Panama: Nationwide protests commemorate Ngäbe martyr amid fears of violent reprisals
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Panama: Nationwide protests commemorate Ngäbe martyr amid fears of violent reprisals

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February 5, 2013

Today, 5 February 2013, marks the first anniversary of the death of Ngäbe protester Jerome Rodriguez Tugrí, murdered during anti-mining demonstrations in western Panama in 2012.

Two other demonstrators – Mauricio Méndez and Franklin Javilla – also died in the unrest and dozens more were injured. A formal investigation has yet to establish culpability, but it is widely alleged that the protestors died from gunshot wounds inflicted by the police, who are permitted to act with virtual impunity in Panama.

Today, in a spirit of dignity and solidarity, a broad alliance of indigenous and civil rights groups, trade unions, campesinos, activists, environmentalists, and educators are staging a day of co-ordinated action across the country, protesting what they see as the aggressive and exploitative policies of the Martinelli administration. The so-called Strategic Alliance has pledged to demonstrate peacefully, but there remain serious concerns about heavy-handed police suppression. The Panamanian government has stressed it will not tolerate closures of the Panamerican Highway, the country’s main transport artery and the historic gathering point for many protests in the past.

Since coming to office in 2009, President Ricardo Martinelli has managed to spark no less than four major incidents of civil unrest and some observers fear that events today may escalate into a fifth. Government plans to expropriate state-owned or indigenous-owned resources were the instigating factor in all but one of the conflicts, and in every instance, live ammunition was deployed against the protesters – women and children among them – resulting in deaths and scores of horrific injuries.

The President, described in leaked US diplomatic cables in 2010 as ‘autocratic’, ‘bullying and blackmailing’, and ‘[possibly] willing to set aside the rule of law to achieve his political and developmental goals’, receives virtually zero support from Panama’s indigenous peoples.

The Ngäbe, the most populous of Panama’s eight indigenous groups, number approximately 200,000 and enjoy the territorial and political distinction of their own Comarca (a self-governing semi-autonomous territory). Encompassing the remote hills and mountains of western Panama, the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca is home to the second largest copper deposit in the world, Cerro Colorado, which the government sought to expropriate last year. Following the violent clashes between Ngäbe protestors and the police, a tentative peace agreement was negotiated, the so-called San Lorenzo accord, ensuring a blanket ban on mineral extraction in the Comarca.

In the midst of the conflict, the recently elected Ngäbe Cacique (chief), Silvia Carrera, emerged as a symbol of popular resistance. Openly disparaging of the President, she is today a leading figure in the Strategic Alliance, asserting that she wants to hold Martinelli to account for failing to fulfil a host of promises set out in San Lorenzo. She is particularly concerned about the social and environmental impact of hydroelectric projects, which have erupted across Panama in recent years.

The Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam, currently under construction by the Honduran corporation Genisa, is a point of particular controversy. Currently 30-40% complete, the 30MW dam is situated on the Tabasará river in Chiriquí province, and soon set to flood the Ngäbe communities of Quebrada Cana, Kiad and Nuevo Palomar, all located within an annexed section or exclave of the Comarca – areas heavily protected under national law. Protesters have long asserted that Genisa falsified its environmental impact studies, and in September 2012, a team of UN inspectors conducted a technical revision of the area, as agreed under the terms of San Lorenzo.

The team confirmed that the Tabasará communities – who make frequent use of the river for fishing, recreation, drinking water, and transportation – will be heavily impacted by the dam, losing their most productive alluvial soil, forests, schools, cemeteries and churches, if not their homes. A set of very ancient petrogylphs, of considerable archaeological value, were also identified by the UN team. Considered the national patrimony of Panama, as well as a sacred Ngäbe site, these too will be destroyed by the dam.

As yet, no contingency or adequate compensation plan has been prepared for the Tabasará communities, who say they have never provided their free, informed, or prior consent, let alone enjoyed the privilege of open consultations with Genisa. For its part, the government has dismissed the UN report and its recommendations, including a raft of further studies to counter the gross omissions and inadequacies of Genisa’s environmental impact assessment. Privately, members of the M10 resistance movement – the main front opposing the dam – have expressed bitter disappointment in the government’s stance and some now fear for their lives should events escalate today.

On the other side of the country, civil rights groups are convening in the Caribbean port of Colón, the site of severe clashes last year when the government attempted to expropriate the city’s state-owned lands. Colón is predominantly populated by the descendants of African-Antilleans, who arrived from the Caribbean islands in the early 20th century to build the Panama canal. Their city is today astonishingly neglected. Billions of dollars are locked into the fortified compound of the Colón Free Trade Zone, the largest free trade zone in the Americas, but none of it reaches the population outside. When protesters clashed with the police in October 2012, a ten year old boy, Josué Patricio Vega, was shot dead, along with two others.

Protests are also planned for Panama City, Bocas del Toro, the Central Provinces, and eastern Panama, where a plethora of groups will air grievances against the Martinelli administration. It remains to be seen whether the government and national police force will restrain or disgrace themselves. We are asked to honour the memory of Jerome Rodriguez and the dozens of other protesters killed or maimed in the pursuit of social justice since 2009.

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