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Manifesting Discontent

February 8, 2011

Tensions are high here in the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle! As I mentioned in my last post, people in my community and across the Comarca are divided by pro-mine and anti-mine sentiment. Recently, tension has escalated and Ngabes have taken to the streets to manifestar (protest) their dissatisfaction.

First of all, my friend and fellow volunteer Jack wrote a great article for that provides background of the situation. Check it out to get full details about what’s on the line if the government proceeds with exploitation.

In summary, Cerro Colorado has hella copper deposits that could potentially bring a lot of financial gain to the Panamanian economy (to the tune of $200 billion dollars). Problem is that it will be nearly impossible to extract that wealth without causing irreversible environmental damage. The Ngabe population is divided between those who support the mine because of the subsequent infrastructure projects that it will bring. They argue that if the foreign contract is negotiated properly it is an opportunity to bring jobs and development to the impoverished Comarca residents. My host brother (the same one that I talk about in my previous post) has decided to align with the pro-mine delegation. He has so much conviction about the positives that he is actively working to promote exploitation and has attended some of the negotiations happening in Panama City. He is sure that environmental regulations will be tight enough that most damage can be averted. At the same time, he accepts that environmental harm is an inevitable consequence of human development. In a conversation where he was explaining the merits, he fervently asked me “If we don’t develop the Comarca now, then when will it happen? Then when?!”

Meanwhile, those who are opposed maintain that there is no trade-off worth the environmental damage that opening the mine will cause. The mountain will be stripped of trees and polluted with chemicals used to extract minerals. People’s livelihoods depend on the system of rivers and tributaries that runs through the Comarca and the mountain in question, Cerro Colorado, is the source of many of the largest rivers, including Rio Cuvibora, the river closest to my community.

Photo Caption: What will become of Rio Cuvibora?

Over the past several weeks, these different delegations, along with environmental and other lobbying groups, have been meeting in Panama City to debate changes to the national mining code – which has big stakes for the outcome of how much of the earnings could be channeled to the Comarca for development projects.

Fierce division + Rising tension + Mining Code Reform = Opportunity for Protests

On Monday afternoon we received a text message from the Peace Corps office warning, “Strong demonstrations happening in San Felix. Please avoid area today.” This was inconvenient because I was already en route to David, a trip that requires passing the city of San Felix on the main highway. I assumed it would be fine and that the protests would be contained in the San Felix itself. Man was I wrong.

As my bus was about 2 minutes away from San Felix, we suddenly stopped and turned around. Apparently, the demonstrators had just reached the highway. From my seat in the back of the bus, I could see many Ngabes blocking traffic and creating barricades from tree trunks pulled from the side of the road. Who knows where it all came from, but there was an abundance of branches and trunks just lying around all over the place. The bus moves back a reasonable distance, then parks and waits. The demonstrators move closer and we move back once again. By now, a lot of traffic has accumulated, and everyone is moving backwards to avoid clashing with the protestors. As they get closer, the bus moves back once again, this time parking on a side road to wait for them to pass. Finally, about 150 Ngabe men and women start to stream by. They start running intermittently to avoid the tear gas being launched by the police force that is trailing behind decked out with shields and riot gear.

Photo Caption: Demonstrators gathered at the highway exit to San Felix (taken from Right: The mountain furthest in in the background is Cerro Colorado.

Once passed, the bus gets the go ahead by the police to proceed toward the city of David. The highway was covered with trees and they had also lit brushfires on the side of the road. Along with tear gas spewing out everywhere, it was a site right out of the headlines in any newspaper. It was a strange and eerie feeling for me because I’d never seen protests like this first hand. At 5:30 pm, the Peace Corps office sent a follow-up message that said “Protests in San Felix have turned violent with people injured and arrested. Please stay in your sites and do not travel through San Felix.” Woops, it’s a little late to turn back now, as I was already safe and sound in David.

We’ve been explicitly asked by the Peace Corps to remain neutral about the matter, which I agree is the appropriate response. Nevertheless, it is an issue that deserves attention and provokes thoughtful conversation about the meaning and consequences of development.

If you’re interested, check out the article about the protests from La Prensa, the leading Panamanian newspaper. It is in Spanish.


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