Indigenous members of the Ngöbe–Buglé community block the Pan American highway in El Vigui, Panama on February 4, 2012. The Ngöbe–Buglé people blocked the main highway in the country to protest against mining exploitation on their lands.

Partial Victory for Ngöbe–Buglé in Panama

Rick Kearns

The indigenous Ngöbe–Buglé people of Panama will have more but not total control over resources in their territory if a newly proposed law goes into effect.

The new law spells out prohibitions against mining but does not prevent the building of hydroelectric dams in the region, noting that applications for the dams must be approved by the local and national congresses.

On March 26th, after two months of negotiations between teams lead by Ngöbe–Buglé leader Cacique Silvia Carrera and Panamanian officials, President Ricardo Martinelli signed a bill that would “establish a special program for the protection of the mineral, water, and environmental resources of the Ngöbe–Buglé community.”

The legislation, known as “Law 11” in various publications, would provide a wide range of rights and protections to the indigenous community that had spent years protesting the government’s policies involving mining and hydroelectric dam construction. The most recent protests had shut down parts of the country by blocking national and international highways, as well as staging other demonstrations that lead to deaths, injuries and arrests of more than 100 protestors.

The negotiations started February 7th after the government agreed to conditions that included freeing arrested protestors and were mainly held behind closed doors until the announcements in early April. The Law 11 project will need to be approved by the Panamanian Congress before becoming official.

Among the 17 articles listed in the law there are several that address the concerns raised by Ngöbe–Buglé activists. These points include the following:

  • Article 2 states that “the rights of the comarca in relation to the use, management and traditional sustainable exploitation of the natural resources, located in the area, are recognized”;
  • Article 3 “prohibits the authorization of concessions for the exploration, exploitation and extraction of metallic, non-metallic minerals and their derivatives in the Ngöbe–Buglé territory…”;
  • Article 4 “cancels all..” of the mining permits for metallic and non-metallic minerals;
  • Article 6 is the one that deals with hydroelectric construction. This article states that “future applications for hydroelectric development located completely or partially in Ngöbe–Buglé territory and annexed areas must be approved by the General, regional or Local Congress…and to be submitted for referendum afterwards in the respective …area.”

For violations of the law Article 12 states that fines of 10,000 to 100,000 Balboas ($9,994.60 to $99,945.40 U.S.) will be charged.

However, it is in Article 9 where there is some controversy according to one Ngöbe–Buglé leader, as it addresses the Ngöbe–Buglé’s land rights. Article 9 specifies that indigenous residents will be given compensation for any damages done to them or their properties due to hydroelectric projects and that if they are required to leave they will have the right to be moved to a similar setting and paid for the move as well.

On April 4, Liborio Miranda, who earlier lead one of the highway blockades, stated to local media that “close to 91 percent” of the indigenous community are against Law 11 and are particularly “disgusted with Article 9”, according to a press report in Panama.

In response, Cacique Carrera acknowledged that the Ngöbe–Buglé did not achieve 100 percent of their goals she was quoted as saying that the law was an advance towards the ending of mining and hydroelectric construction in their territory.

No announcements were made in regards to when Law 11 would be brought before the federal Panamanian Congress.

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