Eco-tourism as indigenous resistance in Panama

A demonstration in solidarity with the Ngöbe-Buglé in Panama. (MadriCR/Wikimedia Commons)

The Ngöbe-Buglé (pronounced knawbe booglay), Panama’s largest indigenous group, comprised of approximately 180,000 Ngöbes and 10,000 Buglés, have been under siege ever since the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century. Once inhabiting every region of this Central-American isthmus, from the pristine Caribbean coastlands to the fertile Pacific plains, the Ngöbe-Buglé now find themselves relegated to the confines and rocky soils of the central highlands in the western provinces of Chiriquí, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro. It was only until fairly recently, in 1997, that the Ngöbe-Buglé, after a century of bitter struggle, were officially granted their comarca, an autonomous territory governed by its own regional constitution and traditional government authorities.

While undoubtedly a historic achievement, the victory of the comarca’s establishment, when seen in the light of the horrific genocide and forced displacement that preceded it — as well as the misery, desperation and poverty that currently prevail within it — can seem haplessly pyrrhic. After all, the bearers of the neo-colonial torch, whose penchant for land appropriation and mineral excavation is no less heinous or destructive than that of their “conquistador” predecessors, continue to push the Ngöbe-Buglé, who already find themselves teetering precariously upon the delicate fulcrum of starvation and revolt.

On January 31 this sinister see-saw came to a screeching halt when thousands of Ngöbe-Buglé protesters, enraged by the government’s decision to unilaterally remove an article from its mining codes that prohibited mining and hydroelectric projects on indigenous territory, headed for the Pan-American highway. They commenced what would be an eight-day blockade, which shut down traffic in both directions on the country’s main transportation artery. By February 6, an additional 15 highways were blocked as indigenous protesters, who garnered support from labor movement allies such as the Sitraibana Union, who represent banana and fruit workers, and the Atlantic Banana Workers Cooperative.

The repressive response of the police, acting on behalf of the Martinelli regime, was violent and fatal, resulting in the death of 16-year-old Maurício Méndez and Jerónimo Tugrí, and more than 40 others reporting injuries including gun shot wounds and trauma from tear gas canisters. Authorities cut off all cell phone communication in the area and prohibited anyone from visiting the wounded who were receiving medical attention at nearby hospitals.

Negotiations between Ngöbe-Buglé leadership and Panama government officials, mediated by the Catholic Church and U.N. representatives, began shortly thereafter in an attempt to prevent further bloodshed and reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict. On April 3, President Martinelli reestablished the validity of the Mineral Resource Mining Code which led to the cancellation of mining concessions in indigenous territory and requires approval by the indigenous authorities for any future hydroelectric projects. Opponents of the accord, including the Ngöbe-Buglé General Congress, believe that there should be an unequivocal ban on all hydroelectric projects and that the comarca’s chief, or cacica, Silvia Carrera, has made concessions to the Panamanian government which go against the true interests of her people.

Meanwhile, the bulldozers continue to carve out the fate of the Tabasará river region of the comarca as construction of the 28.84-megawatt Barro Blanco hydroelectric facility proceeds despite periodic break-ins at the construction site by indigenous protesters determined to thwart the project. When completed, the dam will result in the flooding and displacement of a dozen communities and thousands of indigenous, in addition to the destruction of rare species of flora and fauna, such as the Tabasará Rain Frog. Indigenous peoples and advocates are calling for immediate divestment by the project’s funders. Construction of Barro Blanco commenced in March 2011 without the knowledge and consent of the Ngöbe-Buglé. More disturbingly, as revealed in the documentary Village of the Damned by Glenn Elis, reporting for Al-Jazeera, there are many more hydroelectric projects planned for the comarca which have already been signed by contractors with links to Panama’s influential elite.

The struggle within

Beginning in 2011, with the encroachment of the Barro Blanco project, the comarca began adopting a more isolationist and hyper-vigilant posture. In light of this year’s uprisings, police repression and corporate infringement on their territory, the Ngöbe’s position regarding the presence of outsiders has become increasingly intolerant. Recently, the regional government has even declined to renew the Peace Corps’ mandate in the area.

