People & Power

Panama: Village of the damned

One indigenous tribe is engaged in a life and death struggle against the big business interests flooding their land.

Away from its busy capital city and famous canal, Panama is one of the world’s most ecologically diverse nations.

Yet huge new hydroelectric dam projects now underway are seeing pristine rivers damned and virgin rainforest flooded.  
The government says it is vital for economic growth, big business is cashing in and even the UN has awarded carbon credits on the basis that the resultant energy will be ‘sustainably’ produced.

But for the indigenous Ngabe people – whose homes are vanishing under water – it is a catastrophe. So they have been fighting back. Filmmaker Glenn Elis went to Panama for People & Power to find out more.

Filmmaker’s view: Glenn Elis

Last February, the most famous Panamanian in the world went for a routine medical check-up. The authorities used a decoy, and General Noriega, the country’s former military governor, was spirited back to his luxury detention centre, safe from prying eyes and a hungry press. Nonetheless, acres of news print around the world were lavished on the event, while a far more urgent unravelling Panamanian story dropped under the radar.

Panama’s largest indigenous group, the Ngabe, had decided to take a stand against the unlawful encroachment of their homeland. Since the time of the conquistadors, the Ngabe have been pushed to the margins of the country – forced to live on the land that no one else wanted. Twenty years ago the Panamanian government finally ceded what was considered a useless tract of land to them. The Ngabe had in fact lived there for centuries, so by rights it has always been theirs.

But now this land, rich in mineral deposits and rivers, is considered priceless. And Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s authoritarian president who is a close friend of former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, wants it back.

His plan is to open the Ngabe heartland to foreign mining companies and push hydroelectric power projects onto an unwilling population. The problem is that the Ngabe have nowhere else to go. So the scene was set for a dramatic showdown, which started when the Ngabe closed the Pan-American Highway in Chiriquí province in the west of the country – bringing Panama to a standstill.

Their demand: an audience with the president. Martinelli’s response was extraordinary for this relatively peaceful country with a constitution that forbids the formation of an army. The police, who human rights observers say have become increasingly militarised since Martinelli became president three years ago, launched a vicious crackdown, cutting communications with the outside world, and allegedly shooting innocent bystanders as well as peaceful protesters.

Harrowing reports surfaced of rapes and the mistreatment of detainees, as scores of Ngabe men, women and children were arrested. At least two people were killed and many more were injured. The crackdown lasted for three days and proved so unpopular with Panamanians, that Martinelli was forced into negotiations with the Ngabe.

Opening fire

The talks were taking place at the National Assembly building in the centre of Panama City and dozens of Ngabe families had set up camp nearby to show support for Silvia Carerra, their elected leader who is known as the Casica.

It was here that my crew and I set up our camera on my first day in Panama to interview some of the people who had travelled hundreds of miles to make their point. We had just started to interview a young woman and child when gun shots rang through the air. The police had opened fire at the demonstrators. There were several shotgun injuries, none serious, but nasty all the same. It seemed inexplicable. Why fire into a crowd filled with women and children, particularly at a time when their leader was negotiating with the government?

It is possible that the government was never that keen to talk to the Ngabe in the first place and that this was an attempt to provoke a reaction which would force the cancellation of the talks. If that was the plan, it did not work. The Casica had no intention of letting the government set the agenda and the talks continued.

But as I flicked through the channels in my hotel room later that night I was given an insight into the less than perfect relationship between the government and the media here. Panamanian TV media carried the police’s version of events – that drunken Ngabe youths had gone on the rampage. It was a story that I knew for a fact was far from the truth.

A piece of paradise

The next day one of the so-called ‘drunkards’, a teetotaller by the name of Ricardo, invited us to his village. It was a six-hour drive from Panama City followed by a gruelling trek through mountain jungle. But nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of Kia – a settlement nestling on the banks of the Tabasara River.

Here the Ngabe have carved out a little piece of paradise for themselves, and I saw at once why they are fighting so hard to protect it. There is an open air school where children are taught in the Ngabe language, which is vital if their unique culture is to survive. And I enjoyed a continuous stream of hospitality as we talked into the early hours under a night sky unblemished by light pollution.

The following morning Ricardo gave us a guided tour of the village, explaining the close bond between his people and nature. I was taken a short distance to the riverbank where a little girl showed us a colony of Tabasara Rain Frogs, one of the rarest species in the world, which are found nowhere else on the planet. If the government has its way, all this will be flooded and the frogs will disappear.

Yet a few miles downstream from Kia, the massive construction site of Barro Blanco is an ugly blot on the landscape. As the enormous dam takes shapes, armed guards patrol the perimeter to keep the villagers away. When the dam is complete the village of Kia will be lost.

From Kia I travelled northwest to visit Ngabe villagers who had already lost their community. They had been made homeless by another hydroelectric project last year, when the mighty Changuinola River was dammed. Here I met Carolina. Her house had been built on higher ground than those of her neighbours in the village of Guiyaboa, but it was still not high enough. The village now lies deep underwater and all that can be seen is the roof of Carolina’s house, jutting out of the water like some incongruous monument. She told me that she and countless others had received no compensation for loss of their land, crops or housing.

I travelled on through Chiriqui province, the scene of the crackdown, and met and interviewed survivors and the relatives of those who had been killed by the police. I found it hard to understand why they had died. All the Ngabe had been asking for was an opportunity to talk to the government – a concession that the authorities had to make in the end anyway. It is not surprising that, away from the glitzy skyscrapers of the capital, a terrible sense of injustice and resentment is simmering below the surface.

A roll call of Panama’s wealthy

Back in Panama City, Jorge Ricardo Fabrega, the country’s powerful minister of government, agreed to meet me and explain the government’s side. He admitted that things could have been handled better at Changuinola, but insisted that during the recent crackdowns the police had behaved very professionally. He was keen to underline the importance of hydroelectric energy for Panama’s booming economy and then stated categorically that nothing would be allowed to stop the Barro Blanco project going ahead.

“There’s one thing that I have to make clear,” he said. “We’re not going to cancel Barro Blanco. The Barro Blanco project is under construction and it will continue.” As I listened I thought of Ricardo and the other villagers whose future was being decided by the minister and his friends.

By now news had got around that a filmmaker from Al Jazeera was in the country and someone discreetly passed me a lengthy document detailing the government’s future hydroelectric plans. It was an eye-opener. The sheer number of the projects is startling; if they all go ahead they will surely produce far more electricity than Panama will ever need, no matter how dynamic or fast growing its economy. Which begs the obvious question: What will they do with all this power?

Alongside each project listed were the names of the company directors involved – a roll call of Panama’s wealthiest families. It was not difficult to put two and two together. Electricity is a commodity like anything else and if there is spare capacity it can be sold to energy-hungry consumers in neighbouring countries. Someone, it seemed, was going to get very rich. Unsurprisingly, that document has never been made public.

It was then I realised what Silvia Carerra, the Casica, was up against in her negotiations with the government. And on my last evening in Panama, I was lucky enough to meet her. Despite having been up since sunrise debating with other Ngabe leaders, she found time for an interview.

A charismatic 41-year-old, with little in the way of a formal education, she has found herself locked in negotiations with the minister I had just met. This remarkable woman is all that stands between her 100,000 kinsmen and development projects they neither want nor need. It must be a terrible responsibility. I found her candour and determination refreshing. She told me that even after all the government had done the Ngabe would never give in.

But in the meantime, of course, work at Barro Blanco and elsewhere goes on.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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