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 some urban areas feel the benefits of trade and commerce but not its most vulnerable populations, including its indigenous peoples. Here are 10 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, not everyone feels prosperity. According to the CIA World Factbook, approximately one-quarter of the population lives in poverty. The richest 20% of the population controls half of the country’s wealth while the poorest 20% control only controls 12% 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% of the country’s annual economic growth through port activities alone. The total internationally-focused service sectors account for more than 60% of the overall GDP. However, 21% of the population still makes its living in agriculture and does not see wealth that internationally-focused services generated. Indigenous people who have limited access to resources and basic services largely inhabit rural areas. 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.
- Location largely determines access to health care: 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 in urban Latino populations and 75% 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% of children under the age of one received full vaccinations compared to 26% 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 health care with its mobile units by increasing access to prenatal controls. In 2010, only 20% of poor rural women had access to prenatal controls. By 2014, the number jumped to 86% of pregnant women in these communities receiving health care.
- 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% of non-indigenous adults could not read, 37.7% of indigenous adults were illiterate. School attendance is also lower, with 78.7% of indigenous children in school compared to 96.8 non-indigenous. However, according to the CIA World Factbook, there has been an increase in secondary schooling led by female enrollment in rural and indigenous areas, which will likely help to alleviate poverty.
- Region largely determines access to information and communications technology (ICT): Access to communications technology such as computers and the Internet can be vital in improving education and opportunity. However, private companies that see little profit in creating the infrastructure that remote and impoverished regions need often pass rural areas over.
- 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 undergoing implementation without the tribe’s consent. Communities experienced forcible eviction 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 freshwater daily. The water comes from two reservoirs, which also provide 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, not everyone feels prosperity. 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 to 2017, poverty in Panama has declined from 15.4% to 14.1% and extreme poverty has decreased from 6.7% to 6.6%. According to the CIA World Factbook, from 2006 through 2012, poverty overall decreased by 10 percentage points.
Although Panama has made great strides in reducing poverty, this list shows that there is 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