Twelve percent of Panama’s population is made up of
seven original peoples—among them the Ngäbe and the Buglé.
Major forests and water suitable for hydroelectric projects
are found in their five indigenous districts.
Here are snapshots of the most recent resistance and repression
in the Ngäbes’ land struggle against the government.
They bring to light the deep roots of a
history of racism and exclusion.
In his homage to the famed Howard Zinn, among so many other things author of A People’s History of the United States, Noam Chomsky speaks about “non-history” events. He is referring to the facts and individuals that aren’t considered important in history, according to market criteria. In reality, they are what history is made of.
A drama related to these “non-histories” has been developing in Panama for a great many years. The chronicles of the winners—those now considered the owners of the Odyssey frigate’s coins—tell that Urraká, a Ngäbe chief, died on his lands, upset at not having defeated the invaders. These are the same lands that today the Ngäbe and Buglé indigenous peoples are trying to defend from voracious destruction by Canadian and Panamanian mining companies.
February 2012: After waiting for a year the Ngäbe were fed up. During that time, there had been new promises, and many times they were told “Yes, but not yet,” or “Wait a little longer,” accompanied by scornful smiles and snubs. When they could no longer stand it, they closed the Inter-American Highway and kept it closed for six days. The government, with its strategy of “we’re going to tire out these silly drunks,” didn’t realize they were dealing with people who bear on their shoulders thousands of years of waiting and patient endurance. Finally, with a great military deployment, the Panamanian “army”—even though by law there is no such thing—attacked the indigenous protesters. There were two killings, multiple wounded, prisoners, women abused, many struck and the usual pain and humiliation.
Tired of waiting
Through its priests, nuns and bishops, the Catholic Church intervened to mediate and promote a dialogue. There was a dialogue but with a great deal of confusion. The government spoke about “annexed areas” and both legislators and ministers ridiculed the protesters, saying absurd things like “the Indians” want more expensive electricity for everyone. The worst part is that there are people in Panama who believe this nonsense.
The so-called “annexed areas”—Cerro Pelado, El Bale, El Piro, Alto de Jesús and others—aren’t new; they are part of the indigenous district passed into law in 1997. They are like islands, not contiguous with the district but in fact part of it. In 1997, Law 10, which created the district, was a very limited government proposal that left out many Ngäbe and Buglé communities adjacent to and adjoining the established district but left out not because it was in the indigenous peoples’ interest but rather for economic and political reasons. The same thing happened with the Emberá-Wounaan District.
Whether outside or alongside, these communities deserve respect. All international regulations—for example, the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, which the government has not wanted to ratify—speak of free, prior and informed consultation in the case of projects that affect communities. This has not been done for the hydroelectric dam project under construction in Barro Blanco. Informing is not consulting. In addition, new information has come to light that indicates we don’t really need the hydroelectric dams the government wants so much.
1803: Since then and even before Way back in September 1893, a letter to the bishop of Panama from a Mr. Basilio Ruis Zurdo in Peña Blanca reported that the mayor of Tolé (Chiriquí) “has a hacienda in the mountains and has taken all the ganayto plants from all the Indians neighboring his farm... He is trampling my family and has my people squeezed for no reason and is forcing the poor half-breed woman…. he has become rich with the sweat of the Indians.”
These sound like modern complaints, not those of over a century ago. Since then—and even before—the Ngäbe of this area have been fighting back and speaking out against the treatment they receive. The problem has been that we haven’t listened to them.
1950-1975: Plunder and racism In August 1950 it was reported that a man of Spanish descent in Tolé “took” a 15-hectare piece of land in the community of Ibiarabotdä (today a district), even though people knew which family owned it; he alleged it wasn’t being cultivated. Another man of Spanish descent took land from another indigenous person “in exchange for a denim blanket.” Still other stories during this same time tell of exchanges of land for “a sack of salt.”
These stories about the continuous, permanent and criminal plundering of land from the indigenous of this region could go on forever. But we finally get to the point when the government allowed the demarcation of indigenous lands, though by then they were much reduced.
In 1975 a man from Tolé, convinced of “his truth” and speaking from the “authority” of his age and the time he had lived near the district, told me, “Look, the solution to ending how Indians think is to cross them with a few university students and thus make them change.”
Hearing this made my stomach turn. The worst part was that this man had a position in the country’s Ministry of Education. And it wasn’t the colonial period. I heard this in an investigation I was doing on land problems in this region. I became convinced of the racist, discriminatory and absolutely anti-Christian attitudes of many ranchers in the area.
1979: 18 years waitingIn March 1979 one government minister told an audience with conviction, “You can rest assured that soon, very soon, they will have their district,” sparking enthusiastic applause. I listened with distrust and wondered if this might incredibly come to pass. Should I believe what he was saying?
That same year I was at the General Ngäbe Congress in Kankintu, held deep in the woods of Krikamola, the Ngäbe District. Together with others, I had walked four days from the other side of the mountain. I arrived very stiff but content that at 32 years of age I had been able to make this trip. I was hopeful and excited that the passage of the District law would allow defense of the land and stop the exploitation of gold and copper in Cerro Colorado.
What a dreamer I was to think governments give in so easily. It would take 18 years to legalize even a small amount of the territory the Ngäbe people asked for and many of their communities would remain outside of the district. In October 1990 a teacher asked me with total ingenuousness, “You speak ‘that’? I’ve been here for seven years and I don’t even know how to say ‘good morning’ in the dialect.” She was referring to the fact that I was trying to speak Ngäbere with the children in the school. The teacher was no exception.
How many bilingual schools are there in the Ngäbe-Buglé District? How many bilingual teachers have been trained? Law 88, which recognizes the languages and alphabets of Panama’s seven indigenous peoples, was passed as recently as 2010. Why does it all have to be this way—only by force and pressure, after years of protest?
