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Humanitarian Aid in the Darien Province -- For the Indigenous Communities and Others


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Indigenous Communities of Panama Receive Humanitarian Aid

SENAFRONT brought help and spread cheer in remote jungle towns of eastern Panama.
Roberto López Dubois/Diálogo | 13 February 2018

Capacity Building


Panamanian National Border Service troops provided medical care, fun and entertainment to villagers of the Panamanian province of Darién. (Photo: Roberto López Dubois, Diálogo)

Communities of the Panamanian province of Darién, on the Colombian border, benefited from a development assistance campaign January 25-27, 2018. The Panamanian National Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish) held the humanitarian aid operation, Operation Falcon (Operación Halcón), in coordination with the U.S. Embassy and Panamanian healthcare entities.

 SENAFRONT members evacuate a patient with malaria during Operation Falcon, a humanitarian aid effort in the province of Darién. (Photo: Roberto López Dubois, Diálogo)
More than 450 people from the indigenous communities of Buenos Aires, Bella Vista, Galilea, Llano Bonito, and Manené—where the campaign was held—received medical care and various supplies. Roughly 30 SENAFRONT troops and a dozen healthcare workers traveled to Darién on a helicopter fleet from Joint Task Force-Bravo's 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, a component of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), in Soto Cano, Honduras.

“We look to create a connection with community members and maintain security in the area,” Major Jorge Bosques Cortés, head of the First Fluvial Battalion Sambú of SENAFRONT, told Diálogo. “In addition [we look] to help care institutions arrive and operate safely in remote areas of the Darién province.”

Health care support

Residents of remote towns along the jungle and rivers of Darién navigated for hours in search of medical care. Little by little, canoes arrived in Manené, where villagers formed a line to get care. Adults were tested for blood sugar levels and lipid profiles to ensure early detection of chronic conditions, while children received several vaccines for the prevention of contagious diseases.

“People come to receive care because they are offered lab services, general medical treatment, medical tests and medications for their treatments,” explained Doctor Elizabeth Castro of Darién Regional Health, a division of the Panamanian Ministry of Health. “The [Ministry of Health] schedules visits every six months because it’s very difficult for them to reach health facilities in other places.”

The medical personnel—general practitioners, pharmacists, several technicians, a dentist, and a nurse—conducted 296 general medical consultations, 77 dental procedures, 151 lab tests, and gave 190 injections. They also dealt with urgent cases, such as a resident of the community of Galilea whose condition deteriorated.

The doctors determined that the 48-year-old patient had malaria. In that moment, the Falcon team demonstrated its effectiveness and ability to respond quickly: after administering intravenous fluids, the patient was placed on a stretcher and evacuated by helicopter to a hospital where he could receive proper treatment.

The U.S. Embassy supported the development assistance campaign organized by SENAFRONT with a fleet of helicopters from Joint Task Force-Bravo’s 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment. (Photo: Roberto López Dubois, Diálogo)

Joy and gratitude

In addition to medical care, villagers received basic supplies like medications, bags of food, and clothes. “The town needs these tours because there are many illnesses,” Francisco Guaynora, leader of the town of Manené, told Diálogo. “The community is satisfied with the medications, the bags of food, and other things.”

More than social assistance, the campaign brought cheer with songs, dances, and other entertainment for adults and children, who were surprised with piñatas and toys. The clown Pompín, a SENAFRONT member, also paid a visit and exchanged tears for smiles, dispensing candies to children as they received their immunizations.

“These experiences and the work of Operation Falcon for civilian affairs are a binational effort that goes beyond the intent of supplying essential medical necessities,” said Commissioner Eric Estrada, new SENAFRONT director, regarding the development assistance campaign supported by SOUTHCOM. “The integration of these efforts puts into action a strategy that aims to diminish the influence of narcotraffickers and other illegal groups in border towns.”

Danger zone

Falcon concentrated its efforts in the Darién area, also known as the Darién Gap, a dense, humid, 575,000-hectare jungle that Panama and Colombia share. The area is located at the eastern edge of the Panamanian province of Darién and the northern part of the Colombian department of Chocó.

The indigenous towns situated in that remote area, which only connect to the rest of the world by way of large rivers and a few narrow paths, suffer from food and health care scarcity. According to figures from the Panamanian Labor Foundation, a center specializing in the study of social inequality, 87 percent of indigenous families live in extreme poverty, with annual incomes that barely reach $639. The remote region also serves as a transit point for drugs and undocumented migrants headed to the United States.

