in our country. Maybe not, …maybe he is just a very proud one.”

Then, I found myself before the missing link I have been looking for so long: someone with the knowledge on the different indigenous groups of our country and their dialects, with the disposition to share and interested to teach his own. I started asking questions, it was my chance…Finally!

Melissa De León: From the cultural perspective, what is your perception of the impact technology and internet has had in the Kuna ethnicity?

Gilberto Alemancia:  It is sad to admit that today, technology is almost non existant in the Kuna Yala islands. There is no internet available in the Comarca Kuna Yala, although through the islands runs a fibre-optic submarine cable which provides vast infraestructure capacity making Panama highly competitive in the use of communications in logistical services, a project developed by Cable & Wireless Panama and financed by ARCOS (Americas Region Caribbean Ring Systems). The Kuna caciques (chiefs) and the General Kuna Congress failed to include in the contract signed in April 2001 that Cable and Wireless would provide Internet to the Kuna islands and its people. I understand technology is very important in the education precess and could help us teach others about our culture and traditions. In nowadays Cable and Wireless only pays a monthly fee for the use of the Kuna Yala territory to host the submarine cable, but that’s all. I know this company (Cable & Wireless) always talks about supporting education through technology, but that may be in the city, because the story is totally different in our islands.

MD: What motivated you to learn photography? Where did you learn it?

GA: To tell you the truth, I never formally studied photography. My work is in the Turism and Recreation field, but eight years ago we began organizing photographic excursions in Panama with a very good friend from New York, Rick Sammon, who writes for the Associated Press and is the author of ten books about digital photography. I was very much interested when I saw him taking photos of nature and people, then I start organizing exclusive photography tours in Panama with other internationally famous photographers. At the same time I was learning from their workshops. It is a hobby for me, but some of my photos have been in magazines in Panama and internationally they have been published in publications as such as Iris Times, Outside Magazine, Native Peoples, Island Magazine. It is very important that every time we try to teach the people from the indigenous groups we visit about photography, at the same time we make donations.

In our photographic excursions we visit Kuna Yala (Kunas), Darien (Embera y Wounaan) and the Ngobe Bugles. I have noticed that young people want to learn and maybe work in this field, but the only problem is that the digital cameras are expensive. We teach them, because what we do are interactive classes, and because it is good for them and a way to show the world about our culture and traditions.

Photo Credits: All photos from this post are by Gilberto Alemancia and used with permission. All rights reserved unless authorized by the author.

Hungry for more? …well, then you’ll have to visit his Flickr!


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