Darién’s population is made up of three main groups: black, indigenous and colonist.
Other than a few Guna communities, the indigenous population of Darién is composed of two closely related but distinct peoples, the Wounaan and the more numerous Emberá, both semi-nomadic South American rainforest societies. Recognizable by the black geometric designs with which they traditionally decorate their bodies, the Emberá-Wounaan, as they are collectively known, have been migrating across the border from Colombia for the past two centuries. Only since the 1960s have they begun to settle in permanent villages and establish official recognition of their territorial rights in the form of a comarca, divided into two districts: the Comarca Emberá Cemaco, in the north, and the Comarca Emberá Sambú, in the southwest.
The black people of Darién, descended from cimarrones and released slaves, are known as Darienitas or libres (the free) and are culturally distinct from the Afro-Antillano populations of Colón and Panama City.
The colonists (colonos), meanwhile, are the most recent arrivals, poor mestizo peasants forced to look for new land to cultivate after having degraded their own lands in the central Panamanian provinces of the Azuero Peninsula through overgrazing cattle. Many colonists still wear their distinctive straw sombreros as a badge of identity and maintain the folk traditions of the regions they abandoned. The construction and subsequent improvement of the Darién Highway has facilitated the colonists’ access to new land, which has inevitably brought them into conflict with the indigenous populations, as some make illegal encroachments into indigenous territory.