Panamá: Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous region at risk of disappearing

Photo: Santiago Navarro F.

Translated by Alfie Lake

A few logs and interlaced planks give shape to two walls holding up a few pieces of metal sheeting; this is a makeshift hut. In the background two rickety wooden beds can be seen, along with two indigenous girls. The eldest, a girl of barely 15, pulled a memory out from the nostalgia. “I feel sad, because I can’t live how I used to live before. The company came, dammed the river and our house was flooded”, Elia Eiu recalled, while pointing out the place where her home used to be. In the now-lifeless waters of the river, murky and stagnant, all that can be seen is the top of the occasional palm tree or tree dying below the surface.

The Ngäbe-Buglé are indigenous peoples that reside in Western Panama, primarily in the Veraguas, Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro provinces. Today, the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous territory is in mourning. A rotten stench rises from the depths of what was the ancestral Tabasará River, caused by the methane gas created by the plants and trees that were left underwater after the river was dammed in order to create clean energy through the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project. Barro Blanco has affected more than 170,000 Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous people who could lose their land and their way of life

Also submerged below the water are the petroglyphs from which the sacred writings of this people come. “When the water began to rise, the first level was up to where a petroglyph is located, at height 87; they flooded our sacred writings. The water level continued to go up, and now seven communities have been affected by the project and most of the petroglyphs are underwater” shared Hacket Bagamá, a youth of no more than 15 years who lives in Kiad, one of the communities worst-affected by the hydroelectric complex.

On the 22nd of May 2016, Panama’s National Public Services Authority (ASEP) approved the flooding of the reservoir. The Panamanian company responsible for the complex, Generadora del Istmo S.A. (GENISA), immediately proceeded with the flooding activities without informing local communities. This took place in a wider context where talks were being held between indigenous authorities and the government of Juan Carlos Varela, the current president of Panama. In the face of this situation the indigenous peoples have turned down a potential relocation and moved only a few metres away, where they still face impending danger given that only 30% of the reservoir has so far been filled.

“Before they dammed the river we had no communication difficulties, but now the rivers and the road have been flooded. We are having problems keeping in touch with each other, our canoes aren’t safe because the water is over 30 metres deep. A brother has already drowned because his canoe filled up with water. We can’t wash, a lot of the fish died and the trees were left underwater. This is where we collected water, it’s all very sad”,


In the Environmental Impact Study, they claimed there were no people here, that no-one lived here and that’s why they didn’t inform us we were going to be evicted. They’ve already evicted some of our brothers and we don’t know when they’ll try to do the same to us”, said Bellini Jiménez, an indigenous teacher and member of the community of Kiad, in Ngäbe-Buglé territory.

Despite the resistance of the Ngäbe-Buglé peoples, the construction of the complex has been finished and the water level of the reservoir began to rise in August 2016. In total an area of 258.67 hectares has been flooded for the damming-up operation on the Tabasará River. Another 5 hectares will be taken up by the dam, the machine house and other associated works. Every day 28.84 megawatts of energy are generated here which will help, according to Varela, “to increase hydroelectric production and reduce dependence on fossil fuels which are imported to generate electricity, and to meet targeted reductions in CO2 emissions”.

“Almost overnight the government arrived with talk of climate change and sustainable development, and decided to dam our river in order to construct this project. We are peoples that will not back down; we’re not interested in their clean energy, we want our territory to remain just as it is”, said Goejet Miranda, an indigenous member of the community of Kiad and president of the 10 de Abril movement, an organization that came into being in 2007 to fight against the project.

The processes of resistance of the Ngäbe-Buglé peoples predate the fight against the hydroelectric project; since 1945 they have been demanding that their culture and territory be acknowledged. At first an attempt was made to designate them as an indigenous reservation, a model copied from the U.S. that would allow them to maintain their customs, religion and way of life, but they refused to be recognized under this legal status. By means of a variety of actions carried out by these peoples, on March 7th, 1997 Law 10 of Panama’s Constitution recognized the Ngäbe-Buglé territory. The territory is a physically-demarcated area with the nation state, under a regime of self-governance which recognizes the collectivity of land, their indigenous assemblies as a traditional body, the traditional authorities and their customs and traditions.

Since the construction of the Barro Blanco project, not only have the human rights of the indigenous peoples affected in the territory been violated, but the government is breaking its own laws, said Goejet Miranda. “For us, this has been an attack on our lives, our culture and our integrity. Here the rights determined by law were worthless, the law that dictates that we can enjoy our own territory. The government is violating Law 10- why do we have to leave our land?”

