[Documents menu] Documents menu

Date: Fri, 8 Nov 96 11:50:01 CST
From: pma_news@pananet.com (pma_news)
Subject: Panama: The comarca and Cerro Colorado in Ngobe eyes

The comarca and Cerro Colorado in Ngobe eyes. Cacique M. Bejarano interviewed by Gonzalo Menéndez

From PMA news, 10 November 1996

After a two week march through Panama, some 300 Ngobe and Bugle protesters arrived in the capital to press their demands for an autonomous Ngobe-Bugle comarca and the cancellation of Panacobre, SA's concession to mine copper at Cerro Colorado. Meetings with politicians produced no immediate response to these demands, so the protesters set up an indefinite vigil to keep their cause before the public eye. During the vigil The Panama News talked to M. Bejarano, a protester and a regional cacique from eastern Chiriqui.

GM: If you get an Ngobe-Bugle comarca, would its political structure look like Kuna Yala in San Blas?

MB: Yes, in a way they would have the same characteristics. We base our claims on the population that we have-which officially adds up to about 126,000 people-with the boundary defined as a function of this population. We know that this figure isn't complete, because many Ngobe and Bugle individuals weren't counted within our territory because they left to study, obtain health care or find work.

GM: What industries, in addition to those in agriculture and forestry, would be sufficiently profitable to support these 126,000 people, who are in such a difficult situation?

MB: We have put our hopes on manufacturing and artesanal projects, as well as agriculture and poultry raising. We're not thinking about exports, but about producing what's necessary for our population. The excess we can trade with other groups that find themselves at the same social level with us.

GM: What's the land tenure system in eastern Chiriqui, where the Ngobe people are concentrated?

MB: We're living on what we have set aside as collective property, that is to say, we believe that the Ngobe belong to the land, rather than the land belonging to people. We know perfectly well that we only pass through this world.

Many of us have been offered exchanges or permutations, such that collective rights would be traded for something else. They offer lands elsewhere, which we don't know and which in the end will be left unprotected. They offer crumbs for land.

GM: What do the Ngobes and Bugles think about protecting their areas like the national parks?

MB: We were the first to protect these lands. However, many times lands have been declared protected, and in some of these cases it was done to expel the indigenous people and then make deals with big businesses.

GM: The majority of Panamanians don't know the history or cultural characteristics of the Ngobe-Bugle people. What can you say that would enlighten us about these subjects?

MB: We're a group with its own identity, and we have a need to spread our culture. At the moment the government is not paying attention to this. We have to have a demarcation in order to preserve ourselves culturally.

People don't know us because there hasn't been a real cultural diffusion. It's incredible that other people, like the Germans, are more interested in our indigenous culture than the Panamanian people are. Through the Association of Ngobe Women we produce indigenous clothing and export it to Germany. The women show their crafts at European fairs and expositions.

GM: Supposing that you get a comarca, what position would you then take about Cerro Colorado?

MB: First we want a comarca. Then, considering the magnitude of the project, and the contamination...

GM: What contamination? This new project is different from what they wanted to do in the 70s, using hip leaching instead of milling and smelting.

MB: Any activity generates contamination, and we can't compare human activities with industrial ones. They pose the issue the way that you do, but if we analyze their mining experience abroad, it has been devastating.

GM: But they're regulated by the World Bank's environmental standards, and those of the province of Quebec, which are very strict...

MB: In the first place, Panama is a tropical country. How can you apply environmental standards from a country in a totally different situation from ours? Because Panama's in the tropics, it has a rich and sensitive biodiversity.

GM: The Cerro Colorado project involves the investment of more than one billion dollars. It's a big project. Should we conclude that you understand the details fo the industrial process and you're saying no to it?

MB: The opposition to the project is because the government is only interested in the economic aspect. The government wants this project to pay the foreign debt, to pay it off with minerals that they find on our land. This investment isn't for us, but for foreign interests.

GM: If the comarca is marked off and good environmental studies are made and followed, might it be possible to simultaneously carry out the project with the proper restrictions and establish the comarca? Wouldn't this bring more benefit than harm to the Ngobe community?

MB: This is an internal problem for us to resolve among ourselves. It occurs to us that it's like the San José church and its golden altar. It was painted to hide it from the pirates. Similarly, Cerro Colorado hasn't been looted because it's covered. That's why it still exists.

No person is the owner of the minerals, nor does the government own them. They don't have the right to sell them to multinational businesses. We want to save this resource, but now they want to take away the little that's left.

GM: What kind of relationship do you maintain with Chiriqui's big landowners?

MB: That's the government's problem. They can't set the boundaries of a comarca without reaching an understanding with the landowners.

The landowners are guided by economic interests. We get little support from the government, but on the other hand the ranchers get strong support.

GM: What role do you play in the national economy?

MB: The Ngobes and Bugles have come to play a big role in ranching and agriculture. We're the ones who do the heaviest work in the countryside. You don't see the sons of the rich slinging a machete, or repairing a fence, or farming with shovels and hoes. The Ngobes and Bugles are the ones doing this kind of work, the ones who harvest the coffee in Boquete and the vegetables in Cerro Punta.

GM: Has any political group come forward and offered its support?

MB: No, not one of them. Nor do we want to make this a political issue. This isn't our objective. We know that there are partisan political interests, but we don't accept them. We only want solidarity from the groups that want to offer it, without any promises in exchange.