Panama: strikes halt trade zone land sale

After an all-night session, Panama’s National Assembly agreed Oct. 27 to repeal Law 72, which approved the sale of land in the Col贸n Free Trade Zone (ZLC)鈥攔esponding to nine days of strikes, protests and riots that began in the Caribbean port of Col贸n and spread to the capital, Panama City. Thousands of vehicles clogged the capital’s main arteries, immobilized by protest roadblocks. The Unitary Syndicate of Construction Workers (SUNTRACS) and allied citizens’ group, the Frente Amplio Colonense, rejected government offers to increase the amount of money from the land sales to be directed into social programs, insisting the sale be cancelled altogether. “We are not participating in any type of conversation until the entire law is revoked,” said Felipe Cabezas of the Frente Amplio. Three were killed in the nine days of protests, including a 10-year-old boy, as police repeatedly used tear gas against demonstrartors who fought back with bricks and sticks.

The Col贸n duty-free zone, the largest in Latin America, has about 2,000 companies that rent land from the national government and employ about 30,000 people. Law 72, a proposal of the ruling Democratic Change party, would for the first time have allowed the direct sale of ZLC lands to corporate interests. (Al-Jazeera, Newsroom Panama, Oct. 27; Prensa Latina, Inside Costa Rica, Oct. 26)

Neighboring Costa Rica also saw strikes by dock workers this year over plans to privatize the country’s Caribbean port of Lim贸n.

Naso indigenous people resist hydro-electric development
Tensions meanwhile remain high in the indigenous Naso territory in Panama’s western Bocas del Toro province (see map), where protestors last month blocked access for several days to the Bonyic Hydroelectric Project, a 30-megawatt dam currently under construction on the banks of the R铆o Bonyic, a tributary of the R卯o Teribe.

The Naso are one of Panama鈥檚 most marginalized indigenous groups, currently numbering approximately 4000, living in scattered communities along the banks of the Teribe, which they call Tjer鈥檇i (Grandmother Water). They remain an autonomous monarchy within Panama, under a system of government dating to pre-Columbian times. The Bonyic dam, a project of the Colombian company P煤blicas de Medellin, has been fraught with controversy since its inception six years ago鈥攃ausing a schism in Naso society when the people’s then-king, Tito Santana, reached an agreement with the company without the full consent of his subjects. Tito was forced into exile from the Naso territory in a local rebellion following the deal.

When work commenced last month on an access road for the project that local Naso said wold cut through an ancient archaeological site, some 100 Naso began blocking the equipment. Some 15 were arrested before a dialogue was brokered on protecting potential burial grounds at the site. (La Estrella, Sept. 29; Intercontinental Cry, Sept. 20)

See our last post on the struggle in Panama.