Trafficking settlers: Colectivo Darién, ‘Trafficking as settler colonialism in eastern Panama: Linking the Americas via illicit commerce, clientelism, and land cover change’, World Development, 145, 2021


Abstract: Rural spaces are garnering new attention in illicit economies. At the confluence of the American continents, illicit commodities are being moved through rural Panama’s communities and iconic Darién forests. Over the last decade, the international media have focused on the uptick in human “migration” while the Panamanian press has chronicled dramatic illegal logging. Less acknowledged is the surge in drug smuggling and arms trafficking. Using media reports and mapping over the last twenty years, we ask how multi-commodity trafficking and human exploitation are remaking rural space. We provide the first synthetic and spatial overview of eastern Panama’s multiple trafficking, showing how it is altering social and environmental relationships. Media reports, many based on government seizures, indicate trafficking routes throughout the region, implying the involvement of much of the local population and resulting in new clientelistic social relationships between traffickers, residents, and the state. Increasingly, trafficking is driving land cover change, diminishing forest cover in private lands, protected areas, and indigenous lands and connecting them via a growing road network. Indigenous peoples’ conservation of forests hampers surveillance and makes their lands ideal for trafficking. This also means that they are the only ethnicity frequently named in the media, threatening indigenous sovereignty and land legalization efforts. We conclude that trafficking is a form of settler colonialism, continuing processes of taking that began in this area of the American mainland centuries ago. Rather than incidentally holding indigenous residents culpable, maligning them in trafficking’s transit area is fundamental to capitalist expansion, integrating it with the country’s dollarized economy, highly developed banking sector, and the canal’s global commerce. The continued transit of people and illegal commodities in eastern Panama is quickly transforming conservation, indigenous sovereignty, and sustainable development.

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