Guardians of What's Left
The Equatorial Press Lead Story For the small Naso indigenous community of Panama, the curtain of 2009 opened on a heart wrenching scene of conflict over the native people's longtime demand for respect of their territory and natural resources. As they watched heavy machinery demolish their houses and tear up their land, residents of San San Druy in the northern province of Bocas del Toro brandished machetes, bows and arrows, spears, and Molotov cocktails. (Photo Courtesy of Eliseo Vargas Jr/Naso Foundation)

By Talli Nauman

"I am prepared to give my blood for the land," 46-year-old resister Lupita Vargas vowed after outsiders, identified by name as adversaries from a livestock company, toppled six homes on Jan. 16. "I'll only leave here dead," she was quoted in Panamanian news outlets.

The clash between cowboys and Indians took place one month after a traditional Naso governing assembly sent a letter to Panamanian President Martin Torrijos and a plethora of other officials, asking them to prevent violent evictions in the communities inherited by the Naso for 20 generations.

That was not the first time the Naso had gone to bat for their aboriginal claim. Nor were the Naso the only Indians in Panama or Pan-America who found themselves in such a situation. Theirs is just one manifestation of a story as old as the hills and as historic as foreigners' conquest of the so-called New World more than five centuries back. It is a story, not only of greed, but of destruction.

Panama has every calling to be proud of its ethnic diversity, with nearly 10 percent of its 2.3 million population composed of six indigenous groups. The Naso, estimated at only about 3,500 in all, are among the many indigenous people in the country who have maintained close ties to their language, traditional culture and natural heritage. They depend on hunting, gathering, fishing, and small agricultural plots for their subsistence. They live in hand-built thatch houses and travel in hand dugout wooden canoes or on foot. It is incumbent on them to protect Mother Nature for their own survival.

In recent years their livelihood has been increasingly threatened by megaprojects such as the Bonyik Hydroelectric Dam proposed by Empresas Publicas de Medellin, as well as by coastal retirement developments and by expansion of livestock growing. Displacement has compelled some members of the 11 Naso communities to work in the banana plantations that have made multinational corporations famous in Central America.

These latter-day enterprises fail to take into account customary views and uses of property. They exclude locals from decision making and oversight positions. They cause real estate speculation. In addition, they wreak havoc with the balance of nature, which had been fairly well protected until recently, thanks to traditional knowledge and practices that have led to alternative economic projects such as ecotourism benefitting local social development and biodiversity conservation.

This degradation is particularly egregious, considering that the Naso and their customs are an integral part of a biosphere reserve that encompasses the Amistad International Park and the Palo Seco Forest Reserve, two protected areas in the Teribe River Basin, which are of interest worldwide.

To make matters worse, the officials responsible for the morass of federal laws and institutions governing land use are incapable, if not negligent, when it comes to administering justice under the circumstances. Local officials told reporters that eviction notices had been issued covering Bocas Livestock Co.'s Jan. 17 action, but no authorities were at the scene.

"We consider the Panamanian government directly responsible for the abuses, threats, and violations of the Naso people's rights, specifically those perpetrated by the Bocas Livestock Co., Inc., since the issue of land, boundaries and access roads between the Naso communities and the Bocas Livestock Co. wouldn't exist today if we had them defined by our proposed Naso comarca." So states the Nasos' December declaration, known as Resolution 8.

The private non-profit Naso Foundation notes that some 1,500 Naso neighbors of the Bocas Livestock Co., Inc., have been trying for 50 years to achieve official recognition of their title to the land of their ancestors.

Panama's legal structure allows for semi-autonomous indigenous governments, similar to those of the tribal council system on Indian reservations in the United States. These units are called comarcas. Dating back to 1938, they belong to the Kuna, Embera, Wounan, and Ngobe-Bugle tribes. The Nasos have been trying to establish a comarca for the past 38 years.

It's the same story from the Antarctic Ocean to the Arctic sea. But that's an awful big space, and after so many hundreds of years of colonization, it's high time for the authorities of dominant society to recognize the legitimate stake that subsistence communities have in self-government and self-determination.

Organized civil society, aware that the Naso case is one of many, has taken up its banner. Now the Naso have gained support from Redlar for their struggle against water and land privatization schemes that take resources out of the public domain and put them in the hands of a few entrepreneurs. Redlar is a vast and growing continental social coalition. Its name is a Spanish acronym that stands for the Latin American Network Against Dams and in Favor of Rivers, Their Communities and Water.

But apparently more pressure still needs to be put on the Panamanian government to find a fair way out for all stakeholders, including the mega diverse and endemic wildlife of the privileged ecosystem in Bocas del Toro. After all, the Naso aren't asking to be given anything; they are just maintaining the right to be the guardians what they have left.

Talli Nauman is a founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, an independent media project initiated in 1994 with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (