Indigenous Panamanians Defend Nature Against Speculators’ Violent Onslaughts

  Source: Americas Program

For the small Naso indigenous community of Panama, the curtain of 2009 opened on a heart wrenching scene of conflict over the native people’s longtime demand for respect of their territory and natural resources. As they watched heavy machinery demolish their houses and tear up their land, residents of San San Druy in the northern province of Bocas del Toro brandished machetes, bows and arrows, spears, and Molotov cocktails to ward off intruders.

"I am prepared to give my blood for the land," 46-year-old resister Lupita Vargas vowed after outsiders, identified by name as adversaries from a livestock company, toppled six homes on Jan. 17. "I’ll only leave here dead," she was quoted in Panamanian news outlets.

The clash between cowboys and Indians had been announced. It took place one month after a traditional Naso governing assembly sent a letter to Panamanian President Martín Torrijos and a plethora of other officials, asking them to prevent violent evictions in the communities that the Naso count as their inheritance for 20 generations.

It also was not the first time the Naso had gone to the wall for their native land claim. Nor were the Naso the only Indians in Panama or Pan-America who found themselves in such a situation. Theirs is just one manifestation of a story as old as the hills and as historic as foreigners’ conquest of the so-called New World more than five centuries back. It is a story, not only of greed, but of destruction.

Panama has every calling to be proud of its ethnic diversity, with nearly 10% of its 2.3 million population composed of six indigenous groups. The Naso, estimated at something less than 4,000 in all, are among the many original descendants of the country who have maintained close ties to their language, traditional culture, and natural heritage. They depend on hunting, gathering, fishing, and small agricultural plots for their subsistence. They live in hand-built thatch houses and travel in hand dugout wooden canoes or on foot. It is incumbent on them to protect Mother Nature for their own survival.

In the era of globalization their livelihood has been increasingly threatened by megaprojects such as the Bonyik Hydroelectric Dam proposed by Empresas Públicas de Medellin (EPM), as well as by coastal retirement developments and by expansion of the livestock industry. Displacement has compelled some members of the 11 Naso communities to work in the banana plantations that have made multinational corporations famous in Central America.

The Bonyik project, one of four dams slated for the Teribe River, is so controversial that in 2005 the Inter-American Development Bank suspended consideration of loans for it, which had been sought by EPM, based in Panama’s neighbor country of Colombia. But U.S.-based AES Corp. has continued to seek financing for the dams.

The dams and other latter-day enterprises are part of the post-modern development model that exploits natural resources from land-based rural communities to fuel irrational consumption and accumulation of monetary wealth in overpopulated and urban centers. It means forced migration for many. The model fails to take into account customary views and uses of property. It excludes locals from decision making and oversight positions. It causes real estate speculation. In addition, it wreaks havoc with the balance of nature, which, in many cases such as that of the Naso, has been fairly well protected until recently, thanks to traditional knowledge and practices that have led to alternative economic projects such as ecotourism benefiting local social development and biodiversity conservation.

The degradation is particularly egregious in the case of the Naso, considering that their customs are an integral part of a biosphere reserve that encompasses the Amistad International Park and the Palo Seco Forest Reserve, two protected areas in the Teribe River Basin, which are part of a UNESCO Natural Heritage site and of interest worldwide.

But to make matters worse, the officials responsible for the morass of federal laws and institutions governing land use are inept, if not negligent, when it comes to administering justice under the circumstances. Local officials told reporters that eviction notices had been issued covering Bocas Livestock action, but no authorities were at the scene.

"We consider the Panamanian government directly responsible for the abuses, threats, and violations of the Naso people’s rights, specifically those perpetrated by the Bocas Livestock Co., Inc., since the issue of land, boundaries, and access roads between the Naso communities and the Bocas Livestock Co. wouldn’t exist today if we had them defined by our proposed Naso comarca." So states the Nasos’ December declaration, known as Resolution 8.

The private non-profit Naso Foundation notes that some 1,500 Naso neighbors of the Bocas Livestock Co., Inc. have been trying for 50 years to achieve official recognition of their title to the land of their ancestors.

Panama’s legal structure allows for semi-autonomous indigenous governments, similar to those of the tribal council system on Indian reservations in the United States. These units are called comarcas. Dating back to 1938, they belong to the Kuna, Embera, Wounan, Ngobe, and Bugle tribes. The Nasos have been trying to establish a comarca for the past 38 years.

It’s the same story from the Antarctic Ocean to the Arctic sea. But that’s an awful big space, and after so many hundreds of years of colonization, it’s high time for the authorities of dominant society to recognize the legitimate stake that subsistence communities have in self-government and self-determination. Instead they seem to be aggravating the situation.

Organized civil society has taken up its banner, aware that the Naso case is one of many. Now the Naso have gained support for their struggle against water and land privatization schemes that take resources out of the public domain and put them in the hands of a few entrepreneurs. Backing the Naso are hundreds of organizations in Redlar, a vast and growing continental social coalition. Its name is a Spanish acronym that stands for the Latin American Network Against Dams and in Favor of Rivers, Their Communities, and Water. The overarching concern of the coalition is to promote an alternative development model based on more rational use of natural resources and more equitable distribution of their benefits.

But apparently more pressure still needs to be put on the Panamanian government to find a fair way out for all stakeholders, including the mega diverse and endemic wildlife of the privileged ecosystem in Bocas del Toro. People who want to help can join a letter writing campaign using a sample message and contacts provided at Abia Yala, Pacha Mama blog spot (see below).

… After all, the Naso aren’t asking to be given anything; they are just maintaining the right to be the guardians of what they have left.


Eliseo Vargas Jr.
Fundacion Naso
Changuinola, Bocas del Toro
Republica de Panama
Cell: (+507) 6568-9543

Abia Yala, Pacha Mama blog spot

"Dam Nation"


El Siglo: "Indígenas se pintan de guerra en Bocas"

Talli Nauman (talli(at) is a longtime Americas Program ( contributor and a founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, an independent media project initiated in 1994 with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.