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The Ngöbe-Buglé’s Community Resistance

FRIDAY FILE: Between January and February 2012, while demonstrating against the passing of a law violating their human and territorial rights, the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous community from Panama suffered brutal repression. AWID spoke to Mariela Arce (1) about this situation.

By Gabriela De Cicco

Panama is located in the peninsula linking South America to Central America, with its territory split in two by the Panama channel. It is a strategic point for international trade as it connects the Atlantic and Pacific sea routes and is where the largest free-zone in the region is located. The indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca (2) located in north-western Panama was formed in 1997 with lands from Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí, and Veraguas provinces, as a consequence of pressure from the Ngäbe-Buglé, against threats of exploitation of natural resources and environmental degradation on their ancestral lands.

Panama’s economy is based on trade and services, specially the Panama Channel services. Mariela Arce explains that “in recent years, particularly under the current Ricardo Martinelli administration, the economic model has been strengthened and turned into a speculative real estate model, with a trend towards developing mining and hydroelectric projects, and others, devastating the natural resources in Panama. This has created socio-political-environmental conflicts, like the struggles for the land along our country’s northern shores and the protected areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. For instance, protection has been removed from the Panama Bay mangrove swamps -our ecological barrier against floods and coastal degradation”.

For Arce, this economic model “opened the doors to a lot of foreign investments, importing inflation that affected Panamanian lower-income workers’ standard of living. Prices have been rising in a staggering and progressive way, because our model is tied to the dollar. This used to be an advantage because our currency fluctuation was not abrupt and we were linked to a strong currency, but at the same time we did not have a sovereign, autonomous currency policy that could protect us from any ups and downs. So when Washington sneezed we caught pneumonia; that is, we had a direct link to the USA economy”.

Rights struggles and repression

Between 2010 and 2012 the Panama Assembly debated different bills and passed laws, amending the Mineral Resources Code, allowing direct foreign investment in the Panamanian mining sector. This resulted in a conflict of interest between the government and the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca indigenous community. “The comarcas have a special regime that relies on the traditional authority structure of these indigenous peoples. The Ngöbe-Buglé comarca is the largest and currently the richest in mineral-water resources”, says Arce. “These new laws stood in the way of the community’s decision-making and autonomous participation mechanisms, hampering their ability to negotiate and to protect their territories”.

During the Assembly debates of the bills and after the law was passed there was popular mobilization by workers, indigenous and rural people to protest and defend their territorial and labour rights. By June 2010, two workers had died as a result of the conflict with the banana companies in Changuinola, Bocas del Toro. Arce recalls that workers protesting were repressed with such lethal force that up to now it is not clear how many people were affected. “This was the first time since the military dictatorship, that repression was unleashed against the indigenous community, leaving more than a hundred people blind after being shot in the eyes with lead pellets. The conflict entered the workers’ neighbourhoods and it was a massacre, because the workers had only stones but the police attacked with all their weapons.”

A new wave of repression took place at the beginning of this year when people protested during the Assembly debates on one of the problematic bills. The law passed in 2012 ignores the San Felix Agreement signed on February 27, 2011, between the government and the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Natural Resources and the Rights of the Ngöbe-Buglé and Peasant Peoples. The agreement includes a clause to create a law that explicitly prohibits the exploration, exploitation of mining in the comarca and the protection of water and environmental resources of the Ngöbe-Buglé region, for both indigenous and rural communities. The repression this year resulted in one dead, more than 100 injured and a similar number arrested and kept in captivity. Mobile communication was shut down and women, indigenous people and activist who were protesting in solidarity suffered psychological, physical and verbal abuse.

The indigenous women’s movements’ role

According to Arce, “In 2010 the Steering Committee for the Defense of Natural Resources and the Rights of the Ngöbe-Buglé and Peasant Peoples became more visible. This Coordinating Committee emerged in a context where a general chief had not yet been selected because the traditional authorities’ elections had been delayed for years. This Committee emerged as an alternative for people to feel represented, and it was this citizens’ committee that engaged in dialogue with the government against the laws reforming the mining code.