The Panamanian government offered work to the indigenous people whose homes were flooded, work that consisted of building their own home in a different place outside their territory. “They want to get us out of here. For us, going somewhere else is like being taken prisoner. It’s the notion of private property that goes against our collective customs. That’s why we’ve never accepted the government’s compensation and we’ll never accept anything that they’re offering, because our land isn’t for sale. We’re going to fight to the end to stop this project”, added the president of the 10 de Abril movement.

The Barro Blanco project was constructed with financing from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), the German Development Bank (DEG) and the Dutch Development Bank (FMO). It will also be connected to the Central American Electrical Interconnection System (SIEPAC) with the support of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). “(…) it’s a good time to highlight that the region now has a robust electrical infrastructure from Guatemala to Panama, supplemented by a connection to Mexico and a planned connection to Colombia. The above will be achieved through a variety of sources. SIEPAC and Central America’s Regional Electric Market (MER) enable the development of larger and more efficient regional generation projects, while facilitating the introduction of a greater number of renewable energy projects (both traditional and non-traditional), thus diversifying the energy matrix”, states the IDB website, the body that has financed 90% of SIEPAC projects.

Panama is a democratic republic with close links to the United States. Its main source of income is the Panama Canal and the railway that both form part of the same complex. In August 2014 the Panamanian government was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Canal and preparing for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP21, which was to take place that year in Paris. It also announced a new energy plan that was beginning to take form in Panama.

“In terms of the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in particular, we are implementing specific programs with the support of the Norwegian and German governments. Likewise, we are putting together a National Energy Plan, which with a state vision will lay down our policies for the decades to come, and define the contribution of the national energy sector to climate change mitigation”.


2015 would see the launch of the 2015-2050 National Energy Plan: “Panama, the future we want”, a plan which sought above all to secure international financial capital, arguing that investment levels do not correspond to a period of governance, but rather are capital that needs at least 50 years to remain alive. “Investment for energy production is sizeable and is generally exposed to high levels of risk. The construction of power plants, transmission lines, oil refineries and other sector activities that are necessary to cope with the demand for energy, involve large amounts of capital, often foreign in origin (…) energy policy is an activity that goes beyond the duration of a government’s constitutional term and, for that reason, it must become a State policy”, states the Plan document.

In a similar way, the Energy Plan argues that the construction of infrastructure is necessary to make the switch towards clean energies but, regarding the conflicts that have stemmed from it, “the different members of civil society have to find a point of agreement, given that the energy system will need to be expanded constantly”.

“There is no agreement between the government and the company; it’s an outrage and an imposition. Since 2007, when the government announced the construction of the Barro Blanco project, we’ve been saying that we don’t agree with it. We’ve been fighting it since then. We went to court, we’ve protested, but the government hasn’t listened to us, and it hasn’t consulted us either”, said Bellini. 

According to National Energy Secretariat figures, Panama generates around 70% of its electricity from renewable sources, with a majority of that proportion coming from hydroelectric plants and, more recently, wind energy. Moreover, that figure is expected to reach 80% between 2018 and 2020, with two significant projects: the first will be completed by the U.S. electricity company AES with investment of over $1.3bn; the second involves the Chinese company Maratano Inc., with an investment of $0.6bn.

90% of targeted energy production from renewable sources will come from hydroelectric plants. According to ASEP, since 2015 at least 37 hydroelectric projects have been recorded that are either at the design or construction stage, on Panama’s most heavily-flowing rivers, home to indigenous populations. Another 34 projects are awaiting the approval of permits. The concession contracts last for around 30 or 50 years from the moment the contract is signed.
“This is a war against us indigenous peoples, who have lived for time immemorial on the banks of the rivers. This is a war of banks and capitalists in order to keep on evicting and disappearing indigenous peoples. The rivers have been preserved because we’ve never considered them as a commodity. With their modern lifestyle they’ve destroyed everything, and now they want to take what little we have left away from us to produce clean energy. It’s not clean because it destroys rivers and entire peoples”, commented Bellini.

The Energy Plan is unequivocal by defining that energy consumption in Panama is determined by the service-orientated economic model. In that sense, the Panama Canal is vitally important as it is considered to be an important cog in world trade. However, it is argued that the way of life, copied from the United States, determines energy consumption. “The fact that the United States stayed in Panama for more than 80 years has led the population to imitate the typical North American cultural image and consumer society. This has had an enormous impact on the development approach to be taken, and on the makeup of the Panamanian energy system”, according to the 2015-2050 National Energy Plan.

