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A Rare Victory for the Indigenous

In the "Cult of Escapism": A Rare Victory for the Indigenous

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Rare Victory for the Indigenous

The Ngöbes won. On March 1st, the government rescinded the law which facilitated mining in the Comarca, promised further protection of the environment, and offered medical care to those injured during the protests. This is an unprecedented victory for an indigenous people, considering a worldwide history of being ignored or manipulated or taken advantage of; so how did they do it?

There were three main factors – the political climate, international pressure, and the Inter-Americana. First, administrations in Panama run for five years and cannot run for re-election. The same party yes, the same people no. And the same way we in the U.S. begin talking about the 2012 election in about 2004, political pushes begin early in Panama. The heat intensifies later this year as we pass the halfway point for the current administration (2009-2014) and enter the primaries. Controversial moves are to be avoided. As such, the window for the current administration to get the mining going is closing and they know it and so did the Ngöbes.

On February 7th, the Ngöbes donned shirts saying “We Die Before we Kneel” and blocked the highway just outside of the Comarca and were eventually tear gassed and dispersed by the riot police. A three year old girl died, a man was paralyzed, and many others were injured. On February 15th, the United Nations officially denounced the government’s actions against the indigenous and international pressure and criticism mounted. To avoid further international controversy, the Panamanian president (Ricardo Martinelli) ordered the riot police not to tear gas protestors anymore and decided to ignore the protests and let them disburse organically. The entire last week of February, over 10,000 Ngöbes blocked the Inter-Americana in four spots.

The Inter-Americana is the main highway across Panama. All commerce and travel is conducted along this road and in many locations, there are literally no alternative routes for cars*. Most Ngöbes are subsistence farmers with maybe a little side project for extra income. Few have daily jobs to get to and none have a problem sleeping on the ground, so they chose four crucial, no-alternate-route spots on the highway and camped.

Northwest was cut off from West, West from East, and East from everything (keep going east and the road simply ends and the jungle begins). Several cities ran out of gasoline; tourists got stuck; Panama City ran out of vegetables; Tiny Tim got boiled rocks in his stocking. Things were getting desperate. Overwhelmed and out of options, the government promised a meeting in exchange for open highways.

They shocked everyone. Many expected the government to bureaucrat it up, talk endlessly, and buy a few days of open highway while they thought about how to handle the situation. Instead, the President came, rescinded the law, claimed that Panamanians don’t yet understand the benefits of mining, but that’s ok because the government has other important governmenty things to do like build schools and win elections in three years.

So the Ngöbes win, for now.

*I’ve been trying to come up with a comparison to a road this crucial in the States but I don’t think it exists. Even if a big highway like 95 gets blocked, there’s always another highway, or backstreets. Not here – there’s just the Inter-Americana. 


At March 21, 2011 at 2:48 PM , Blogger captain g said...

wow Jack...
feel like I'm there with your descriptive writing! Glad you "got away" for a couple days.

Bryan said the other day he wished you were back.

At January 7, 2013 at 11:22 AM , Blogger bama said...

One for the Ngobes and one for their environment, I think.


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