Panama – Open Inferno

In 1979, Daniel N˙Òez, bishop of Panama’s David diocese, wrote: ‘The children play outside with smiling faces, despite the worms and malnutrition. Their mother weaves a multicolour ch·cara [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 tranquillity is palpable. In the midst of their poverty there’s a lot of affection among them; there’s love. They don’t know it, but they’re under threat.’

Today, many things have changed, including in the indigenous zones, but many others have not. A legally defined territory called Ngöbe-Buglé District has existed in Panama since 1997, the product of a long and bloody struggle. A little over 110,000 Ngöbe and Buglé indigenous peoples live in the Ngöbe-Buglé District, 55% of a total population of 200,000. To work out the law for the Ngöbe-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, while 60% are considered ‘illiterate’ in Spanish and treated as pariahs because they speak their own languages and have a different-colour skin. Many now migrate to western Panama and to Costa Rica. 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.

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 hovered over the Ngöbe-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 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 N˙Òez, later joined by all the country’s Catholic bishops.

Meanwhile, with the Cerro Colorado project shelved, they turned their sights on Veraguas, the gold mine in CaÒazas. 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 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. They had already exploited the R’o 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 Madungand’. The Kunas are still waiting for their benefits and compensation. The peasants and indigenous people of the R’o Cobre have been struggling for eleven years to keep from being thrown off their land. In Valle RiscÛ, the Ng‰be 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.

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 Ngöbe-Buglé District. The Environmental Authority, on which the laws on reserves and districts depend, said nothing. Nor have the owners of these lands been consulted. 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.

Clean mining?
‘Clean mining’ has been the banner proclamation of exploitation, as is currently the case in CoclÈ-ColÛn, where Petaquilla Gold and Minera Panam· 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.

With international copper and gold prices now rising, they are back to exploit 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 was to reform the Organic Act of the Ngöbe-BugléDistrict, 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. The organization of that rage has been reflected in community groups, traditional authorities, solidarity groups, civil society, pastoral groups and international support. After demonstrations and protests, the issuing of communiquÈs and the blocking of highways, in which people were wounded, beaten and imprisoned, we got the government to back off and repeal the mining law.

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 CommuniquÈ. ‘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.’

In numerous 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

Sarsaneda is a Jesuit, member of the Panama national indigenous pastoral coordinating body.


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