A King Who Hoes His Own Row Plants a Plot to Raise Some Green

Ruler of Panama's indigenous Teribe is banking on ecotourism

His crown is a blue Suzuki baseball cap. His palace doubles as the local jail and health center.

If it were not for the ceremonial spear in his hand and a brightly colored, regal necklace, King Santana could easily be mistaken for any of the other 2,500 Teribe Indians living around Wekso, Panama.

Santana, the only king in the Western Hemisphere, is the democratically approved monarch of this gentle tribe that lives deep in the mountainous forests of Bocas del Toro province, which lies near the Costa Rican border.

An autonomy law passed last year by the Panamanian government gave another indigenous group, the Ngobe, broader self-rule. The law has sparked controversy because it retained government rights to some natural resources. But the Teribe, through separate negotiations, have been recognized by the government for decades.

Wekso, royal village of the Teribes, is a few hours by boat from the banana town of Changinola on the Teribe River.

While many monarchs around the world may bathe in the rays of publicity and lead jet-set lifestyles, Santana remains here tending his small plot along with other Teribes. No shiny limousines, lavish balls, or tabloid scandals for him. "I have to work, too," he says.

Santana still has a responsibility to uphold his subjects' rights and look out for their interests. Although he is of Teribe royal lineage, like his ancestors he had to win the support of his people, who entrust him with the title "Defender of the People."

"We need to guard the natural resources for future generations," he says.

A current struggle by the neighboring Ngobes and Bugles against a joint plan between government and private enterprise to mine copper from their comarca (reserve) in Chiriqui worries this placid ruler. "I think all the indigenous cultures are facing this problem," he says.

However, no one has yet expressed interest in mining within the limits of the Teribe comarca, which itself is still undergoing demarcation.

Encroachment of modern life

Modern living has made its mark on Teribe culture. Gasoline engines power people's long narrow riverboats, rifles are used for hunting, and most Teribes no longer wear traditional clothing.

Many are Christians, their traditional belief system having all but disappeared, although both their language and traditional medicine maintain a prominent position in the Teribes' royal culture.

Santana believes the future prosperity of his people lies in ecotourism - provided he can plow through the dense layers of Panamanian bureaucracy. "We have it all in our hands," he says, gesturing towards the mountainous forests that surround Wekso and the Teribe River.

The community is currently constructing several new traditional houses to accommodate more visitors. "I hope this can bring some benefits to my people. We're practicing, to get it right.

"The Ministry of Tourism is initiating [an ecotourism] project, but who knows when anything will be done," says the king.

His subjects in the 11 communities scattered across his dominion are hoping that some action to improve their living standards will be taken soon. The kingdom's remote position makes trading difficult.

Many families combine subsistence farming with hunting and fishing. Poverty is widespread, and some young people leave for urban centers.

Set for tourists

Panama's Ministry of Environmental Resources is a little more active than the Tourism Ministry. It is helping the Teribes to market and increase production of traditional arts, usually made of palm leaves and wood, to sell to tourists - if they ever arrive in force.

Many Teribes in the villages outside Wekso try to sell their carvings. But the themes often reflect the influence of Baptist missionaries, which puts off buyers who are seeking more traditional art.

Although Santana's royal palace is made of concrete, he lives in a traditional Teribe house, with wood-and-palm-branch cabins raised on stilts several feet above the ground.

The Teribes enjoy good relations with the Panamanian government, which respects their king's royal status and the political power that goes with it.

Ordinary Teribes reserve the right to overthrow their monarch, should he become despotic or unsuitable to rule. Any overthrow of a king would pave the way for a new monarch to be "elected" by popular vote, usually, though not necessarily, the next in the line through lineage. The ruler can be a man or a woman.

Neither Santana nor his subjects pay taxes to the central government, and he says he has never been tempted to take up the easy life and demand taxes from his subjects. "It would be a serious sacrifice for my people," he says. "So I work my own plot ... I am self-sufficient and sometimes have a bit left over to sell."

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