against murderous resource extraction corporations

Ngabe engaged in a life and death struggle against the big business

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.

from al jazeera – Panama: Village of the damned


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