The Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia has long been known as an impregnable stretch of rainforest, rivers and swamps inhabited by indigenous peoples as well as guerrillas, drug traffickers and paramilitaries.Today the area is undergoing steady deforestation as timber colonists and oil palm entrepreneurs advance across the region, bringing strife and violence to the area’s indigenous residents.In Panama, some of the Darién’s indigenous communities are working to reverse this situation. Mappers, a drone pilot, a lawyer, bird-watchers, a journalist and reforesters are carrying out ambitious projects to stop the degradation of the Darién Gap. This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. DARIÉN GAP, Panama — There is a land at the center of the Americas that is said to remain in the wild. It is the only place on the entire three-continent landmass where the 30,000-kilometer (19,000 mile) Pan-American Highway is interrupted, a distinction that gives the place its name: the Darién Gap. The name connotes an impregnable 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch of rainforest, rivers and swamps spanning the Panama-Colombia border and inhabited by ancestral peoples. Like a 21st-century Old West or a tropical Siberia, the myth of the wild Darién has grown since ancient times. The Spaniards could never fully conquer it. The Scots tried to establish a trading colony there in the late 17thcentury, but it ended in misery and death. The outbreak of violence in Colombia in the later 20thcentury brought guerrillas, drug traffickers and paramilitaries, endowing the wild myth with new barbarities. In recent years it has become a route for smugglers and migrants of many nationalities heading north toward the U.S. This entrenched reputation helps keep the Darién shrouded in illegality and violence. Today it is subject to a chilling spate of deforestation as timber colonists and entrepreneurs advance across the region. The Darién’s mythical wilderness is giving way to chainsaws and bulldozers. Even the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Darién National Park is at risk. Map shows land that indigenous communities have either gained (medium green) or claimed (light green) legal title to. The Emberá-Wounaan Comarca, a self-governing indigenous district with territorial land rights under Panamanian law, was created in 1983, and the Wargandí Comarca in 2000. But many indigenous communities were left outside the comarcas without any rights over the territory they inhabit, even within the boundaries of Darién National Park. Some of them were able to obtain collective land for community use. Most were not. More than 650,000 hectares (1.6 million acres) remain in dispute. The situation is being evaluated by the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Click here to enlarge. Map courtesy of Rainforest Foundation US. But despite the seeming indifference of the outside world, some among the Darién’s original inhabitants — perhaps 35,000 people in Panama belonging to the Kuna, Emberá and Wounaan indigenous ethnicities — are working to reverse this situation. Mappers, a drone pilot, a lawyer, bird-watchers, a journalist and reforesters are carrying out ambitious projects to stop the degradation of the Darién Gap. Lumber fever In the last 15 years, deforestation in the Darién has spread quickly. While the Panamanian public is continually surprised by news articles describing bloody conflicts between indigenous people and timber colonists, wood entrepreneurs continue to open roads and bring heavy machinery into the forest at will with little scrutiny. The forest is cut down, the wood is sold, and the land is burned to make way for livestock ranching. Many Panamanians regard this expansion of the agricultural frontier into the forest as progress. Indeed, the National Assembly has incentivized the livestock and agriculture industries. The Panamanian government regards deforestation as an improved use of the land. If a farmer wants to secure title to a piece of forest, the government will deny his request. But if he chops down trees and builds a house, the government gives him title to the land for a few dollars. This policy of massive land titling was promoted by the creation of the National Authority of Land Management (ANATI in its Spanish initials) through Law 59 of 2010. For their part, the indigenous people living on some of this land, largely in entrenched poverty and neglected by the government, are vulnerable to various forces. In the absence of the state, they end up dependent on the loggers for resources such as generators, fuel for their boats, building materials for their houses. The loggers even act as moneylenders. And wood, sooner or later, becomes the coin of the realm. Animation shows the evolution of deforestation (pink) in Darién Province between 2001 and 2017. Images courtesy of Rainforest Foundation US. Two events transformed the context and deepened the problem. First, in 2000, the Chinese government published a list of precious rosewoods, the most highly sought-after type of timber in its luxury furniture market. The list includes 33 species from Asia, Africa, and South and Central America, and ranks seven of them as high value. One of these is found mostly in the Darién: the cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa).In Panama, it sells for $4,000 per cubic meter. In China, the value quadruples. Next, in 2013, lobbied by loggers, Panama’s National Assembly approved the export of cocobolo “as long as it comes from naturally fallen trees.” Ostensibly this prohibited the felling of a protected species. But what came next was a tsunami of uncontrolled saws and bulldozers. Truckloads of cocobolo logs transit the national highways, passing police checkpoints and customs controls. They arrive in containers at the ports of the Panama Canal and embark for China without scrutiny. The situation is such that, in 2015, the then environment minister, Mirei Endara, told reporters that “almost 96 percent of the wood that leaves the Darién is in some way or another illegal, that is, it does not meet all the permits.” A small deforested site in Darién. Illegal loggers reach remote areas like this one by river. Micro devastations, which reach into Darién National Park, add up to real deforestation. Image by David Mesa for Mongabay. The chain of complicity and corruption that allows the looting of the Darién is so deep that Interpol’s Panama bureau intervened, prompted by repeated complaints about containers arriving at Chinese ports that did not meet the protocols of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In 2018, the agency seized 13 containers of cocobolo, equivalent to 200 cubic meters (7,000 cubic feet) of wood, en route to Hong Kong. “We have seen examples in the region of groups of drug traffickers who have swapped drugs for illegal timber,” Andrea Brusco, the U.N. Environment Programme’s regional environmental governance coordinator, told reporters at the time. Without programs that encourage or reward those who care for the environment, the deforestation of the Darién continues apace. The security of the forest is in the hands of indigenous people who believe that without territory, their culture will be lost. They are no longer waiting for the government’s help, but are beginning to fight for the land they claim as a matter of survival. “The goal is to defend the territory because, as one slogan says, a native without land is a dead native. And we do not want to die,” said Yanina Carpio, leader of the community of Puerto Indio in the Emberá-Wounaan Comarca, a self-governing indigenous district with territorial land rights under Panamanian law.