Likewise, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) made incursions into the area before Colombia and the guerrilla group signed a peace agreement at the end of 2016. “We've seen many changes because, before, the people from the mountain [the FARC] would come here, but they don't walk around here in the community anymore,” Guayanora said.

“The constant support of SOUTHCOM personnel has allowed for all kinds of Panamanian government efforts and resources to be focused on consolidating territorial control and legitimacy of the state in the most remote regions. It also allowed for strategic protection to be brought to the people of Darién,” Commissioner Estrada concluded. “This action dovetails perfectly with SENAFRONT's field plan and fulfills its end goal of creating the necessary conditions to maintain a climate of peace and prosperity in border areas.”



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Humanitarian aid reaches Panamanian jungle



“The violence in Colombia has caused so many long walks towards Darien,” says Sandra Flores, of the Panamanian Red Cross (CRP). “Men, women, children and the elderly wear out their shoes walking through the jungle I search of hope.

Flores, the director of the CRP’s Programme of Assistance to the Displaced Community of Darien, explains how, despite the solidarity of the Panamanian people, the influx of refugees from Colombia has prompted indigenous communities to internally displace to other towns.

“We are faced, then, with the needs of both groups – the internally displaced and refugees - in a region of extreme poverty, located in the most humid and remote territory of the country,” she says.

To help meet the needs of these vulnerable communities, the CRP has, with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), established a branch in Darién, which boasts a office, vehicles and communications equipment, and, most importantly, 35 hardworking volunteers.

“The community helps to make this mission a success. The affected population, which before was ignored and sceptical about projects and aid programmes, now has confidence in and respect for the work the Red Cross does,” Flores says.

The programme of humanitarian aid to the displaced people and refugees of Darién and Kuna Yala, near Panama’s border with Colombia and home to the country’s largest indigenous group, began in 1997. Since then, it has grown and diversified to cover, as far as possible, the emergent needs.

“The action started with the immediate distribution of emergency aid to these people, including food, clothes and other emergency items. Since then and until now, they have been receiving constant and varied aid, including visits from doctors and dentists and medical supplies to the region’s health centres,” Flores says.

In addition, since last year, furniture, construction materials and educational materials have been donated to four schools in Alto Tuira.

About 5,000 people, including Colombian refugees, internally displaced persons and indigenous people from border communities have been benefited from the Panamanian Red Cross assistance.

“Aid has neither a specific place nor time due to these persons constantly moving,” Flores points out.

Besides emergency items, these people have received seeds and tools to allow them to cultivate the land and so sustain their families. However, since the majority of refugees are received into indigenous communities, such as Alto Tuira, where resources are very limited and access difficult, it has been necessary to provide basic food aid to last until the harvest.

Sandra Flores says the situation in this area has worsened in the first months of this year: “In January and February, we assisted 625 people, mostly from indigenous groups from the villages of Paya, Pucuro, Balsal and Matugandí. They were forced to go to Boca Cupe because of attacks in which four leaders died.”

“It was the first massive internal displacement we have ever had and where the Panamanian Red Cross has had to provide humanitarian aid quickly and effectively,” she says. “Of all the innocent victims of war, those give the greatest concern are the children. Some of them have lost their parents. All of them lost their schools”.

To counter this lack of educational infrastructure, the programme led by Sandra Flores last year, in coordination with the Ministry of Education, appointed the teachers, implemented a school programme to provide schools with construction materials, furniture and school materials.

In total, about 200 Colombian and indigenous children from the Boca de Paya, Matugandí, Sobiaquirú y Punusa communities have benefited from the school programme, which included a pre-school element and literacy materials for adults. This year, schools in Balsal, Pucuro, Paya and Boca Cupe, are receiving similar support.

“These children have been waiting for us with smiling faces and expectation, especially for special aid such as sweets, toys and balls for sports. Of all the things we do, the school activities are what leave me with the greatest sense of satisfaction,” Flores says.

A third form of aid provided by the CRP is medical assistance, since due to its isolation, the region’s medical system is underdeveloped.

“Every two months, a team comprising Panamanian Red Cross volunteer doctors, health system dentists and other CRP Darién branch volunteers travel by speedboat and then canoe to assist the Colombian refugees and indigenous communities, a trip that takes up to 10 hours.

On every trip, more than 60 persons are assisted. They receive free medicines and essential health and hygiene information. These displaced communities have come to trust the CRP and this has brought other benefits: “People ask us about their relatives in Colombia, allowing us to implement a family tracing programme, coordinated by the ICRC delegation in Colombia,” Flores explains.

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