Saturday, March 10, 2012

Pressure Facing Ngobe on 15th Anniversary of Autonomous Region

On Wednesday, March 7, the MPTers were invited to ascend the mountains of western Panama to the Ngäbe-Buglé capital of Tugri to celebrate with the Ngäbe-Buglé the date marking fifteen years since the establishment of their Comarca, or autonomous region (similar to a reservation). That morning, we crowded into the back of a pick-up truck with about 15 other people and drove into the clouds. As the temperature dropped from 99 to 65, the moisture in the air turned to rain, and the wind threatened to knock us over, our majestic surroundings left us awe-struck. (We were later humbled to discover that many of the Ngäbe-Buglé themselves had walked to the celebration, some families taking as many as twelve hours to get there.)

Each March, the Ngäbe-Buglé gather for several days not only to celebrate, but also to take the opportunity to talk about important issues facing the community. This year, the mood was dampened slightly by the serious pressure put on them by the government to make concessions to companies who want to build several hydroelectric dams and mines around the Comarca, pressure that is unfortunately contributing to divisions within the community. 

Tradional Dancers
The dams, the companies claim, will enable Panama to produce their own energy, making Panamanians wealthier and bringing prosperity to all. Many Panamanians believe this claim, and are therefore in favor of the dams. The Ngäbe-Buglé , on the other hand, after consulting lawyers and environmentalists who have dug more deeply into the situation, have discovered that Panama currently produces more energy than it uses, so the dams are unnecessary for the use alleged by the companies. The indigenous tribe argues that the dams will benefit only the companies, who have many ties to the Panamanian government, and not Panamanians. The companies, who will have the right to do whatever they wish with the rivers they will own for a contracted time - up to 50 years in some cases - likely plan to sell energy to other countries at a profit for themselves. They will also have the right to bottle and sell the water they collect on the comarca. The Ngäbe-Buglé have also been researching the inevitable pollution that will come from the dams, which could leave them without clean water on their own land.

In the negotiations process, the Ngäbe-Buglé have much in their favor. According to international law, the Panamanian government was supposed to abide by a strict consultation process with the Ngäbe-Buglé before selling their land to any company. While the government did speak with a few indigenous people before making a deal with the hydroelectric companies, it did not come close to following the standard process. The Ngäbe-Buglé are hopeful that this will give them much leverage in an international court.

For many Ngäbe-Buglé, the talks with the government have been going too slowly, with not enough concrete results, and they are becoming impatient. Many do not trust that the negotiations will be successful in protecting their land and way of life. Silvia Carerra, the Cacique (figurehead and leader),on the other hand, is pushing ahead with the dialogues. She fears that if the talks break down, violence could break out all over Panama, resulting in many deaths of her people. 

Silvia Carrera
 It was in such an atmosphere of tension that MPT was invited to Panama to do observation as a form of nonviolent intervention. The Ngäbe-Buglé  leadership was aware that talks with the government could disintegrate at any moment, and desired to have international observers at the ready should the situation erupt in violence. Thankfully, due to the skilled leadership of Carerra and the recent involvement of the UN (which took some action after the police violence against Ngäbe-Buglé demonstrators last week), the talks have continued relatively peacefully, and MPT has not been asked to intervene. Instead, we have been building relationships with those involved in the situation and learning more of the complexities. We are currently in dialogue about the possibility of organizing a future training that would combine several days of instruction in human rights law and several days of nonviolent skill-sharing and strategy-building.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so proud to be a part of MPT!!! Well done, Panama Team. Looking forward to your safe return, and hearing what next steps we can take to support this work.