KUNA YALA INDIAN AREA, PANAMA — Ask Kuna Indians living near the Smithsonian's tropical research field station what they think of their neighbor, and the response is usually positive: They're nice people, they pay rent, they buy supplies from our stores.
Ask Kunas from farther east in the archipelago, and the answer is often negative: They're stealing our ocean's wealth, we don't know what they're really doing here, they're part of a wealthy foreign organization that pays us a pittance.
Last November the naysayers won when the Kunas voted not to renew the rental contract they had with the respected, Washington-based research center since 1979. By July, the remaining marine biologists on the small island of Naneluga will be gone.
The Smithsonian case reflects how mistrust of foreigners has grown among the Kunas even as they have opened their world wider to tourism. At the same time, some observers say, it signals a shortsighted rejection of information the tribe will need to protect its fragile marine environment from accelerating changes in the Kuna way of life.
"As the Kunas shift from a fishing and farming economy to one based on tourism, a lot is going to change around here," says Dave Carlon, a marine biologist who has been at the research center for two years. "They'll need the kind of information we could help them with on things like fish populations or waste disposal, but now we'll be gone."
Behind the Kunas' vote is a strong sentiment that foreigners are always out to dupe them. The Smithsonian was paying the Kuna congress $3,000 a month in rent, plus a monthly fee to the Kuna owner of the spot they occupied. But Kunas say the opinion spread around the islands - originating with Kuna students who visited the Smithsonian Institution in Washington - that the Smithsonian is a wealthy organization profiting lavishly from the knowledge and specimens gained at the field station.
"True or not, that became the strong conviction of a majority of the people," says Rogelio Alba, one of two designated Kuna members of the Panamanian Congress. A few years ago, some Kunas burned down an American-owned hotel after rumors spread that the owner was not fulfilling an agreement he signed with the Kuna congress.
The Smithsonian denies exploiting the tribe. But Mr. Carlon says the field station could have done a better job of working locally with Kunas to reduce their mistrust. "The [research center's] mistake was that it did remain a little aloof," he says. "A little more communication could have made a difference."