Massive Indigenous Protest in Panama Spurs Accord With Government
Indigenous protestors and the Panamanian Government reached an accord on February 7 to halt massive nationwide protests against mining and development laws that had shut down a major international highway as well as large roadways throughout the country in the previous 8 days; the conflict had caused at least one death, 40 wounded and 100 people arrested at the various sites.
On the 7th, officials representing Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli and Chief Silvia Carrera, leader of the Ngöbe–Buglé people, signed the San Lorenzo Accord which spelled out conditions for the cessation of the protests.
According to the agreement the government had to: end all judicial prosecutions of Ngöbe–Buglé leaders and other protestors; free all those who had been arrested in the demonstrations; compensate and attend to the needs of the family of Geronimo Rodriguez Tugri, an indigenous protestor who was killed by gunfire at the largest protest on February 5; re-establish cell-phone signals in the affected areas; withdraw riot police from the indigenous territories and the protest sites; get the Legislature to re-address the mining Law 415 and it’s Article 5 regarding mining and development on Ngöbe–Buglé lands; continued mediation by Catholic Church officials; full publication of the subsequent agreement; demobilization of all protestors from the sites; and more medical attention and follow-up, under the supervision of a committee of indigenous physicians, for those indigenous protestors who were wounded.
Monsignor Jose Luis Lacunza served as principal mediator between the parties and read the agreement at a press conference after the signing.
While Chief Carrera has not issued any major statements after the gathering, immediately prior to the signing ceremony she expressed her frustrations about the situation.
"We have not yet achieved anything, the indigenous Ngöbe people are struggling more than 500 years, and this has prompted us to disbelieve in the authorities, but today we all want to go home quietly, with the hope of seeing the promises of the State," Chief Carrera stated.
By February 10 the process towards addressing the controversial laws had begun, but the issue of prosecution of the protestors was not resolved.
The main item of contention involved the government’s efforts to change a previously agreed upon project where it was decided that neither mining operations nor hydroelectric dams would be allowed on the Ngöbe–Buglé territory, located in western Panama along the Changuinola River basin. From 2009 to 2010 indigenous protestors and their allies had staged several demonstrations until the government agreed to the ban on mining and hydroelectric dam construction on indigenous territory.
Late in 2011 Panama’s Congress removed Article 5 from the agreement which was the section that barred the business operations, and indigenous leaders responded by organizing the protests.
Starting on January 31, indigenous Ngöbe–Buglé demonstrators shut down one of the largest highways in Central America as part of the week-long protest against the Panamanian government’s efforts to renege on the previous agreement.
It has been reported that at least one protestor was killed, over 40 people wounded and 100 people arrested after a violent confrontation with riot police on February 5 on the Pan American Highway, at one of two spots on the giant roadway bordering Costa Rica blocked by hundreds of Ngöbe–Buglé and other allies. On that Sunday, Police were able to dislodge the protestors from the international thoroughfare that is a well-used trade route between Panama and other countries in the region.
During the protests Chief Carrera issued a public statement condemning the government’s actions.
“Today the Ngöbe people return to fighting in the streets. It isn't capricious, we are asking for something just: we don't want mining, nor hydroelectric dams. The blame for what is happening is the government's. They're mocking us. It's how this government of businessmen uses us to entertain themselves, today saying one thing and tomorrow another … It appears that what the government wants is war and violence. And so it was this past Thursday night. We were open for dialogue! We want to sit down and talk, but with the riot squad here it's evident that they want to suppress us.”
After the first wave of protests, by February 6th, 15 more highways in Panama were blocked by indigenous protestors and allies from the labor movement and other groups in the country, including 4,500 workers from the Sitraibana Union (banana and fruit workers) and 500 workers from the Atlantic Banana Workers Cooperative; all of these actions were held in the Bocas del Toro Province.
University professors and student held protests at several institutions.
Support for the protestors also emerged from international organizations such as the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Survival International (SI) and the National Organization of Indigenous Colombia (ONIC in Spanish) along with other Indigenous Peoples throughout Latin America. James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, had also urged Panama’s government to meet with the protesters.
In a 2011 report, Professor Anaya warned that megaprojects like hydroelectric dams and extractive industries have become “one of the most significant sources of abuse of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the world.”