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Ecology and cosmology: rain forest exploitation
among the Emberá

by William Harp

Paper presented at:
Humid Tropical Lowlands Conference: Development Strategies and Natural Resource Management, Panama, Republic of Panama, June 17-21, 1991

Published in Nature & Resources, Traditional Knowlege in Tropical environments,
UNESCO, Volume 30, Number 1, 1994



The protection and management of the humid tropical lowlands must involve the participation of the peasant and indigenous cultures that exploit these fragile areas.  Small scale, indigenous, lowland tropical rain forest cultures have evolved a complex system of cosmology and subsistence technologies that have permitted hundreds of years of continuous exploitation of the rain forest.

This article explores how the Emberá, a lowland, tropical, rain forest culture that practices subsistence horticulture, fishing, hunting and gathering, have maintained, over many centuries, a system of exploitation and dynamic ecological equilibrium that ensures the continuous availability of essential forest resources.  Political, economic, technological and cosmological changes in the last two decades have disturbed traditional patterns of exploitation.  Land managers can use indigenous knowledge and technologies as important factors in developing planning polices.


Tropical indigenous systems of thought are complex systematic bodies of knowledge that categorize and describe relationships between humans and their environment.  These knowledge systems, difficult for western observers to understand, are communicated through symbols, language, rituals, songs, music and narratives and are imbued with a unique cultural character that unites people in an aura of shared meaning and behavior.  They represent the accumulation of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of cultural experience with forest dynamics, animals, plants and ecosystem phenomena and are a virtual gold mine of information about the tropical rain forest. They demonstrate a successful conservation model of low tech adaptation to the forest.

The relationship between lowland, tropical forest Indians and their environment has been a subject of great debate.  Are indigenous people the caretakers of their environment, with culturally supported principals of sound ecological management, or do they represent pioneering forces that herald the vanguard of ecological destruction of the rain forest?  Many people who have had casual contact with traditional indigenous groups are often impressed with the efficiency and thoroughness that they harvest and exploit forest resources.

The observer may be convinced that indigenous inhabitants of the forest pose the greatest threat to its continued existence.  I agree that modern technology and cultural change have created many unpredictable variables that may support the thesis above.  However, in traditional societies, beyond any single individual's behavior, there is a system of beliefs and attitudes that creates a super-personal, culture-wide conservation ethic.

I propose that indigenous inhabitants are caretakers of a sophisticated and systematic body of traditional, ecological knowledge.  Managers should pause to consider the values these knowledge systems have to those who create development strategies and guide natural resource management of the humid tropical lowlands.

Cosmology and beliefs

Which is most influential, cosmology or behavior?  I think that both are mutually influential and co-evolve together.  I agree with Reichel-Dolmatoff in that

"... cosmologies and myth structures, together with the ritual behavior derived from them, represent in all respects a set of ecological principles and that these formulate a system of social and economic rules that have a highly adaptive value in the continuous endeavor to maintain a viable equilibrium between the resources of the environment and the demand of society." (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1979)

Cosmology and belief systems in small-scale societies serve to create a dense structure of information that encapsulates a society’s belief about the nature of reality.  The advantage of symbols and rituals is their effectiveness in transmitting and communicating complex ideas in powerful and simple ways.  These belief systems contain powerful images and concepts that affect ecological relationships and incorporate strong ecological messages.

Subsistence technology

The Emberá have a highly evolved subsistence technology with relatively high yield-to-unit-effort.  They practice subsistence horticulture and depend upon fishing, hunting and gathering from the adjacent forests and rivers.  Each family, the primary unit of production, maintains a variety of shifting and permanent horticultural plots.  Their horticulture is highly diversified.  They gather an impressive variety of edible or useful products from the forest and areas surrounding their dispersed settlements and villages.  This provides adaptability to ecosystem fluctuations where reliance on a few resources is a risky business.

The Emberá farm three types of land: shifting fields slashed-and-burned from the forest for corn and rice, semi-permanently maintained plots for plantains and bananas, and permanent lands adjacent to new and old homesteads where fruit trees and other secondary crops grow.  Primary crops include plantain, rice, corn, manioc and other root crops.  Secondary crops include sugar cane, yams, avocado, mangos, citrus, beans, guava, otoé, peach palm, pineapple, soursop, papaya, banana, peppers, squash, zapote, tomatoes, cacao, tobacco, coffee, calabash, herbs, spices, ornamental, magical and medicinal plants.

