Panama: will Ngöbe-Buglé accept accord with government?

Leaders of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group reached an agreement with the Panamanian government the night of March 15 that would ban mining in the group’s territory and limit hydroelectric projects. The accord is the latest development in a struggle between the Ngöbe-Buglé and rightwing president Ricardo Martinelli that started in February 2011 and led to major demonstrations and the deaths of two protesters in February of this year.

The agreement “cancels all concessions…for the exploitation of mineral resources” in and near the Ngöbe-Buglé’s territory and stipulates that any hydroelectric project the government plans in the territory will require approval by the indigenous authorities and will be submitted to a referendum of the area’s residents. The Ngöbe-Buglé are to receive 5% of the annual billing from the projects, and at least 25% of the non-specialized jobs at the projects are to go to indigenous people or other residents of the area. The accord is now part of a proposed Article 5 of Special Law 415 on mining, which goes to the National Assembly’s Commerce Committee for debate starting on March 19.

The accord is backed by Ngöbe-Buglé leader (“cacica”) Silvia Carrera and by Rogelio Montezuma, leader of the Coordinating Committee for the Defense and Rights of the Ngöbe-Buglé People, but the agreement may not end the protests. Ngöbe-Buglé deputy leader Mijita Andrade opposes the accord, as does the Ngöbe-Buglé General Congress, which represents the traditional indigenous leadership and doesn’t recognize officials like Carrera who were chosen in elections organized by the government’s Electoral Tribunal. The negotiators “ended up giving in to the interests of the government and the hydroelectric companies,” General Congress president Celio Guerra told the AFP wire service.

Carrera denied reports that she had received $15,000 and two vehicles for signing the accord, and she returned to the Ngöbe-Buglé terrritory with Rogelio Montezuma to explain the agreement to the residents. (AFP, March 16, via Univision; La Estrella, Panama, March 16; Prensa Latina, March 17)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 18.

See our last post on Panama, and regional struggles over minerals and water.