Panama has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and has made great strides in reducing poverty. However, some have called it a dual economy where the benefits of trade and commerce are felt in some urban areas but not by its most vulnerable populations, including its indigenous peoples. Here are ten disturbing facts about poverty in Panama.
10 Disturbing Facts About Poverty in Panama
- Panama has the second worst income distribution in Latin America— Although the country is rapidly growing in wealth, prosperity is not felt by all. According to the CIA, approximately one-quarter of the population lives in poverty. The richest 20 percent of the population controls half of the country’s wealth while the poorest 20 percent control only controls 12 percent of the wealth.
- Poverty in Panama is largely divided along urban and rural lines— The Panama Canal and its related sectors bring in more than 30 percent of the country’s annual economic growth through port activities alone. The total internationally focused service sectors account for more than 60 percent of the overall GDP. However, 21 percent of the population still makes its living in agriculture and does not see wealth generated by internationally focused services. Rural areas are largely inhabited by indigenous people who have limited access to resources and basic services. The Panama government, though, is working to improve access in these areas. Panama’s World Bank portfolio is $435.59 million USD, which includes seven active projects on social protection, governance, sustainable production, disaster management, wastewater management and indigenous peoples protection.
- The average life expectancy is much shorter for indigenous people— There is an 11-year difference in life expectancy between indigenous people and the general population. While the average life expectancy for the overall population is 79 years-of-age, the life expectancy for indigenous men and women who live in their original territories is 67.75 years.
- Access to healthcare is largely determined by location— Rural areas often lack medical infrastructures such as access to doctors and hospitals. This, as well as extreme poverty, takes a toll on the health of indigenous populations. Infant mortality rates among indigenous people are four times higher than urban Latino populations and 75 percent of Panama’s malnourished indigenous and non-indigenous children live in rural areas. To combat this, the Panama government has deployed its Coverage Extension Strategy by sending out mobile medical units providing basic care to 149,028 people from 47 poor rural communities. According to the World Bank, by 2014, 96 percent of children under the age of one received full vaccinations compared to 26 percent in 2010.
- The maternal mortality rate is much higher for indigenous women— The rate of maternal mortality for indigenous women living in their territories is five times higher than the national average. Nationally, the maternal mortality rate is 80 per 100,000 births, but for indigenous women, the rate is 462 per 100,000. Panama’s Coverage Extension Strategy has also been providing maternal healthcare with its mobile units by increasing access to prenatal controls. In 2010, only 20 percent of poor rural women had access to prenatal controls. By 2014, the number jumped to 86 percent of pregnant women in these communities receiving healthcare.
- Rural Panamanians largely lack access to education—A lack of infrastructure in rural areas makes it difficult for its largely indigenous population to gain access to a good education. While, in the year 2000, approximately 5.5 percent of non-indigenous adults couldn’t read, 37.7 percent of indigenous adults were illiterate. School attendance is also lower, with 78.7 percent of indigenous children in school compared to 96.8 non-indigenous. However, according to the CIA there has been an increase in secondary schooling lead by female enrollment in rural and indigenous areas, which will likely help to alleviate poverty.
- Access to information and communications technology (ICT) is largely determined by region— Access to communications technology such as computers and the Internet can be vital in improving education and opportunity. However, rural areas are often passed over by private companies who see little profit in creating the infrastructure that remote and impoverished regions need.
- Indigenous people’s rights are at risk— According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, in 2016, Interior Minister Milton Henríquez told the leaders of all the country’s indigenous congresses and councils that the country would only recognize the five original comarcas, or tribal regions, preventing the leaders of 30 indigenous territories from advocating for themselves in further consultations and negotiations.
- Indigenous tribes’ territories are being encroached upon—The Barro Blanco hydroelectric plant in the Ngäbe-Buglé territory is being implemented without the tribe’s consent. Communities were forcibly evicted from the project area, which then flooded homes, farmland and sacred sites. Additionally, many tribes have begun using drones to keep an eye on their rainforest territories and prevent illegal logging and mining on their land.
- The need for water in sustaining the canal often supersedes the needs of the rural poor—The Panama Canal requires the release of approximately 52 million gallons of fresh water daily. The water comes from two reservoirs, which also provides water for the city. The prioritization of water for the canal ignores the need of farmers, who, beginning in the seventies, were viewed as threats to the canal instead of partners in watershed management. Though improving water management is important, the poor have reaped few of the benefits and many of the negative consequences of these policies.
Although Panama is a wealthy nation, prosperity is not felt by all. Rural and indigenous people often lack access to education, health care and political efficacy.
While this list may look grim, Panama has done much to fight poverty. From 2015-2017, poverty in Panama has declined from 15.4 percent to 14.1 percent and extreme poverty has decreased from 6.7 percent to 6.6 percent. According to the CIA, from 2006 through 2012, poverty overall decreased by ten percentage points.
Although Panama has made great strides in reducing poverty, this list shows that there’s always room for improvement. Overall, the country has the potential to bridge the income inequality gap and make itself an equitable society for all, regardless of class, region or ethnicity.
– Katharine Hanifen