Shifting agriculture creates a mosaic of ecological niches adjacent to homesteads.  This mosaic is a gradation of plant communities ranging from cleared settlements, new farmland, old homesteads, recently abandoned lands, older second growth, heavily exploited forest and old growth forest.  Traditionally, this has created greater biological diversity adjacent to habitation areas. This diversity attracts game animals.

Agricultural activities commonly require about one to two person-days a week from each adult member of the family.  A garden of approximately two or three hectares of mixed crops (rice, corn, banana, tubers and tree crops) would optimally provide for the average family caloric subsistence needs and create a small surplus for sale or trade to neighbors or the nearest town.  Every family needs a small amount of cash to buy essential food items, clothes and hardware.

Wild and domesticated animals provide the essential protein.  They keep chickens, dogs, ducks and sometimes pigs, cats and tamed wild animals.  Riverine resources and game animals provide primary sources of protein.  They exploit turtles, fish, crabs, freshwater shrimp, crayfish, mussels and other shellfish.  Preferred game include deer, wild pigs, agouti, paca, curassow and guan.  Less preferred but regularly eaten animals include iguanas, squirrels, monkeys, toucans, parrots, macaws and doves.

Gathering from the old growth forest provides plant products: fruit, nuts, firewood, construction materials (poles and thatch) basketry materials, lianas for rope, carving wood, trees for dugouts, fish poisons, body paints, pitch for glue, palm oil, medicinal, hallucinogenic and magical plants and many other plant-derived materials.

Fertility control

Emberá informants say their ideal family structure would to be to have three or four children (preferably two boys and two girls), enough to help with family labor and to provide family alliances and cooperative work-mates when grown.  Too many young children would strain the production capability of the family unit.  Pregnancy and birth are very sensitive times for the family.  The mother and father of the child are required to observe a complex of restrictions to avoid angering the forest spirits.  The Emberá have a sophisticated system of birth control through the use of anti-contraceptive and abortive plants.  Much of their fertility control technology seems very effective.

Most ritual activity is programmed around the lunar cycle during the new and full moon.  These activities invariably include restrictions on sexual intercourse when women are most likely to be ovulating.  If illness or lack of protein resources affect the family, a sign of difficult times, the sexual restrictions associated with the ritual activities of solving these problems will diminish the chances of getting pregnant.

Dispersed settlement

The Emberá maintain a dispersed settlement pattern with a tendency towards neo-local and shifting residence.  Emberá live traditionally dispersed along upper lowland rivers in single or several households. The nuclear family, the basic social unit, consists of a husband, wife and their children and may alternately contain grandparents and married children.  However, married children, after the birth of their own children, tend to form their own households.  The Emberá value privacy and build houses along water sources, preferably out of sight and sound of any neighbors.

A house is abandoned if an adult member of the family dies in it, as the living are disturbed by the visits of the deceased soul as it returns to haunt the places it knew when alive; this insures a continuous pattern of shifting house site locations.

The most important variable of Emberá settlement patterns is that they are dispersed laterally along the rivers.  Within the past two decades due to pressure by the national government and missionaries along with the desire to benefit from promised government programs the Emberá have grouped together in small towns.  This process of village formation is articulately discussed by Herlihy (1986).

If settlements grow too large, it becomes difficult to acquire the necessary domestic resources and social tensions increase along with a concomitant threat of supernatural invasion.  Most families maintain two residences, one near a settlement and one adjacent to their horticultural plots or old homestead.  When social tensions increase in the village, families retreat to their homesteads.

Flexible social rules

The Emberá have flexible social rules, especially concerning residence, inheritance and child rearing.  Recent biological research has shown that the lowland tropical forest is much more dynamic than previously thought (Hubbell, 1990).  Small scale egalitarian societies with relatively small dispersed populations by necessity must be flexible in their patterns of resource exploitation in order to cope with this dynamic environment.  Social rules concerning residence, inheritance and personal relationships must not be too strict as to prohibit potentially adaptive behavior.  The post-marital residence options include neo-local residence, living near ones in-laws, transience, maintaining more than one residence and urban residence.  The choice depends upon three major categories of factors: kin and social relations, access to lands and goods and fear of sorcery or spirits.  Husband, wife or children may inherit old homesteads and farmlands, but lack of fixed rules may cause dissension among siblings.  Children may be raised by the grandparents, especially if the mother is quite young and not married.  Children are often given away to other families to raise as their own.


