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December 16th, 2009
11:04 AM ET

Rainforest clash in Panama signals larger debate

Evidence of deforestation near the Congo Arriba river in Panama's Darien Province, April 2008.
Evidence of deforestation near the Congo Arriba river in Panama's Darien Province, April 2008.

David Ariosto
CNN

Hunched over a campfire in eastern Panama, Embera tribesman Raul Mezua chanted a song his grandfather taught him when he was a boy.

The words are memorized, passed down from an aging generation to a new group of tribal youths.

"The song means a lot to me," Mezua told CNN, the fire's dying embers splashing a red glow across his face. "But I don't know what it means."

It's not just the song but their language and culture that Mezua and his tribe fear losing as deforestation from logging and cattle ranching threatens the rainforest that is part of their identity.

But recent trends could usher in a welcome reversal for Mezua and his tribe. Rural workers are migrating toward cities in search of jobs, and forests are re-emerging where now abandoned farms and cattle ranches once flourished, according to a 2009 report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

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Filed under: Anderson Cooper • Planet in Peril
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