March 1997: An unforgettable dateI don’t know if many Panamanians will remember March 7, 1997, but for the Ngäbe and Buglé peoples it’s unforgettable because it’s the date they finally legally established their district. The words of the bishop of Ganuza at that moment were beautiful and prophetic: “God, Father and Mother of all people, I invoke you today with the names of Ngöbö and Chubé, the names with which our grandfathers and grandmothers invoked you. You are the creator of the rivers and valleys, the hills and clouds, the sun and moon. You make the heavens pour with abundant rain over the woods and the pastures. You created man and woman first and, through them, the inhabitants of these lands and rivers, the Ngäbe and the Buglé, your children. You ordered them to take care of this natural kingdom, where the deer run and the bush rabbits hide, where the earth protects precious metals, your gift and property of the people. With the sound of the wind that runs through the mountains you told them they should work the land, take care of their culture and shake everyone’s hand without giving up being themselves.”
2003: Still without pressure I am climbing the “long hill.” I can’t take any more. I tell myself I have to go back down. Every thirty meters I stop to catch my breath. One of the sisters walks about a hundred meters ahead of me and I’ve already lost sight of the other.
When I got to Santa Fe I’d walked I don’t know how many kilometers but it took five hours and I was sweating up a storm… I was no longer thirty—almost double that. We were coming from the “Beata Laura Montoya” Missionary Center in the community of Alto Ortiga (Santa Fe, Veraguas, where the Sisters of Lauras have been working since 2001. There we held a two-day workshop on Law 10 of the Ngäbe-Buglé District.
We started the workshop and when I spoke in Ngäbere, they told me they understood some things but that none of them was Ngäbe; all were Buglé. I didn’t expect that but I was pleased. They were organized in Buglé communities outside of the district. They had their own authorities and Congress. The communities are Buglé from Guabal to the coast between the Calovébora and Guázaro rivers. There are also Buglé and Ngäbe communities further along, all the way to Río Belen and even further. Why were they still outside the district? Due to political and economic interests. The powerful of Santa Fe didn’t want “Indians” on those lands.
The pressures for hydroelectric dams hadn’t yet reached here because the few existing roads were very bad. But the potential was great and the businessmen surely knew about “our lands.”
2010: The hydroelectric plant arrivesAll night there’s a humming as if gigantic bees were still working, even in the dark. They are the trucks that travel day and night finishing the Chan-75 hydroelectric plant. I’m staying at the home of a friend but I sleep very little thinking about how the life of these people in Riscó Valley (Bocas del Toro) has changed.
It’s October, and I’m walking around picking up information and helping a little. What’s this area called? Barranco Adentro, they tell me. We’re near the Costa Rican border.
They have lived in a virtual paradise—although with difficult access—with a great river alongside, many plantain and cocoa groves, abundant wood, hunting, fishing, crops of all types…. Now they already have a good highway are suffering a true invasion: trucks and more trucks, cement and more cement, people and more people and a wall—the dam—that’s many meters high. All this will bring many changes that they don’t yet understand.
And the crops? “We had to give them up. They gave us something for them.” And the communities? “They say they’re going to move them.” How do they put up with the noise day and night? Silence. Are they going to have electricity? “Who knows...” How do they accept this? “They promised us many things, but...”
Other communities outside of the district have asked for possession rights titles but have been refused because it was
a National Park (Palo Seco Forest Reserve). The same government, however, granted a good number of hectares to the hydro-electric plant in that same National Park.
We were there to celebrate the Eucharist with a group from the Catholic community. We’re met in the house that serves as the school, training center, chapel, charity center, everything.
I started to speak with them in Ngäbere. At first they laughed and seemed surprised that a Russian-gringo was speaking to them in their language—this time I knew everyone was Ngäbe. There are about 200 houses here. These are people who worked or still work on the banana farms. They had come down from the mountain looking for work and education. Of course, they aren’t part of the district either.
2011: Protests and repressionIt’s February and we’re in a workshop in Tolé to learn Ngäbere and deepen our knowledge of the culture. But we’re very restless. Yesterday there was repression in the San Feliz region. The Ngäbe have been protesting for several days against a new mining law that, without consulting them, legalized the exploitation of a gold and copper deposit smack in the center of the district. There has already been one murder, arrests, and people injured and beaten. And, as always, humiliation and offenses.
With Catholic Church mediation they succeed in signing an agreement that there will be no mining exploitation in the district and the water and forest resources will be cared for. But the “special” law will be negotiated.
February 2012: Start of another path On February 8 a dialogue began between the government and the indigenous people with the Catholic Church again acting as intermediary and other people as witnesses. Incredibly, the dialogue was interrupted so “everyone” could go to the Carnival, Panama’s most serious institution. The indigenous population took advantage of this break to meet in the communities. Others maintained a vigil in front of the National Assembly.
It is difficult to hold a dialogue with those who less than a month before killed and wounded family members and friends, abused women, attacked and insulted and haven’t even asked forgiveness.
Dialogue must be based on respect and equality. There must be genuine participation based on acceptance of cultural and even political differences. It must be a dialogue whose fundamental objective is an abundant life for everyone.
What will come of all of this? Even without being optimistic it’s definitely the start of a new path: the building of a basis, however small, for an intercultural, multiethnic society with respect and justice both inside and outside the district.
In July 1989 the indigenous of Bolivia said in their proclamation, “We have maintained a silence that very much resembles stupidity.” I believe the Indigenous of Panama no longer need to, can or want to keep silent.
Jorge Sarsaneda, sj, is a member of Panama’s National Coordinator of Indigenous Pastors.