Yet, just as the leadership began putting the deadbolt’s on the doors of the comarca, along came Juan Carlos Bejerano, one of the most radical figures in the Ngöbe nonviolent struggle for self-determination, and his small group of brazen youth proposing a new approach to development — one which entailed not only being tolerant to non-indigenous but seeking them out and inviting them to spend time on the comarca in an experience of what has come to be known as “eco-tourism.”  In a time where traditional indigenous elements of society are calling for a more isolationist approach to development, one which would entail closing the borders of the comarca to outsiders, nothing could be more radical.

Juan Carlos is the 28-year-old community organizer and director of communications responsible for the creation of the Besikö Association for Ecological and Adventure Tourism. His mission and that of the association is to promote sustainable tourism in the comarca in general and within the community of Soloy in particular. He assured me that the association — comprised of several partner organizations including local craftsmen, restaurants, horseback and river rafting guides and hostels — is a completely grassroots initiative, founded, administrated and run exclusively by the Ngöbe people of Soloy. When asked what led him to pursue this path, Juan Carlos responded:

This is our resistance and it is born from a need to preserve our cultural identity and protect our natural resources. Our youth are losing their native Ngöbe language and with it their very identity. Because there is no economic opportunity here on the comarca, they seek employment outside, either in the cities of Panama or Costa Rica, and there they become brainwashed by Latinos who convince them that their indigenous identity and culture is inferior. They, in turn, abandon the comarca never to return. The only way to resist this is to take pride in and value our cultural and environmental wealth. And that’s what we have decided to do.

Elmo Vejerano, a regional delegate of the traditional congressional authority, spoke out in support of the initiative:

We are experiencing a devastating poverty here in the comarca and we have been abandoned by the government. Either we do something for ourselves or nothing will be done at all. We must pursue our own development, not the development that the government seeks to impose upon us. The government fills us with empty promises and tries to keep us entertained while they open the door to foreign investors who raid the country and leave us poor. Here we have an example of how we must do for ourselves with the wealth of culture and natural beauty.

But not everyone agrees with what Juan Carlos and the Association is doing. When the more traditional elements of Ngöbe society learned of his tourism activities, opposition was fierce and even led to threats of placing Juan Carlos under scepo, a traditional form of punishment akin to prison. He had a lot of explaining to do and was required to meet with every level of congressional leadership including all local, regional and general chiefs. While many are still opposed to the activities of Juan Carlos’ teams, they have at least received recognition and approval from enough of the traditional authorities in order to proceed with their project.

“It has been an uphill battle trying to educate, change mentalities and raise awareness amongst the different communities in the different regions of the comarca, each with their own varying ideologies and traditionalism,” explains Juan Carlos. “But there is no other alternative. Some have told us, ‘No, what you are doing is wrong,’ but they have never proposed an alternative form of development for the comarca.”

A week before my arrival, the association had received 45 visitors from the United States, the largest group by far to ever have visited Soloy. The locals were ecstatic as it was the largest influx of capital they had personally ever experienced. “People are starting to realize the potential of what we are doing here,” notes Juan Carlos, “But more important than the money, we are generating a consciousness of identity within our people who are taking a renewed interest in their culture, their arts and their environment, and we are realizing that it is in our best interests to care for and preserve what makes us unique.”

In addition to making improvements to the tourism experience, Juan Carlos is in the process of helping other groups in distant regions of the comarca develop their own opportunities of sustainable development. Juan Carlos echoes the unrelenting spirit of his ancestors, who fought for the right to self-determination, yet with perhaps a more prophetic vision:

Our real fight is waged right here on the comarca everyday, a fight to preserve and promote who we are — and to prosper. That’s what we are doing and there is so much more to be done. One day there will no longer be a necessity to leave the comarca to meet our needs and we will once again be a self-sustaining people who will continue to share with others and learn from them.

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