Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ngobe Message and Desire

We have tried everything. What we need most right now is more training and ideas on how to move forward in the struggle for the right to keep our land.

While not an exact quote, the Michigan Peace Teamers have heard a version of the above phrase repeated over and over again in our many encounters with the Ngobe. From the main figurehead of the trive to activists who are being beaten during protests to the men and women living in small villages, Ngobe people have expressed to us their desire to develop the skills for how to get their simple message across more clearly to the Panamanian government, who they believe speaks a totally different language. Their need right now, as the Ngobe see it, is both for for nonviolent strategy and capacity-building and for further education and training in international human rights law. 

While the MPTers were expecting this trip to primarily be doing first-hand observation of protests in order to reduce any violence that might occur, we are finding that the way in which we can be most of service at present is twofold: 1) to continue to learn more about the situation from the perspective of the indigenous people by listening to their experience, and to spread that awareness to our communities at home; and 2) to collect as much information as possible about the kind of training the Ngobe desire, so to be able to pass their more accurate requests on to others who are willing and able to design such a training in the near future. In accomplishing these two goals, we are confident that this delegation will have been a fruitful one.

In our five days here, we have met with many representatives of the Ngobe leadership, including the well-respected Silvia Carrera, who, though not officially recognized by the Panamanian government, has been given authority by virtually all of the diverse groups within Ngobe leadership. (The complexity of the Ngobe leadership itself has been one of the main challenges MPT has faced in trying to make a concrete plan of action.)  Referred to as the cacique (pronounced cassica), Carrera is the first woman to be elected to such a positon in Ngobe history.

In our meeting with Carrera on Friday night, she and others in leadership positions detailed their opposition to government hydroelectric dams on Ngobe land, saying that such a project would damage their way of life. To the common critique leveled against the Ngobe that they should "give some concessions" to the government, their response is that they "have been giving concessons for 500 years." Carrera expressed her offense at the lack of respect shown to her by the Panamanian government: Panamanian President Martinelli always asks the Ngobe to come "to Panama" for negotiations with his representativs, but never sends anybody, or travels himself, to the Ngobe Comarca, (reservation) to meet with them.

On Sunday, we met with several activists who were part of the "occupation" of a Panama City Park outside the National Assembly, where negotiations with the government had been taking place (talks have since moved to the more nuetral UN building due to the recent violence against Ngobe protesters.) Bernardo, one of the activist-leaders, told us of the Ngobe´s desire to keep their environment clean and pure, and to contribute to the purity of the whole earth.  They believe that the construction of hydroelectric dams and copper mines on their land will pollute their Comarca. "Without air or water we are nothing. We die."

On Monday, we arrived in Changuinola, a small city on the Costa Rican border, after taking an overnight bus. From there, the team traveled to the tiny village of Tibiti to meet with men, women, and children, who shared with us their frustration with their situation. Walking into the village, we heard shouts from several children on a thatched-roof hut on a hill: "This land is not for sale! Down with the hydroelectric! Down with the dam! The people united will never be defeated!"

Samuel, the spokesperson for the village (no doubt thanks to his fluent Spanish) commented, "We have been struggling for years, working the same land of our fathers, our grandfathers, our great-grandfathers, etc. The government does not recognize humble people." The villagers believe that the government should consult their community when making plans for "development" of their land, but they do not feel included in the discussion. Instead, they feel treated like animals. Said Samuel, "The government kills our nonviolent protesters, but then, through the media, makes us (the Ngobe) look responsible for the violence."

Many villagers stood up to introduce themselves to the MPTers and share a few words. Serbio, who described himself as the community "watchman," remarked, "In the struggle, I don´t always want things to be like this. I want peace. Not only for me, but for the future. We want peace and tranquility."

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