Panama indigenous groups say land under threat

by Erin Berger | @erineberger | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 31 July 2013 10:45 GMT

Betanio Chiquidama, leader of COONAPIP, along with workers from the Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, show the scale of trees grown within protected lands, July 2013. The Emberá operate a community enterprise for harvesting and selling trees, but they mark and fell only trees that are no longer producing seeds. BURNESS DIGITAL/Genelle Quarles

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Land speculators and other invaders of indigenous territory threaten half of Panama’s forests, leaders say

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Leaders representing Panama’s seven indigenous groups have called for support in a fight to protect their land rights – a fight that has intensified in recent years with the rapid arrival of land speculators, drug traffickers and landless peasants.

The National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP) said the national government has failed to respect their rights as they face an onslaught of newcomers. As a result, indigenous lands, home to over half of Panama’s mature forests, are at high risk.

“We feel tremendously insecure at this time under the force of a great invasion,” said Williams Barrigón Dogirama, former president of COONAPIP and special advisor to the current president of COONAPIP, Betanio Chiquidama. “Our government has committed sins of omission as well as commission, showing great lack of concern about the wellbeing of indigenous peoples.”

The past five years have seen a significant increase in resource-exploitation activities on indigenous lands, and COONAPIP says that the government has done little to stop it. In some cases, conflicts over land have turned deadly. Confrontations between members of the Ngäbe-Buglé community and the police over mining operations and hydroelectric dams on their territory resulted in the deaths of nine people over two years. And two people, including the leader of a Wounaan community in Eastern Panama, were shot during a standoff over illegal logging last year.

This is in spite of the fact that Panama has in place several protective measures for the indigenous groups who make up around 10 percent of its population, according to the 2000 National Census. About 20 percent of the country’s territory is acknowledged as indigenous land, and it is divided into five distinct preserves, or comarcas. Comarcas are largely autonomous and contain an estimated 54 percent of Panama’s protected forests.

The system is considered a model for respecting indigenous land rights, said Christine Halvorson, program director of Rainforest Foundation US. But poor governance, uneven application of land titles and an increasing drive for resources has severely weakened the comarcas’ protective effect.

“(Panama) has the wherewithal to make things work for everyone,” she said, pointing out that in addition to comarcas, Panama still has extensive forests. “Supporting indigenous people in comarcas to develop lands and protect their forests would go such a long way” to ease the current stress on indigenous people and their territories.


One major problem is that about 20 indigenous communities still lack recognition of their land rights. In the mid-1990s the government stopped creating comarcas, leaving many groups with no way to gain land titles. After years of lobbying, Halvorson said, the government passed a law in 2008 that recognises some indigenous territories as collective lands, which are smaller than comarcas. Only two communities have managed to obtain that recognition so far.

With some groups lacking official land titles and others simply lacking proper mapping of the lands they claim, the door has remained open to increasing numbers of illegal loggers, mining operations and dam projects in “protected” areas.

For example, Eastern Panama’s Darien National Park, home to two major indigenous groups, “is still relatively undeveloped,” Halvorson said. But illegal logging is becoming a major problem. “There’s no good state presence, so it’s a little bit of a Wild West. It’s the law of might,” she said. Often the most successful players are those who have connections to the government or can pay a bribe, she said.

A 2011 report on mining in Panama found that community members in the Ngöbe community were bribed with food and money to come to sessions in support of mining projects. At the sessions, they also had to give their signatures in order to get the free food. Though the researchers noted that some indigenous residents supported mining activities in the area, many who were opposed believed their signatures were later used to imply that the community overwhelmingly supported the mining company.

One of the most fundamental things COONAPIP wants, it says, is a voice at the table. Barrigón says that indigenous groups see comarcas as nations within a nation because of their high autonomy. But they often feel that the government ignores the decisions they make, or fails to ask for their input on land deals involving indigenous territories.

“The government has gone to international banks and investors to say that we have open land in Panama, and that we need dams and mining operations,” Barrigón Dogirama said. “They are making deals for investments on our land and we know nothing about it until the bulldozer arrives.”


The problem is also apparent in an ongoing disagreement between COONAPIP and the UN’s REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) programme. Earlier this year, COONAPIP withdrew from the program, saying they were not given proper voice or funding in the process. This prompted an independent investigation and recently, a promise from UN-REDD to work with the group and ensure the program delivers on its commitments.

Barrigón Dogirama said that COONAPIP is waiting for the full report from the investigation to be released in August before they decide whether or not they will continue to oppose the program.

One thing that is certain, they say, is that the current rate at which land is shifting to non-indigenous hands is not sustainable for the people represented by COONAPIP or for the environment.

Already, many indigenous groups along the Pan-American Highway are losing their lands, and with it their old way of life. Barrigón Dogirama compared the relatively stress-free life of Emberá people, who still live in protected forests, with those who have lost land rights.

Those who have lost land “have lost the right to fish in their rivers and access to forests where they once would have hunted. But the impact is on their psychological wellbeing more than anything,” he said.

Many have little option but to adapt to the lifestyle of the colonos taking over their surrounding land, and are no longer able to live as sustainably as they once did. The Emberá, for example, try to make sure they replenish the resources they do use. They will work in one part of the forest over a five-year period before moving elsewhere, allowing that area to rest, Barrigón said.


If indigenous groups lose their care over natural resources, a resulting surge in deforestation could lead to worsening climate impacts, such as deadly floods and droughts, Barrigón said.

“We represent an alternative,” he said. “Our land, forests and biodiversity are something we protect.”

In order to ensure that continues to happen, Halvorson said, land rights must be secured for the remaining indigenous groups. She agrees with James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, that Panama must ratify the International Labour Organisation Convention 169. The legally binding instrument would require the country to align its policies in protection of indigenous rights.

Indigenous groups are not completely against development projects, Halvorson added. Some people are pro-mining, some would be willing to work with REDD. But they want the opportunity to make their own decisions and accurate facts to inform that process. For that to happen, COONAPIP officials say, the government needs to respect the rights of indigenous people.

“We are a peaceful people, but we are at war, and it is being fought by women, children, men, caciques,” Barrigón Dogirama said. “We invite anyone to see the beauty of our country, our lands, our forests and rivers. We have added to the balance of the world and we want to continue to do so.”

Erin Berger is an intern reporting on climate change issues for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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