Egalitarian social structure

Traditionally, the Emberá have a strong egalitarian social structure with no political or full-time craft specialization.  The egalitarian structure of Emberá decision making ensures that each family functions as the decision making unit.  Community activities are voluntary and group consensus determines community decisions.  This egalitarian society emphasizes individual and family rights and responsibilities and traditionally recognizes no formal tribal or community authority.  As an egalitarian society, the Emberá have strong social sanctions about accumulating large amounts of disposable wealth.  This creates jealousy among one's neighbors.  Greed and unusual wealth attract potentially malignant forest demons which bring bad fortune.

Within the last fifteen years a system of political representation of tribal chiefs, or caciques, has evolved.  This system, partially based on the successful Cuna political hierarchy, has been active in negotiations with the Panamanian government concerning Indian affairs, land claims and jurisdiction rights. Because of the egalitarian tradition, decisions negotiated by the caciques are not seen as universally binding by all Chocó.

Ritual drinking reduces social tension and resolves conflicts.  Families within a community sponsor drinking parties where chicha (fermented corn mash) is consumed in large quantities, resulting in the inebriation of most adult participants.  These drinking parties create a social catharsis; personal tensions can be released through the symbolic death and rebirth associated with getting drunk until unconscious.

Fear of sorcery and forest spirits

Natural elements, spirits, demons, souls of the dead, animal spirit masters and the manipulation of spiritual powers form the pivotal concepts of Emberá religious beliefs.  These beliefs, viewed as supernatural by western observers, are seen by the Emberá as co-extensive and an integral part of the physical domain.  Everything is imbued with spirit. Animate and inanimate things alike have spirit masters, a wandra, that represent their spirit and natural essences.  These spirit creatures, often ambivalent to human affairs, can be manipulated through human intention to dispatch human desires and achieve human goals.

Thus wandras, primarily represented by animals, plant and demonic spirit masters, symbolically encode a rich system of communication whereby the actions and characteristics of these wandras represent specific environments within the forest.  Wandras are alive, which means that all things plant, animal and mineral are controlled by a a sentient being, potentially subject to human intention, but with their own agenda tied to their own unique character.

The greatest fear of the Emberá is the threat of sorcery of jealous from disgruntled neighbors, acquaintances and shamans or the retribution of offended forest demons.  Good hunters should observe a large number of prohibitions, including sexual and dietary restrictions, in order to attract game animals and not offend forest spirits.  Successful hunters must balance the need for meat against the jealousy and fear of the forest wandras that control the forest resources.

Reliance on shamanic power

The shaman is caretaker of the esoteric supernatural knowledge.  When things go wrong (sickness, lack of success in hunting, spirit fright, crop failure or even an abnormal number of snakes near house sites) an individual or family seeks the assistance of a shaman to diagnose the supernatural cause of the problem.  He also incorporates his person knowledge of the social context of the problem into his analysis.

Through the use of chanting, psychoactive plants or alcohol, he enters into the spirit domain where he can harness supernatural power to achieve human goals and seek specialized guidance or information about human affairs from his spirit helpers.  The spirit world is fickle, always on the verge of going out of control or of controlling the shaman instead of vice versa, just as ecological events essential to human welfare are delicately balanced.

Shamans, to affect a cure, must cast out the offending spirit or spirit substance.  This malignant supernatural material is normally sent to its originating source, usually another shaman.  Therefore, all curing is sorcery to someone else or another community, and supernatural energy flows from one settlement to another in a continuous cycle.  Shamans then exist in a delicately balanced network of dynamic supernatural tension.  Under normal circumstances of relative tranquility, the balance is maintained and populations are in balance. I f the balance is upset, the supernatural consequences result in serious social disruption.

