Ngöbe Buglé indigenous in Panamá: Spearheading the struggle against mining and water companies

By María Suárez Toro, ESCRIBANA

Three intensive weeks of massive Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous protests in the occidental region of Panamá last February expanded quickly throughout the capital city as other movements joined in solidarity. The government was forced to sit down with the protesters to broker down an agreement.

As of the first week in March, the continuity of negotiations that are taking place at the Congress in Panama have as a background the need for government accountability not only to the respect of the negotiated agreement, but also to end the impunity of gross human rights violations that took place during the protests.

The struggle of the more 150,000 Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples has to do with resistance to cooper and gold mining and water concessions to foreign companies – a highly sensitive issue in a country that prohibited such practices until recently when the present administration headed by President Martinelli, a corporate entrepreneur, began changing the laws in favor of private enterprises so that they can exploit resources.

Last year the government had adopted a clause in the mining laws that would have allowed exploitation of mines in the the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca (created since 1997 and an indigenous land with its own authiorities), but a protest kept the indigenous land out of the reform.  This year there was an intent by authorities in Congress to put it back in, but the protests in February prevented it from happening by forcing the government to sit down again and consider respecting last year´s deal.

But another issue coalesced most of Panamanian society during the indigenous protests was that of the brutal repression by police and military, suffered by the protesters in their territory, which accounts to gross violations of human rights.


Photo given to ESCRIBANA by CONAMUIP

“We all felt affected, especially when we saw the repression by the government towards the peaceful protest by women, children, elders and men in their community” said Sonia Enriquez, a Kuna indigenous leader, head of the National Coordination of Indigenous Women in Panama (CONAMUIP).   

In a press release last February 7th, CONAMUIP stated that indigenous women for the other seven ethnic groups in the country joined in solidarity because “… we defend and promote life and the rights of our brothers and sisters to their land, which is their life, is being threatened together with violation of their human rights, especially those of women and children.”

The indigenous uprising was headed by the first ever woman chief of the Ngäbe-Buglé, Silvia Carrera. She told ESCRIBANA last February 9th that although there was an agreement with the government, “we remain vigilant because although mining is out of the picture in the agreement, the issue of water concessions and also the gross violations of human rights perpetrated against our peoples during the protests need to be addressed.”

Asked about the rights violated, Carrera told ESCRIBANA that among the violations is the right to communicate when the four mobile telephone companies cut their services in the region of the protests. “Also the right to mobility in our territory and the country when military aircrafts and trucks prevented our people form free transit on roads and even repressed many, killing two and taking others to jail.”

Indigenous rights curtailed are the respect of the Organic Charter of 1953 in Panamá that legislates to the respect of indigenous culture and traditions. “We the Ngöbe Buglé are artisans and agricultural workers; it is with that work that we send our children to school and provide them with health. If the government takes our land and resources for the benefit of others, we are left with nothing” said Carrera.



The region is located between the provinces of Vearguas, Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro to the south west of Panama and has an area of nearly 7,000 km.
According to the official statistics, they are the poorest group in the country with 90% poverty and 80% of extreme poverty. They constitute the cheap labor force of the corporate banana, sugar and coffee plantations. They live off farming of maize, cassava, rice and beans, as well as fishing in rivers and seas and stationary migrate to Costa Rica for agricultural work. Their highlands are filled with gold and cooper mines with an estimated 17.5 million koligrams of cooper, with an estimated value of 150,000 million dollars. Its Cerro Colorado is considered one of the biggest deposit of minerals in the continent.

About women´s human rights the original rumors about rapes and sexual abuse by army and police have been documented by media (La Estrella, February 11, 2012) and are currently being addressed by the human rights organizations together with all other violations of rights during the protests.  

Ngöbe Buglé women have been at the forefront of the struggles of their community not only because of their relationship to the land, but because their resistance has given them a high political place in their community leadership.

The National Census of 2000 revealed that there were 55, 636 Ngöbe Buglé women. They have organized themselves as women since 1991 to generate work, education and self organization.  

La Asociación de Mujeres Ngöbe Buglé (Asmung) is one of them, created in order to develop female leadership. In 2011 those experiences contributed to the election of Silvia Carrera to the highest level of leadership in her Comarca.

Silvia Carrera is the first woman to be elected chief (cacica) of her peoples. Elected last year, she successfully led her people in the this year´s protests that coalesced, not only them, but most social movements against government abuses.

She embodies the ideals of leadership the Panamanian indigenous women in general. “”She has filled women of all tribes with great pride because she has shown our capacity to negotiate calmly and forcefully and she did not recede for collective rights; furthermore, she did so with love and a strong and penetrating gaze and voice that shook everyone to really have to listen. We see her in the media and we know she speaks the truth and is not afraid to say what he wants for her people” said Enríquez.

Her son Bernardo Jimenez, presently a human rigths lawyer raised by his teenage mother when she was 13, told ESCRIBANA that what he learned from his mother “… to speak the truth and fight for what is right.”

He said that the collective struggle itself has been the school where they all learned to defend their land and people´s rights. “What we are asking is not the big thing is just to respect the human rights of our people, rights that are above national laws. So we are demanding a special law prohibiting mining and exploitation of water resources.”


Photo given to ESCRIBANA by CONAMUIP

Carrera told ESCRIBANA that at present it is urgent that the United Nations Special Rapporteurs come to the region to document all human rights violations and the international community should be vigilant and solidarious with the water and mining issue that concern all.

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  1. #1 por candida el 24 abril, 2012 - 1:50 am

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