Panama: government caves after indigenous protest —again

A committee composed of deputies from Panama’s National Assembly, representatives of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group, and observers was to meet on Feb. 10 to discuss a possible ban on hydroelectric projects in Ngöbe-Buglé territories. The negotiations resulted from an agreement that indigenous leaders and the government of right-wing president Ricardo Martinelli reached on Feb. 7; the pact ended more than a week of massive protests that had led to at least two deaths and dozens of arrests. (Prensa Latina, Feb. 10)

The Ngöbe-Buglé began blocking highways in the western provinces of Chiriquí and Veraguas on Jan. 30 in an ongoing dispute over Law 415, a set of changes the Martinelli government is proposing for Panama’s Mining Code. The Ngöbe-Buglé said the government had agreed in October to a ban on mining and hydroelectric projects in their territories but that Article 5, which included the ban, was dropped when the Assembly began debating the law in January. The Ngöbe-Buglé’s roadblocks cut off crucial highways, stranding tourists and creating shortages in the cities. Despite efforts by Catholic officials to start negotiations, on Feb. 5 the government sent police to break up the protests with tear gas, rubber bullets and, according to the protesters, live ammunition. Protester Jerónimo Rodríguez Tugrí (whose name was given previously as Jerónimo Montezuma) was killed during the confrontations.

Another protester, 16-year-old Mauricio Méndez, died in a hospital early the morning of Feb. 7, although the cause of death was in dispute. He was badly burned when anti-riot police threw a smoke bomb that hit him in the face, according to some reports, while others said he was shot. The police said the youth may have died accidentally while trying to build a homemade explosive.

It seemed that the police action on Feb. 5 only succeeded in broadening the protests. The four main indigenous groups in eastern Panama, including the Embera and the Wounaan, announced they would hold protests in solidarity with the Ngöbe-Buglé, while members of the militant Only Union of Construction and Similar Workers (SUNTRACS) began picketing in various cities, and banana workers reportedly started a strike. Vigils and marches were planned for Feb. 6 and 7 in Panama City’s Porras Park, and in the towns of David (Chiriquí province), Changuinola (Bocas del Toro province) and Santiago (Veraguas province). Outside the country, activists announced solidarity demonstrations at the Panamanian embassies in Costa Rica and Honduras.

Faced with the wave of protests, President Martinelli decided to compromise. After mediation by Jose Luis Lacunza, Catholic bishop of David, on Feb. 7 representatives of the president and of Ngöbe-Buglé leader Silvia Carrera signed the San Lorenzo Accord, in which the indigenous group agreed to end the roadblocks while the government agreed to discuss changes to Law 415, to free all arrested protesters, to remove anti-riot police from indigenous territories and to restore cell phone service in the area. (Adital, Brazil, Feb. 7; Europa Press, Spain, Feb. 7; Rainforest Foundation press release, Feb. 7; EFE, Feb. 8, via Latin American Herald; Indian Country Today Media Network, Feb. 10)

The latest confrontation followed a pattern observed since Martinelli took office in July 2009. In 2010 the president proposed a set of neoliberal reforms in Law 30, which became known as the “sausage law” (“ley chorizo”) because of the various elements stuffed into it, including anti-union measures and the weakening of environmental safeguards. Militant grassroots protests in July 2010 forced him to back down. In February 2011 Martinelli proposed neoliberal reforms to the Mining Code. Militant protests by the Ngöbe-Buglé again forced him to back down. In October 2011 Martinelli tried to reintroduce neoliberal policies in Law 415, according to indigenous leaders; this was met by renewed indigenous protests, leading to the agreement on hydroelectric projects which is at the center of the most recent dispute.

Before the signing of the San Lorenzo Accord, Ngöbe-Buglé leader Silvia Carrera expressed doubts about Martinelli’s intentions in the current situation. “We have not yet achieved anything,” she said. “The indigenous Ngöbe people are struggling more than 500 years, and this has prompted us to disbelieve in the authorities, but today we all want to go home quietly, with the hope of seeing the promises of the government.” (Indian Country Today, Feb. 10)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 12.

See our last posts on Panama, global anti-mining struggles and regional struggles for control of water.