The Naso are determined to protect their rainforest and their way of life
Panama in focus ⬿

The Naso are determined to protect their rainforest and their way of life

King Reynaldo Alexis Santana, the elected representative of the Naso. Credit: Norlando Meza
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February 26, 2019

Plutarco Quintero is resolute. The rainforest has been home to his ancestors for over 600 years—but if it’s going to survive 600 more, the Naso must secure their land rights. Only then, can these Indigenous Peoples protect their culture and continue to care for the land effectively, with unwavering love and devotion, as they always have.

Plutarco is a botanist who has seen many things in his 79 years; but he says nothing compares to the destruction his people have witnessed over the past decade.

The Boynic hydro-electric dam project has bulldozed the jungle, emptied the Tjër Di River of fish and fresh water shrimp and displaced families.

The Tjër Di River runs through the Naso Comarca . Credit: Norlando Meza

Despite utopian promises to the community, the project has brought nothing to the Naso—not even electricity.

Standing on the balcony of his wooden house, Plutarco looks out at the Wë, a scared tree to the Naso Peoples, which he planted himself many years ago following the guidance of one his spiritual teachers. The tree has survived two major floods; but now that the Government plans to open up the area to more hydro-electric dams, its future is uncertain.

“This forest is my home, I was born here and all my children and grandchildren were born here,” he says. “I would not go to a strangers house and take it away from them. So what right did they have to come here? They didn’t even ask our permission, they just came and destroyed the river. There are no more fish and secretions from the machinery have polluted the water. Our ancestors looked after the river. They looked after the mountain and the forest so that today we have everything we need. Why would anyone cut down the forest? It is a pharmacy.”

Plutarco Quintero. Credit: Norlando Meza

Plutarco developed his knowledge of the medicinal properties of the forest plants thanks to three different teachers who accompanied him in the early years of his life. Today, as old age advances, Plutarco wants to pass on what is left of the forest to his grandchildren in the form of a Comarca. This process would transform it into a semi-autonomous region and require companies to consult with local communities regarding any kind of construction or development project.

“The Comarca is in my heart. I am prepared to die for it. If we don’t have a Comarca what will be left for my grandchildren – and our planet?”
—Plutarco Quintero

Five of the seven Indigenous Peoples of Panama already have their territories recognized as Comarcas. In October 2017, the Naso came close to having theirs. The Legislative Assembly unanimously passed Law 656 for the Naso Comarca; but President Varela vetoed it because the territory they claimed falls within two protected areas – the UNESCO World Heritage Site La Amistad International Park (PILA) and the Protected Forest of Palo Seco. The President said the Naso could not have their territory recognized because the country has international commitments regarding these protected areas.

Map: Rainforest Foundation

“The reason these protected areas exist in the first place is because the Naso people have looked after them for hundreds of years. Before those parks were even created, we had our own internal regulations regarding the use of the forest and its resources,” says Isabel Sánchez, Plutarcos’ daughter who lives nearby with her seven children and five grandchildren. She recalls how even as a child everyone was talking about the Comarca. “55 years later, it’s still not ours. It hurts.”

Isabel Sánchez. Credit: Norlando Meza

Beside the Wë tree in front of Plutarco’s house, a portion of land has been cleared to plant a botanical garden that will safeguard ancestral knowledge of the medicinal plants. It is being created by a women’s community organization and Andrés Jiménez, the community’s Justice of Peace and a student of Plutarco. He is angry that the President, from his luxurious home in Panama City, has labeled the Naso a threat to conservation. “Coexisting with natural resources is at the heart of Naso culture. All the women and men who live here have learned to live in harmony with the environment as we know that without it, our culture will cease to exist,” he says.

“55 years later, it’s still not ours. It hurts.”
—Isabel Sánchez

To Jiménez and all the Naso it is clear – the biggest threat to the environment is the Government itself. “The Government does absolutely nothing to protect the environment. Anything it does related to conservation has been due to outside pressure. There is an office for the Ministry of the Environment here in Boynic but the only thing staff do is drive up and down the mountain now and again and earn their weekly wage. They have not planted so much as a seed,” says Jiménez.

Andrés Jiménez. Credit: Norlando Meza

Such has been the disastrous social and environmental impact of the Boynic dam; the PILA park could be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site “in danger.” There is serious concern that rare and endangered species such as Harpy Eagles, Tapirs and Jaguars as well as up to 16 species of migratory fish and shrimp have been affected by the dam. And despite this, rumors abound that there are plans to continue to open up tributaries of the Tjër-Di river to four more hydro projects. This, surely, is the real reason behind the Presidential Veto; if the Comarca is created, the Naso would have to be consulted regarding these and any other interventions.

But there is still hope. The Legislative Assembly asserted a Constitutional Right to approve Law 656 to create the Naso Comarca by insistence on Feb 20. President Varela can now either approve it or send it to the Supreme Court for a final decision. An international campaign has just been launched to pressure Varela to ratify the law.

Either way the Naso will continue to fight.

“The Comarca is in my heart,” says Plutarco, “I am prepared to die for it. If we don’t have a Comarca what will be left for my grandchildren – and our planet?”

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