Arce points out that in the last twenty years in Panama, indigenous peoples’ leadership has become rapidly feminized. “This does not mean that an accelerated change in the leaders’ patriarchal and male-chauvinist mentality has taken place. But in terms of numbers, great progress has been made. Indigenous community-based organizations have been feminized, and strong indigenous women’s leaders are emerging. This is why, for the first time, a general female chief – Silvia Carrera – was elected in 2012”.

Indigenous women’s participation in the crisis of early 2012 was key. They were there during the days of intense conflicts, participating in all the actions to defend and protect their people. Arce explains how their participation resulted in violations against them, “This is why when the guards came, they were attacked; this is why they were raped and ill-treated; this is why they were imprisoned. Because the guards saw the need for bringing down the women’s courage, their self-esteem, and to hit them so they would withdraw into a secondary role. Such vicious attacks against women were not a coincidence. They were the answer of a repressive system faced with the belligerence and undeniable visibility women had in the struggles”.

According to Arce, “the women's movement has been weak in its strategic focus in recent years. Today it is mainly urban, the challenge is to recover a national, multicultural, and strategic approach in order to confront the patriarchy and its manifestations in Panama. But in spite of this some women organizations worked together with the Panama’s Indigenous Women’s National Coordination Committee (CONAMUIP). CONAMUIP played a leadership role in all the actions in defense of indigenous women’s human rights, and together with other civil society organizations produced a Human Rights Report.”

The situation after the government agreement

On February 8th 2012 a roundtable was established in response to the crisis, where the Coordinating Committee and the elected chief, Silvia Carrera participated in negotiations and the San Lorenzo Agreement was reached to unlock the tense situation. Later in March, another agreement was reached, but a portion of the indigenous peoples’ claims were not considered, such as the Barro Blanco Dam, the building of which could result in future affecting the areas adjacent to the comarca where indigenous people live.(3) Some political actors that were left out of the roundtables began to discredit the dialogue and to distance themselves from their representative.

In May 2012, CONAMUIP submitted a report on the human rights violations in the comarca to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, requesting that the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples create a commission to oversee the enforcement of the ILO Convention 107 on Land, Justice, Education and Labour and of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and to urge the Panamanian government to respect the autonomy and integrity of the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca and Ngöbe women’s right to a life free from violence. They also requested UN Women and the Organisation of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women to visit Panama and make recommendations on how to support the victims and the population of the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca.

Even though many urgent issues are still pending and, based on the experience of the last three years, it is quite likely that the government will backtrack and disregard some of the agreed commitments, the leadership of this community and its women has already gone beyond the national borders. Arce says, “The international solidarity mobilized not only through environmentalist and indigenous peoples’ channels but also through those of women’s organizations, has been key. In Panama, this helps us to learn from this experience and to move forwards with a vision that better integrates our human rights and how to act in urgent and current situations”.


1) Alianza Ciudadana Pro Justicia / Centro de Estudios y Acción Social Panameño (Ceaspa) y Petateras.

2) Comarca is a special political division in the territory of the Republic of Panama, formed by a group of people, its culture, language, history and has a high degree of administrative and legal autonomy according to the indigenous tradition.

3) Among the important issues included in the agreement are: to cancel all concessions for exploration and exploitation of natural resources in the district and adjoining areas; future applications for concessions must be approved by the local, regional and “comarcales” congresses; to create a special fund for the development of the comarca; benefits will be administered through a board of different representatives; affected families will be compensated for approved mining or hydroelectric projects. Regarding the Barro Blanco Hydroelectric Project currently underway - a commission was appointed composed of the same sectors that formed the roundtable to review the environmental impact study, but the work will not stop, except for inspection. A Comprehensive Development Plan for all indigenous peoples of Panama will be designed.