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  Number 357 | Abril 2011
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Panama

They’re Threatening Us with “Open Inferno” Mining

Having long lived in extreme poverty, Panama’s indigenous people are now also being threatened with eviction from their lands by mining concessions. Panama’s bishops have spoken out firmly against this: “Not all investment is desirable. Such is the case of mining, which together with deforestation, has become the greatest threat to environmental sustainability…”

Jorge Sarsanedas

In 1979, Daniel Núñez, bishop of Panama’s David diocese, wrote: “The children play outside with smiling faces, despite the worms and malnutrition. Their mother weaves a multicolor chácara [an elaborately patterned string bag], while a naked months-old baby crawls around her. The grandmother brings water and firewood together with two children; the father and two other children come from clearing brush and are received joyously. There’s a breeze and the tranquility is palpable. In the midst of their poverty there’s a lot of affection among them; there’s love. Some are baptized and others aren’t, but Jesus’ message of liberation is beginning to awaken in their hearts. It could be a scene from a Guaimi house in any part of the Tabasará district. They don’t know it, but they’re under threat.”

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in Panama since these words were written in a pastoral letter. Many things have changed, including in the indigenous zones, but many others haven’t.

Seven indigenous peoples

A legally defined territory of some 4,000 square kilometers called Ngäbe-Buglé District has existed in Panama since 1997, the product of a long and bloody struggle. Other laws defined other indigenous districts: Kuna Yala District (1953), Enbera and Wounaan District (1983), Kuna District of Madungandí (1996) and the Kunas’ Wargandi District (2000).

A little over 110,000 Ngäbe and Buglé indigenous peoples live in the Ngäbe-Buglé District, 55% of a total population of 200,000. Seven indigenous peoples currently live in Panama: the Ngäbe, Buglé, Kuna, Enbera, Wounaan, Naso and Bribri. There are also Ngäbes, Bugles and Bribris in what is today Costa Rica and Kunas, Enberas and Wounaans in what is now Colombia.

To work out the law for the Ngäbe-Buglé District, an Organic Act was first approved, which the government changed last August without the consensus of those affected. There are more schools and health posts in the zone now, as well as some poorly constructed roads. The indigenous presence is also “felt” more in the media; more indigenous people are studying at university; the political parties have thoroughly inserted themselves in their territories; many projects have been developed, and a lot of money has been invested.

And yet, 95% of the population of this district is still living in poverty—75% of them in extreme poverty—while 60% are considered “illiterate” in Spanish and treated as pariahs because they speak their own languages and have a different-colored skin. Many now migrate to western Panama and to Costa Rica every year; in fact so many head to that neighboring country that Panama doesn’t have a large enough labor force for its coffee harvest. They emigrate to get better paid jobs, but those who only go as far as the Panamanian cities of David and Santiago end up even poorer and more marginalized, as many research studies have shown.

Why did they go?

As if the problems these peoples already have weren’t enough, projects and more projects are now being proposed for “the country’s development.” All have a history behind them…

In 1977, the project to exploit Cerro Colorado—considered the second largest copper (gold and silver) deposit in the world—hovered over the Ngäbe-Buglé District like an eagle ready to swoop. Since then technical studies have analyzed—and denounced—the mortal danger in which the indigenous of the entire district found themselves, as well as the negative consequences of this particular mining exploitation not only for these communities but for the whole country.

It was documented at the time that an “open cast” mine—wouldn’t it be better to call it an “open inferno” mine?—meant ecological and ethnic death for many communities. International solidarity abounded and many united to confront the “monster.” The project was denounced by multiple groups, and especially by Bishop David Núñez, who later was joined by all the country’s Catholic bishops.

Having already gotten a sizable quantity of gold out of the country, the companies involved—Codemin and the Canadian Río Tinto Zinc, the latter remembered for calamitous reasons—decided not to exploit the mine for strictly economic reasons: the price of copper at the time simply wasn’t high enough. They gave a fig about the warnings of social, ecological, cultural or even political effects. After that breathing space, however, they’re back on the attack.

Stealthily, driven by money

Meanwhile, with the Cerro Colorado project shelved, they turned their sights on Veraguas, the gold mine in Cañazas. They were there for ten years getting gold out and leaving behind contaminated rivers, soil and, above all, people. When they left, all they bequeathed us was a lunar landscape and many sick people.

As all these project need electricity, they next went after the beautiful, abundant and deep rivers that bathe our small country: Cobre, San Pablo, Tabasará, Viguí, San Félix, Changuinola, Teribe and several others. They had already exploited the Río Bayano in the eastern part of the country in the seventies, building a dam that flooded part of what is today the Kuna District of Madungandí. The Kunas are still waiting for their benefits and compensation. The peasants and indigenous people of the Río Cobre have been struggling for eleven years to keep from being thrown off their land. In Valle Riscó, the Ngäbe have suffered evictions, dispossessions, loss of lands and crops, marginalizing of communities, and the destruction of the ecology and the Protector Forest of Palo Seco, all to the construction of the Chan-75 dam.

