Rethinking participation, rethinking power: an exploration of autonomous project development in Kuna Yala, Panama

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Orbach, Ariella
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University of Guelph

An important new paradigm in 'development' thinking, local or community ' participation' remains only vaguely, and often contradictorily, defined. This has allowed for its integration into a discourse that effectively disassociates it from deeper and more politicized understandings of power and em' power'ment. As a result, the literature on participation makes little room for conceptualizing local initiative and control over projects. An alternative paradigm of 'autonomy' is proposed, bringing together the political arguments of grassroots and indigenous rights advocates with the guidelines for practice of the project development field. An in-depth analysis of the PEMASKY project, a conservation program autonomously run by the Kuna people of Panama, highlights the complexities facing such initiatives, revealing key elements of successful and sustainable autonomous indigenous project development. These are integrated into a model that provides a deeper understanding of autonomy, reframing project development within a politicized understanding of structural relations of power and control.

Kuna Yala, Panama, participation, power, autonomous project development, PEMASKY project