Strong narrative tradition

The Emberá have a strong narrative tradition that communicates ecological principles.  The Emberá tell many stories that chronicle the acts of the Indians, animals and spirits.  The stories contain strong evocative images and symbols and form a type of encapsulated language, coding metaphorically the actions of the human and spirit world.  This language with, its ecological imagery, shows what happens when the cultural rules are broken and they delineate the fine line between the cultural and spiritual domain.

Supernaturally protected areas

The Emberá recognize large supernaturally protected areas in upper watersheds and along the spines of mountain chains.  These large cachements of old-growth forest provide a relatively protected area for the reproduction of faunal resources and protection of watersheds.  Hunters usually journey no more than a half a day from their house sites or dry season campsites.  They have little desire to spend the night away from their dwelling or prepared campsite, as supernatural beings pose a serious threat.  Spirit-animal patrols are quick to respond to human intrusions within their domain and if they catch a human intruder they promptly pounce on him and eat him.


The Emberá control their population densities and maintain ecological stability through:

subsistence technology

fertility control

settlement patterns

 flexible social rules

egalitarian social structure

fear of sorcery and forest spirits

reliance on shamanic power

strong narrative tradition

supernaturally protected areas

This indigenous knowledge system encodes a wide variety of ecological information and a highly evolved, successful, low-tech model of environmental adaptation in the tropical rain forest.  It stands on the brink of an intellectual eclipse by western influences. This eclipse, acutely felt by all of the world's small-scale traditional societies, is the social equivalent to the loss of biological diversity with its attendant path of ecological self-destruction.

These types of models may have applications in management of protected areas where there are existing populations of indigenous and peasant people.  Stewardship of tropical lands extracts a high social price if we ignore the rights of local people to their livelihood and self-determination.  Cooperation with local people in managing protected forest areas and a sympathetic understanding of the value of their knowledge systems will help ensure the success of administrative and management programs.  Separation from traditional technologies and land use will force indigenous groups to move from self-sufficient net producers to wards of the state.  The impact of acculturation and the rapidly disappearing rain forest both conspire against the traditional cultures that have lived in this unique environment.

The social value of the knowledge systems of these cultures is obscured by the difficult process of interpreting the native point of view into something meaningful to Western observers.  A fundamental understanding of the native point of view is an elusive goal punctuated by frustration, contradiction and suspense of "scientific objectivity."  It requires an emotional embrace as participant and the ethos transcendence of the observer.  Each role provides its portion of contradiction, but, both are essential to the goal of fundamental understanding.

The aware observer must be willing to employ the powerful tools of science and intellectual discipline and yet suspend one's strongly held beliefs to glimpse the equivalently empowered "other" whose system of knowledge provides a different, yet ecologically successful system of thought attuned and consonant with local knowledge.

Tropical rain forest Indians similar to the Emberá, through the power of symbols, rituals and belief systems, have managed the forest well and benefited from the diversity of its products throughout millennia of stewardship.  They have achieved dynamic, adaptive, heterogeneous, self-regulating ecosystem relationships; do our Western knowledge systems have the capability to carry on this tradition?



Herlihy, Peter H., 1986, A Cultural Geography of the Embera and Wounan (Choco) Indians of Darien, Panama, with Emphasis on Recent Village Formation and Economic Diversification, Ph.D. Dissertation, Louisiana State University

Hubbell, Stephen P. and Foster, Robin B., 1986, "Canopy Gaps and the Dynamics of a Neotropical Forest." In Plant Ecology:77-96. Edited by M.J. Crawley. Oxford:Blackwell Scientific Publication

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo, 1979, "Cosmology as ecological analysis: a view from the rain forest", Man 11( 3):307-318.




Read an Illustrated Emberá Story:
Available in English, Spanish and Emberá

Henupoto Wara: Supernatural Anti-Hero of the Mythical Past


























Figure 1 Havesting and preparing medicinal plants,
Illustration: Chafil Cheucarma
© Copyright 1998, All rights reserved

























































Figure 2  Ritual preparation for a curing ceremony
Illustration: Chafil Cheucarma
© Copyright 1998, All rights reserved



Figure 3  Shaman calling the spirits as part of
a curing ceremony
Illustration: Chafil Cheucarma
© Copyright 1998, All rights reserved