The government has done nothing. It conceded legally reserved land to AES, the largest electricity generating company in Panama, a subsidiary of the US AES Corporation, but didn’t want to recognize the indigenous people’s land “because it was a National Park.” There are now studies on the volumes and possibilities for the Tabasará, Fonseca, Teribe and other rivers that suffered from this plundering, and they are being used as an excuse not to grant the Nasos their territory.

With great stealth, as if to keep many people from finding out, the Canadian Dominion Minerals company was granted a concession for over 24,000 hectares in 2006 with no environmental impact study, to exploit a copper, gold, silver and molybdenum deposit in the middle of the Ngäbe-Buglé District, the Fortuna Forest Reserve and the Palo Seco Protector Forest. The Environmental Authority, on which the laws on reserves and districts depend, said nothing. Nor have the owners of these lands been consulted. Can we assume that the criterion of a “doctor” who stated that “the Indians aren’t the owners because they haven’t bought those lands” is prevailing? Not until April 2009 did the Supreme Court suspend the mining company’s actions, and then only temporarily. So the sword is still hanging over the heads of the Chorchas and all Panamanians.

Is there such thing
as “clean” mining?

“Clean mining” has been the banner proclamation of exploitation, as is currently the case in Coclé-Colón, where Petaquilla Gold and Minera Panamá are exploring for copper, gold and silver. But the reality is that there’s no such thing as clean mining; in all cases it’s an oxymoron.

Panama’s Chamber of Mining recently declared that “if mining weren’t good, there wouldn’t be so many mines in Chile, Peru and Brazil.” But history and the evidence in those three countries point to dirty and polluting mining there. We have only to look at ourselves in the poisoned mirror of the Cañazas mine in Panama, the Cerro de Pasco mine in Peru or the Ixtahuacán mine in Guatemala, or at the destruction caused by gold mining in the Amazon.

How can this be stopped?

With international copper and gold prices now rising, they’re back wanting to exploit Cerro Colorado and other mines in Panama, and the Panamanian government has already taken various steps to permit it. These include approving a reform to the 1963 Mining Code, which has sparked the opposition of all of the country’s environmentalist groups. Another, as mentioned above, was to reform—with neither consultation nor consensus—the Organic Act of the Ngäbe-Buglé District, thus opening the way for “authorization” of this mining exploitation.

Those opposed to this outrage have banked on organization, consciousness-raising and commitment. The first step has been to “organize the rage” produced by the determination to exploit riches by going over people’s heads, even killing them if necessary; by the willingness to destroy the country to assure the wealth of a few; and by innocent people, like indigenous children, seeing their future poisoned because they were born on land covering riches. The organization of that rage has been reflected in community groups, traditional authorities, solidarity groups, civil society, pastoral groups and international support.

The consequence has been two months of a very strong confrontation between the government and the indigenous people backed by many social groups. After demonstrations and protests, the issuing of communiqués and the blocking of highways, in which people were wounded, beaten and imprisoned, we got the government to back off and repeal the unconsulted mining law. Right now there’s a testy and tense dialogue going on to legally prohibit mining exploitations in the Ngäbe-Buglé District.

The second step is consciousness-raising. Much still needs to be said to the entire country. Incredibly, there are still supposedly well-educated professionals (doctors, engineers, etc.) who think that culture is synonymous with backwardness, that land is only possessed by purchase and that all investment is progress. We’re frequently surprised by the racist statements and justifications born of the ignorance of many Panamanians.

The third is commitment. Panama’s Catholic Church spoke clearly in a January 13 Bishops’ Conference Communiqué. “Not all investment is desirable. Such is the case of mining, which together with deforestation has become the greatest threat to environmental sustainability in the region. In general, countries have weak laws regarding foreign investment and lax regulations that do not guarantee that contaminating substances such as cyanide are handled safely for the health of the population. Nor have legitimately recognized consultations been conducted to truthfully inform affected communities and make sure their demands are recognized.”

Our struggle

In numerous zonal and national Catholic Church meetings, bishops and pastoral agents (priests, nuns and committed lay people) who work in the country’s districts have demonstrated our concern about the mining projects, given that the marginalization and extreme poverty are now exacerbated by the growing threat of dispossession and the despoiling of their ancestral territories by mining concessions and hydroelectric projects in the name of “national progress.”

Many indigenous accounts support this struggle. As a Church, we must remain at the side of these peoples even if we have to pay a high price. It’s the only task the Gospel of Jesus Christ asks of us. 

Jorge Sarsaneda, sj, is a member of the national indigenous pastoral coordinating body.

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