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interview with woman chief

Indigenous people in Panama defend their resources

Published Mar 9, 2012 8:59 PM

Cacica [Chief] Silvia Carrera and Ngäbe-Buglé people in struggle.
Photo: Carrera Facebook page

Without getting publicity in the United States, a struggle opposing U.S. corporate interests is brewing in Central America. An Indigenous woman, Cacica [Chief] Silvia Carrera is leading this struggle.

Last Sept. 11, Carrera was popularly elected chief of the Ngäbe-Buglé, Panamá’s largest Indigenous nation, located on the northwest coast, close to Costa Rica. Comarca [region] Ngäbe-Buglé is one of Panamá’s nine provinces. This region is the largest of the five Indigenous comarcas that have local administration and local rules concerning the use and protection of their natural resources.

Background of the conflict

The current struggle is the result of the latest of a series of attacks against Panamá’s Indigenous people. It involves the government’s plans to exploit copper mines and establish hydroelectric power plants to benefit mostly transnational corporations at the expense of the environment, the land and the survival of the 200,000 Ngäbe-Buglé people who inhabit the region.

In 2010, the right-wing U.S. ally, Panamá President Ricardo Martinelli, approved a “reform” modifying more than 60 laws from the Ngäbe-Buglé Organic Charter, effectively annihilating this people’s political autonomy.

A year ago, Martinelli proposed to the National Assembly that they reform the Mine Law so as to lease to foreign interests a large copper ore mine, Cerro Colorado, which lies in Ngäbe land. The Ngäbe-Buglé people, with support from most of Panamá’s social movements, defended their autonomy in February 2011 by blocking the Pan-American Highway. Defying terrible state repression that cost several lives, the Ngäbe-Buglé prevailed, forcing an agreement that prohibited mining and hydroelectric power projects in the comarca.

This victory was short-lived. As usual, the government broke its word. The Ngäbe-Buglé people once again rose up. For six days they blocked the Pan-American Highway to force the government to the negotiating table, but on Feb. 5, Martinelli again ordered police violence against thousands of residents who were blocking the road, killing two people, injuring dozens and detaining many.

This ongoing struggle is crucial not only for Panamá’s Indigenous people but for all poor and working people there. This struggle for self-determination and against national oppression also targets capitalism and imperialism and all their crimes.

Interview with Cacica Silvia Carrera

Late Saturday night, Workers World/Mundo Obrero had the privilege of conversing for an hour with Cacica Carrera. The cacica showed great interest in publicizing her people’s struggle to the international community, even after a day spent in continual meetings and despite the late hour.

Carrera had just left a meeting at the U.N. office in Panamá City, where, she said, an attempt to re-establish negotiations with the government through the mediation of the U.N. and others seemed to start on a fruitful note. Two days before, through a press conference, she had made two central demands to the government: To hold meetings in a neutral place and that President Martinelli himself, with a new team, be part of the dialogue.

This woman, a personification of dignity, has faced constant humiliation by the government and its corporate media. She speaks clearly and without ambiguities, displaying a persistence through all her actions for her vision of justice and equality for her people, and by extension, for all Panamanians.

Asked about the meeting’s purpose, she said: “We had to call the mediator and the U.N. observer because the government had not responded to our demands. They [the government] just say that the dialogue is important, but they do not act. We were very worried and asked the mediator if the government had made a statement yet, but they said they did not know.

“We then proposed that the meetings be held at the U.N. office, so they called the government, and it accepted. … The only thing that both sides agreed to was to establish two ‘mesas’ [negotiating teams by topic].

“One would address Article 5, which allows for mining exploitation inside the comarca and adjacent regions, which our people reject and had to demonstrate against to show our opposition,” the cacica said. “The other mesa is to discuss the hydroelectric power plant that is under construction.”

Martinelli refuses to cancel the hydroelectric power plant, stating that it will benefit the people of Panamá. Carrera commented on this: “He refuses because the government has interests in these resources. It is not true that it will benefit the people. Look, right now we know that there are 1,700 megawatts being generated, and you know how many are used? Only 1,200! And the remaining 500, they sell to other countries. That is why the government is so interested. Panamá, so small, is full of hydroelectric power plants.

“The same thing is true about mines,” she continued. “So, it is not necessary for the country. For these companies, the life of the human being has no value or protection.”

WW/MO asked the cacica about a map she had put on her Twitter account reflecting the three hydroelectric power projects that the Ngäbe-Buglé people demand be cancelled.

“Many entrepreneurs come from the outside, from the USA, Honduras, Canada, from different countries,” she answered. “And with the government here, there is a tiny group of about 10 people.”

One of the three plants is operated by the AES Changuinola S.A. Its website shows that it is part of “the operations in Latin America, of AES Corporation, one of the world’s largest global energy businesses,” and it boasts, “The AES Corporation is a global power company with generation and distribution businesses” that employs “our diverse portfolio of thermal and renewable fuel sources” to deliver energy to 27 countries through a workforce of 27,000 people. (www.aes.com)

The U.S. government states that “Panamá is one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, expanding 6.2 percent in 2010, with similar annual growth forecast through 2015.” (www.ustr.gov)

This economy’s expansion, however, is not benefiting the vast majority of the population, and much less the Indigenous people. Government figures show that 84.2 percent of the Indigenous population in Panamá lives below the poverty level. For the Ngäbe-Buglé, the poorest people, the poverty rate is even higher.

Poverty, education, health care

Cacica Carrera spoke about social conditions: “The millions of dollars that come to Panamá are only for a few small groups. We have serious problems here in Panamá. Everything is more expensive, basic food and necessities. Martinelli’s government has privatized education, there is no freedom for institutions, and everything is conditioned.

“They talk about billions and billions, but the Ngäbe-Buglé people have not benefited,” she said. “Our children are discriminated against. They cannot speak Spanish, so they cannot learn. Therefore, they have no opportunities. If they are given scholarships, they cannot make use of them because they cannot speak Spanish. There are no schools. They are too far away. Children have to walk four or five hours, cross the river, and if it is swollen, then they cannot go.

“Infant mortality is very high,” she added. “We have no health centers in the comarca. The health centers have no personnel or medicines. People who are very sick and need medical treatment have to walk three, four, even five days to get to a health center.”

When asked about women’s role, she replied: “The role of women is to be constantly in the struggle.”

Note: For the complete interview, visit Mundo Obrero at MundoObrero.org or write to [email protected]