Protesters gathered in front of the Panamanian Embassy in San José Wednesday morning to demonstrate against the bloody crackdown by Panamanian police against members of an indigenous group over the weekend near the Costa Rican border.
The violence in Panama’s Chiriquí province erupted Sunday when riot police from President Ricardo Martinelli’s government were sent in to clear roads and areas blocked by members of the Ngöbe-Bugle indigenous group, who have been demanding that legislation being debated in Congress include language banning mining concessions and hydroelectric power projects on their ancestral lands. The government had agreed to meet with indigenous leaders at talks mediated by the Catholic Church on Saturday, but representatives of Martinelli’s government never showed (TT, Feb. 05, 2012).
At least one person was killed in the police operation, though protesters at Wednesday’s demonstration in San José read the names of three individuals supposedly killed in recent days, shouting after each name: “¡Presente, presente, presente! ¡Ahora y siempre!” (Present, present, present! Now and forever!).
“We find it unforgivable what is happening in Panama,” said Priscilla Hernández, a member of the Federation of Students at the University of Costa Rica. “There are already three dead, even though an agreement had already been reached with the [Panamanian] government. But we see that the government disrespects agreements with violence, with death and with blood. In this sense we feel it is the role of all social organizations and of our brother countries, that is, the countries that surround us, to protest these actions and fight so that this does not continue being the reality in Panama.”
Costa Rican authorities closed the border Sunday, and protests left hundreds of Ticos trapped in Panama. The Casa Presidencial announced earlier this week that some 504 Costa Rican citizens had been returned to Costa Rican soil with help from the Panamanian government.
A statement Tuesday night on a Panamanian government website indicated the Martinelli administration acceded to a 10-point plan in negotiations mediated by Monseñor José Luis Lacunza, a representative of the Catholic Church. Silvia Carrera, Cacique General of the Ngäbe-Bublé, also signed the deal with Presidency Minister Jimmy Papadimitriu.
“We agreed with the coordinator when the cacique had not yet been elected to prohibit mining inside the territory and to protect its hydrological resources,” Papadimitriu said in a statement on the Presidency Ministry’s website, referring to an agreement signed by the Ngäbe-Bublé and the Panamanian government in February 2011. “This agreement did not include the matter of hydroelectric stations. We compromised to look for a way to guard the hydrological resources forever as long as it would not affect the energy security of the country, and it should be made clear that President Ricardo Martinelli is not able to support mining in the territory, that is a decision for the cacique and the inhabitants.”
Authorities on Wednesday released some 150 people who had been arrested during the protests, removed police anti-riot personnel and vehicles from the area, and restored cellphone coverage that had been blocked.
Panama is rich in gold and copper. According to Panama’s Mining Chamber, the country sits on what may be one of the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world – the Cerro Colorado deposit – with an estimated 11.2 million tons of copper. Information on the mining chamber’s website indicates mining generated about $158 million dollars in the country last year.
“This fight is for our territorial rights,” said Ernesto Jiménez, a Ngöbe man from Costa Rica. “Seeing the situation in Panama with our people there and after the death of these young men for defending their rights, really is something that has risen above the story. They were reclaiming their rights peacefully when the government gave them death for trying to reclaim their rights.”
In the 1990s, Ngöbe in Costa Rica had to fight to receive Costa Rican ID cards from the government. Jiménez said he participated in marches by Ngöbe during that decade in San José to demand their papers.
“This is a situation where, historically, outside groups look for areas of natural resources to exploit them,” Jiménez said. “And what is the benefit for indigenous people in those areas? Nothing. And this isn’t only a fight against mining, but also against hydroelectric projects. This is something very important because in order to have a future, we have to carry this as something we must defend for our future generations.”
Jaime Guillén attended Wednesday’s rally. He found himself trapped on a bus for six days stuck on the Panamanian side of the border when the Ngöbe-Bugle first blocked the road. He said reports that the indigenous groups were kidnapping or detaining Ticos on the buses is false.
“We were trapped on that bus for six days,” Guillén said. “We were trapped by a group of mestizos, not indigenous people.”
While trapped on the unmoving bus, Guillén said, bandits who were not members of the Ngöbe-Bugle protesters attacked the bus, trying at one point to pull the female passengers from the vehicle.
“The indigenous people helped us,” Guillén said. “They brought us their own food and water. When the other group attacked the bus, we fought them back and they weren’t able to carry off the women, but we were trapped there after that for six days on the bus.”
Guillén said he returned to Costa Rica Monday with help from the government.
Panamanian Agricultural Development Minister Oscar Osorio said losses to the country’s agricultural sector due to the protests could exceed $3 million.
AFP contributed to this story.