Dusk is beginning to fall in the community of Kiad and the sky is lit up by stars. There is no electric light here, and never has been. Only one member of the community has a small solar cell, which they use to charge their mobile phones and a few other necessities. Hacket Bagamá says: “We don’t need their energy because it’s generated with the death of our peoples. Their way of thinking is different to ours, they put a price on everything and want more energy to keep destroying Mother Earth”.

Permission to Pollute

At first, the Barro Blanco project was certified as a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) by the U.N., one of three mechanisms established in the Kyoto Protocol at COP3, held in Japan in 1997. Said protocol was aimed at industrialized countries, which had a target of reducing national emissions for the 2008-2012 period by an average of 5% compared with 1990 levels. To help reduce the costs of complying with the reduction three “flexibility mechanisms” were designated, namely: Emissions Trading (ET), Joint Implementation (JI) for projects in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, and the CDM for developing countries.

With the CDM, investors do not only meet their CO2 emission reduction targets by investing in clean energy in other countries. They also earn profits by selling the energy, while obtaining Certified Emission Reductions (CER), equal to the tons of CO2 that was not emitted. These documents can be sold as carbon credits (better known as pollution permits) to other industrialized countries or companies that have exceed their pollution limits, which can compensate in this way.

CERs are also issued for reforestation projects and conservation areas. According to Panama’s Environment Ministry, in 2014 alone $11.92 million dollars were raised from the sale of CERs “stemming from the generation of wind and water energy, and from reforestation programs and protected areas”. Panama primarily commercializes this type of credit with the same countries that are investing in “clean” technologies: Holland, Spain, Austria and Germany.

Although the Barro Blanco project was stripped of CDM status due to the violation of human rights and the efforts of the indigenous peoples, they will not be prevented from continuing energy production which, above all, will still be considered as clean. “They’ve told us that with the project we’ll get a lot of money for our lands, that we won’t go hungry, that we’ll have medical assistance, but none of that is true. They tried to bribe us with fortified biscuits, and they filled their reports with the two or three people that accepted it, to say that there was support for the children. We aren’t starving to death here and we have our traditional medicine. We need nothing from them. There’s nothing clean about this project, because they came here with lies. That’s why they were stripped of CDM status. This is the government’s and European banks’ war, against us indigenous peoples. As well as all that, they’re trying to con us with the conservation areas”, said Goejet Miranda.

“There are more than 37,000 people living in the watershed, we’re all indigenous and more than 12,000 of us are being directly affected by Barro Blanco. But it’s not only this that will affect us, there are also the protected areas and other projects we don’t understand well, which will affect all the peoples, because they’re attacking us on all fronts”, said Clementina Pérez, a priestess from the Mama-Tatda church, which runs a camp together with members of its community at the main entrance of the Barro Blanco complex, and has been brutally repressed by the police on more than one occasion.

During the Barro Blanco construction process, the Panamanian government and international organizations made progress with the implementation of Protected Areas (PA) management programs in the indigenous communities within the Panama – Atlantic Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (PAMBC). According to the consultancy report for the facilitation of workshops for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), 14 priority protected areas are being planned in the corridor. The Ngäbe-Buglé territory is part of one of the three high-biodiversity macroregions.

Since 2007 the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) has encouraged the Ngäbe-Buglé territory to sign letters of understanding, which ensure their participation and the carrying out of activities within the PAMBC. As part of activities related to the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, agroforestry projects were also put in place in indigenous communities. According to the program, the aim was “to create and strengthen community social capital for sustainable development”.

“They’re considering the Protected Areas around the reservoir so that it doesn’t dry up. As well as Barro Blanco now we have to face up to another conflict: the Protected Areas. This will be another dispute with the government because we’ve got nowhere else to go. The government wants to give us a thousand dollars to maintain ourselves, they want us to move somewhere else with that money. They should tell us where we can buy land with those thousand dollars. And even if it was ten thousand or a million, we don’t want any of it”, said Goejet Miranda, who has participated in a variety of workshops given without knowing the REDD program in-depth.

According to the UN, “the REDD initiative is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests”. This program has lost credibility in the eyes of numerous indigenous peoples across Latin America, as it gives no specific information regarding what carbon markets mean, or the limits that indigenous peoples are subject to by reducing use of and access to their territory, or by turning it into a commodity with ecotourism and conservation projects.

In September 2016, as the second phase of this program, regional forums were held where protocols were applied that have been considered as the “consultation and validation” of indigenous peoples to proceed with the National Strategy for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (NS-REDD+), led by Panama’s Environment Ministry. This program is carried out jointly with the UN and the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), the main financers of conservation projects in the rest of Latin America.

