Panama: Indigenous People Getting Ready for Massive Demonstration

by February 16, 2011
 

Indigenous Peoples in Panama are getting ready for a massive demonstration in resistance to Mining Code reforms and the planned exploitation of the Cerro Colorado mine. The upcoming demonstration in March expected to draw 15,000 Ngobe from all parts of the country. If all goes according to plan, it would be one of the largest indigenous protests in recent history.

Given Panama's current level of rhetoric and their apparent "shoot now ask questions later" policy in dealing with the Ngobe, it may also turn out to be one of the most violent.

In preparation for the massive protest, on Feb. 7, more than 2,000 Ngobe mobilized across Panama to protest against the new Mining Code reforms, which were still being debated at the time. "The people demonstrated peacefully, speaking beforehand with the authorities about the intentions of the march," says the Ngobe Catholic Mission of Soloya, in a press release dated Feb. 10.

However, the Ngobe barely had any time to talk before Panama's police forces opened fire on the Ngobe with tear gas, shot guns and rubber bullets. "In the case of San Felix, the protesters had not even occupied one lane of the Pan American Highway, as was their intention, when they were violently repressed. There was clearly a disproportionate repression of the riot police against the unsuspecting population, resulting in serious incidents of wounded and arrested," the press release states.

According to Cultural Survival, a total of "Nine Ngöbe people were reported wounded and 22 jailed, including three children."

Watch how the riot police casually begin to repress the unsuspecting protesters in San Felix. Local authorities later lamented the attack. See this video on YouTube.

In addition to the mining law, the Ngobe were protesting against the possible exploitation of Cerro Colorado, a huge mountain located within the Ngobe's territory in western Panama.

Government officials claim that the reform wouldn't threaten Cerro Colorado, which is believed to hold one of the largest copper reserves in the world*. Rather, officials say, the reform is meant to give foreign governments (like Canada, South Korea and Singapore) the right to invest in mining projects.

That is true the strictest sense; however, the Ngobe have a pretty long memory. They can recall, for instance, how President Martinelli pledged to give Cerro Colorado to the South Korean government in March 2010. Martinelli said at the time,"With pleasure we will change the law... I want the Korean government [sic], together with the Canadians, North Americans and the stock market, to develop this mine [at Cerro Colorado]."

To make matters even worse, some officials appear to be suffering from delusions. For example, on Feb. 9, President Martinelli himself claimed that 'foreign corporations' and political groups were behind the protests. Later on, Panama's Vice President endorsed the preposterous claim.

The Ngobe aren't the only ones protesting, to be sure: they were joined by human rights and environmental groups, workers and university students. However, as Americas Quarterly notes, these protesters, like the Ngobe, were acting on their own, out of a shared concern that new mining operations in Panama would threaten farmland and water supplies.

Regardless of the irrational rhetoric and the hard-line approach with the Ngobe, the Indigenous People have no intention of backing down. Cultural Survival explains,

"The Ngöbe leadership has steadfastly opposed open-pit mining by multinational corporations on Ngöbe lands. But the Panama government is trying to get around the current leaders by staging new Ngöbe elections in March. By executive decree, the government effectively took over the Ngöbe people’s electoral process last year. In spite of Ngöbe protests and a Global Response letter-writing campaign, the president has refused to revoke the decree."

"Now Ngöbe leaders, who consider the government-sponsored elections a ploy to remove them from office, are calling for a massive demonstration in early March against the executive decree and against the reform of the mining law. They anticipate participation of 15,000 Ngöbe people from all parts of the country."

To show your support for the Ngobe, please send a letter to President Martinelli, urging him to revoke Law No. 14 (which criminalizes non-violent acts of protest) and Executive Decree No. 537 (which restricts the right of Indigenous Peoples to choose their own leaders).

You can find a sample letter and contact information at http://www.culturalsurvival.org/take-action/panama/backgroundpanama

Notes
- The Canadian exploration company Javelin stumbled upon Cerro colorado's copper reserves in the 1970s. The company was owned by John C. Doyle, the so-called "evil genius" who fled to Panama after being arraigned in Montreal on various charges including fraud and conspiracy involving $4.8m in mining stock.

Updates
Feb. 10 - Panama's Congress Opens Mines to State-Owned Firms

Feb. 15 - 5,000 Ngobe protest against the new Mining Code, blocking parts of the Pan American Highway

Feb 16 - Ngobe leaders reportedly sent an ultimatum to the government: repeal the mining law or suffer 'massive and indefinite' protests from February 24th.