Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Panamanian Indigenous Community Seeks Protection of its Land

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The Naso indigenous community of Panama is lucky to be able to call Bocas del Toro home. This is an idyllic tropical paradise that begins in mountainous forests near the border with Costa Rica and ends up in the Caribbean Sea. It’s a fertile land where they grow plantain, corn, coffee, pineapple, and grapefruit, and make some extra money by serving the growing numbers of eco-tourists who sail into Bocas del Toro.

By the same token, however, they are cursed to live in such a beautiful and coveted place. The Naso aren’t all that different from many other indigenous groups in Latin America who inhabit forests rich in natural resources: They have something that many others want.

Last month, a small delegation of Naso leaders traveled to Washington to submit a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) demanding that the Panamanian government and special business interests in the country allow them to stay in their territories and respect their cultural, territorial and human rights. Getting American law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP to represent the 3,500 Naso in the case was a challenge in and of itself.

“For the last three years we’ve been campaigning to get the world to pay attention to our situation,” says Eliseo Vargas, a savvy and well-versed Naso spokesperson. “We’ve been fighting to get collective land titles for an even longer period of time, so right now we’re happy to begin to be heard and to introduce this first petition.”

The Naso practice subsistence agriculture and live in 160,000 hectares but they have little rights over their ancestral lands. Unlike the neighboring Kuna—a community I wrote about in the Spring 2010 AQ—they don’t enjoy “comarca” status within the Panamanian constitution, a title that would allow them to practice their traditions and way of life within their territory in relative autonomy from the central government. Instead, Naso communities have been subjected to forced evictions, detentions and the destruction of their environment.

For the last three years, the Panamanian cattle company, Bocas, has been pushing the agricultural frontier further and further into Naso territory, cutting down their forests and jeopardizing their access to arable land. Naso leadership has brought the case to the Panamanian courts to no avail. When the heavy machinery began to flatten humble thatched roof huts in the village of San San Druy last spring, dozens of community members confronted the intruders bearing machetes and arrows. The confrontation did not end well and over 200 Naso were displaced.

“We feel that the cattle company is complicit with the people in government because they have never responded to our requests,” says Vargas. “And despite all of our demands, last month, the ministry of justice presented us with its third eviction notice.” 

But there exists an even greater threat to the Naso; one that has been in construction on the banks of Bonyic River for over three years. A large hydroelectric dam would displace thousands of people, including members of the much larger Ngöbe-Buglé comarca, and permanently impact more than 100 miles of stream habitat. Even though the Panamanian government failed to consult the communities, it defends the dam by saying the massive infrastructure will bring development and jobs to the area. The Naso and the Ngöbe-Buglé reject the proposed project as a threat to their very survival.

“Blocking the river will flood vast areas where we live; we would have to move our homes, families, crops, animals, and our lives,” wrote a  Ngöbe-Buglé leader to the U.S.-based contractor in charge of the Bonyic dam, AES Corporation. “Where would we go?”

The history of forced evictions of indigenous communities is not uncommon in Panama or in the rest of Latin America. Whether it be for the creation of protected areas, dams or for oil extraction, indigenous communities are often the first to be pushed aside.

But today’s globalized indigenous rights movement is beginning to change business as usual. A growing number of cases are now being brought to the IACHR and other rights watchdogs, and countries like Colombia and Costa Rica are adopting new laws for the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples.

*Ruxandra Guidi is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org based in San Francisco, California.



Ruxandra Guidi is an independent journalist and multimedia producer with Fonografia Collective (http://fonografiacollective.com) based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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