“In reality, we don’t know what lies behind these conservation projects. We’ve been told that there will be money for whichever communities they decide to preserve. But I think that it’s another way of appropriating our territory. As soon as we start accepting that money we’re already selling part of our territory. We don’t need that, because we’ve always looked after our Mother Earth. We know that the climate change problem affects us all, but the problem is in their cities, in their cars, in their way of life, in the capitalist mindset”, said the Mama-Tatda church priestess, who assured that the energy generated by Barro Blanco and conservation won’t provide any benefits.

“The water, the jungle and the animals don’t have a price. Water is a living being”. This energy, said Clementina, “doesn’t benefit us in any way. We’re almost certain that it’ll be used for mining, for the (Panama) Canal, and for the new places where the rich live, for their cars, for the goods of the capitalists. There aren’t any benefits for indigenous peoples. We have to learn to protect ourselves from their words, those words of death, like sustainable development”.

The Ngäbe-Buglé territory is not only threatened by hydroelectric dams and conservation; the region is home to one of the biggest copper deposits in the world, which will need large quantities of water and, of course, energy.

Clementina prays and sings every day with the children, adolescents and elders that have been camped at one side of the entrance to the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam since February 14th, 2014. On-site they have set up small makeshift roofs where they can rest. The cocoa drink shared among everyone makes resistance a daily ritual. Everyone here has felt the burden of threats of eviction, of repression, but they are still standing; it’s their way of resisting. “We’ve suffered repression at the hands of the government, at the hands of the company, but we’re not leaving until they free the Tabasará (River). We’ve suffered repression because we don’t want this dam, we don’t want mining, we don’t want any projects of death, and that’s why all peoples have been hit hard in Panama. But we’re always alert”, said the priestess.

One of the largest copper deposits in the world is located in Ngäbe-Buglé territory in Panama. The place known as Cerro Colorado, in the east of the country, is home to more than 1,400 metric tons, of which 78% are copper. Another deposit is found in Cerro Petaquilla, a concession owned by Canada’s Inmet Mining Corporation with its subsidiary Minera Panamá. Located in the central northern area of the country, it contains resources of more than two billion tons, of which 5% are copper and 15% molybdenum, with 9 grams of gold per ton. Another is Cerro Chorcha, in Ngäbe-Buglé territory in the village of Guariviara in the Kankintú district. Cerro Chorcha contains 47,000 metric tons, of which 71% is copper, with 8 grams of gold per ton. All these deposits are found in the high jungle, in covered parts of the Central Range.

In northern Panama there is another mining project in the district of Donoso in Colón province, called Molejón. The concession is owned by the Canadian company Petaquilla Minerals Ltd., which has outlined a deposit containing 893,000 ounces of gold. The company has a number of exploratory projects in Panama; its primary asset is the production of the Molejón Gold Project and the company has a presence in Canada, Germany and the United States.

“They say that these mines will bring development, but we’ve been hit by capitalists and their development for more than 400 years, it’s called human rights violation. It’s development that evicts, kills, that discriminates against peoples, and that’s why we don’t accept it. Because it’s another of the ways that they use to try to make us disappear. They’re violating the rights that we’ve earned through our struggles. The laws are made by capitalists and they don’t respect it, our law is to keep areas free, green and preserved. Each and every stone in our territory is sacred, we won’t allow our sacred territory to be destroyed”,


In February 2011 the then-president, Ricardo Martinelli, amended the Mineral Resources Code which determined that the following people or organizations could not obtain or operate mining concessions: foreign governments or states, or foreign official or semi-official institutions, except legal entities which involve the economic or financial participation of one or more foreign governments or states, or foreign official or semi-official institutions. That is, provided that said entities are constituted as legal persons governed by private law under Panamanian regulation, that they waive the right to diplomatic claims in the concession contract (except in cases of denial of justice), and that they conform to the laws of Panama.

Despite the fact that this reform brought about an increase of between 15% and 20% in profits among the villages bordering the project, which were meant to be collected directly by the municipalities and districts, the initiative caused widespread rejection among the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples. They immediately carried out a series of actions, considering the reform a threat to their rights earned through Law 10 in 1997 which stipulates, among other points, that the state and the concessionary must implement “a communication plan in order to inform the indigenous communities and authorities, so that they can voluntarily express their point of view regarding the mining activity”.

As a result of the protests the state abolished 2011’s Law 8, replacing it with Law 12 dating from March 18th of the same year. Nevertheless, because the law did not take into account the hydroelectric projects in the territory and the surrounding areas, the protests started up again in 2012 leaving one person dead and dozens wounded. A new law was then enacted, Law 11 of March 26th, 2012, establishing a “special regime for the protection of mineral, water and environmental resources in Ngäbe-Buglé territory”, and adding Article 3 which “prohibits the granting of concessions for the exploration, exploitation and extraction of metal and non-metal mining and their derivatives in Ngäbe-Buglé territory, its surrounding areas and the Ngäbe-Buglé communities adjacent to them, by any natural or legal persons, be they public or private, or national or foreign”.

According to the Deputy Minister for Trade and Industry, Manuel Grimaldo, in Panama there are currently 152 active concessions for the extraction of non-metal materials, and 15 for the extraction of metals. New laws regulating the mining law have been studied since 2016. Meanwhile, Todd Clewett, the CEO of Minera Panamá (a subsidiary of First Quantum Minerals Ltd., listed on Toronto’s stock exchange in Canada and the London Stock Exchange in England) announced that the Cobre Panamá mine would begin exporting the mineral to the U.S., Brazil, China and India at the end of 2017 with an investment of $6.4bn.

“They always play with the law, just like with prior consultation. We don’t want any consultation because there’s simply nothing to consult, our decision is that we don’t want any projects. But, we have to beef up our fight because they’ll keep advancing, with or without our approval. It’s all-out war on we indigenous peoples”, pointed out the priestess.

Effectively, while the people fight against the hydroelectric project, mining is advancing at an accelerated pace. “The work has progressed well, we calculate that copper extraction will begin towards to the end of 2017 or the start of 2018”, explains the CEO of Minera Panamá. Moreover, the construction of a coal power station is almost complete, which will generate 300 megawatts of energy to be used in the operation of the Cobre Panamá mine.


As with other Latin American peoples, the strength of the Ngäbe-Buglé lies in their spirituality, through their church, called Mama Tatda and created by the native “prophet” Adelia Atencio Bejerano, also known as “Mamá Chí” and “Niña Delia”. It dates back to September 22nd, 1962, when Mamá Chí had a vision that showed her the need to guide her people away from the bad influences of alcohol and other vices that held them in slavery. Since then, they have followed the “Mamá Tatda commandment”.

The religion was formed within the territory by the indigenous people themselves, and boasts a book written in hieroglyphics made up of 145 chapters that deal with issues of everyday life, social subjects, ethics, values, family issues, domestic economy and how to administer justice, among other points.

The young people do not attend government schools given that they also have a manual of script in hieroglyphs, from which they have developed their own writing and school. “We don’t go to the school outside the community, because those that go there change their way of thinking and come back with bad ideas. They think about power, money and selling our Mother Earth. Here our education is with our own parents and relatives”, added Hacket Bagamá.

In the territory’s three regions there are at least 12 schools that operate without any economic resources or material support. The government has tried to provide support for education but they have turned it down. “The government wants us to accept this support, but that would mean us having to let the projects in. Our schools aren’t a religion, they’re an educational system, where we preserve and learn about our language in-depth, that’s how teachers are trained. Our way of life and culture is being lost because of these threats, and because of the brothers that are tempted by the Western vision. Therefore, strengthening our language is important in order to keep existing and for the struggle itself”, said the teacher Bellini Jiménez.

The state has also attempted to implement the Ngäbe language in public schools, something the indigenous peoples have also rejected. “They want to include it as a subject, but in Spanish. How can my language be written in Spanish script? It’ll never be the same. They call it bilingual-intercultural. Our language has another meaning, and in it we store our memory and the knowledge of our ancestors, our main strength”, added Bellini.

The Panamanian government might not stop granting concessions for more hydroelectric dams, wind farms, solar arrays, geothermal plants and, above all, more mining in indigenous territories, because that is how the green economy determines it. And perhaps the only weapon the children, youths, women and elderly people fighting Barro Blanco every day have left is their body, and not feeling fear. Although they don’t appear in the media, they are always waiting for their word to reach other indigenous peoples across the world who are also fighting to defend their land.

“The Tabasará River has been declared the blood of the world’s heart; if the heart stops working, the body stops existing. That’s what’s happening in other countries and that’s why we’re calling on other indigenous brothers to join us in the fight against these projects. Disasters are on the horizon in the rest of the world because the earth is sick, because the Mother is wounded. The caracoles in the seven points of our Mother Earth have to ring out so that we indigenous peoples rise up and stop this disaster. Now is the time to walk hand in hand to stop this monster called capitalism. We don’t expect anything from them, we expect everything from all the indigenous peoples of the world, that’s our strength”, revealed Priestess Clementina.



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