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Tagua and the Wounaan and Emberá of Panamá

Tagua and Animal Ivory

Because of its close resemblance to animal ivory the nut of the tagua palm has had a long history as a useful product .  Before the invention of plastics tagua was used in the making of buttons and other common items such as jewelry, dice, chess pieces and cane handles.  In fact, some expensive "ivory" pieces from the Victorian era were actually made from tagua nuts. 

Tagua products are experiencing a comeback in an effort to protect endangered species such as elephants, whales and walruses that have been a source of animal ivory .  In one year a tagua palm produces the same amount of "ivory" as one female elephant.  The tagua nuts, however, are harvested by hand without harming the tree. 

Tagua Nut Showing Hollow Core and Outer Covering

Tagua and the Tropical Rainforest

In addition to protecting animal ivory, tagua products help preserve tropical rainforests by providing a sustainable income for forest peoples.  Renewable rainforest products such as tagua can help prevent the degradation of forests into low quality farmland and cattle pastures.  The sale of tagua products also helps forest peoples make the transition to a cash economy when they are unable to survive in a completely traditional lifestyle.

The tagua palm is a small understory tree of 20 to 30 feet that grows in damp areas of moist tropical forests from Panamá to Peru.  There are several species of tagua palms and they often grow in colonies to the exclusion of other vegetation. The tagua nuts grow in large armored clusters with each cluster containing many egg sized nuts.  The nuts are at first of a jelly like consistency and edible but eventually harden to resemble animal ivory. Tagua nuts are eaten by forest animals such as agoutis, squirrels and pacas.

Cluster of tagua nuts

Tagua in Panamá

In Panamá, the sale of tagua products provides income for forest peoples such as the Wounaan and the Emberá (formerly known as Choco) of the Darién Rainforest who are often unable to continue living a tribal lifestyle.  The construction of the Pan American highway through part of their homelands has resulted in deforestation and colonization by outsiders. 

With their traditional resource base eroded, indigenous people are finding others ways to survive.  Many villagers have migrated to the city where they find it difficult to obtain jobs.  Wounaan and Emberá men often depend on the sale of their tagua carvings to support their families.  They have refined their traditional carving skills to develop an art form that is becoming a collector's item in the outside world. 

Painting a tagua carving with artist inks
Tagua carvings generally depict the animals of the rainforest home of the Wounaan and Emberá.  Some carvers, however, are experimenting with less traditional designs and jewelry. 

Carving has always been a means of artistic expression for the men of these tribes although formerly they only carved woods such as cocobolo and balsa. 

Emberá shaman with carved bastones
Emberá Carving of Cocobolo Wood
Common household utensils of wood are often decorated with fanciful animal or human forms.  In addition, the "bastones" or spirit sticks used by the shamans in their ceremonies have always been lovingly carved from cocobolo wood gathered from the rainforest.   The carving of tagua nuts to sell is a recent adaptation of traditional skills.

Tagua as well as cocobolo carvings from Panamá are now much sought after by collectors of fine ethnic art.

The Darien National Park

The Darién National Park and the Comarca Emberá-Drua (a semi-autonomous indigenous area) are two areas that have been set aside in Panamá to prevent further environmental destruction and to protect the remaining homelands of the Wounaan and the Emberá. UNESCO has declared the Darién National Park to be a World Patrimony and a World Heritage Biosphere. 

Species protected in these areas include jaguar, ocelot, Bairds tapir, the harpy and crested eagles, parrots, macaws and toucans. The Cana Field Station located in the Darién National Park is one of the 10 top birding locations in the world. 

Extractive industries are held at bay while sustainable rainforest products such as tagua provide an incentive to safeguard  these biologically and culturally important areas for future generations.  The indigenous forest peoples who live in these areas have been to recruited to help protect them. 

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