Mining Injustice in Panama

Ngobe People Protesting- Cortesia de Patria Grande

Half the gold mined in the world from 1995-2015 is likely to come from indigenous lands (Ukiri, 2011). Each time this occurs the potential is generated for an often violent clash between local indigenous groups and government officials. This week, the Latin American country of Panama epitomised such a confrontation whereby 3 people were killed as the Nagabe-Bugle tribe formed a human blockade across the Pan-America highway to protest against proposed mining developments on their land.

The Nagabe-Bugle tribe, one of the largest in Panama, sits on top of the Cerro Colorado copper deposit.  As one of the richest mineral deposits in Latin America, the Cerro Colorado has the potential to provide 270,000 tonnes of copper for extraction over a 30 year period. Although there was once a law within Panama which protected indigenous land rights and sovereignty within the country, last week this law was abandoned by the Panama government in order to allow foreign mining companies to enter the area without breaching legislation. The site has already been opened for tender. However, the recently elected female spokesperson for the Nagabe-Bugle tribe, Silvia Carrera, argues that mining will not only obliterate pristine rainforest (second largest only to the Amazon) but also the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous tribes people.

Carrera professes that the invasion of foreign mining companies generates great injustice for the Nagbe-Bugle people who appear to be “ignored” and at times “used to entertain the government”. Carrera suggests that the indigenous people have much more than a sustenance connection to their land. The tribes people profess a spiritual connection to the earth whereby it is seen not only as a physical territory on which they live, but as a “mother” figure from which they are given life. Such a deep-rooted duty to care and protect the environment in its own right seems to fall deaf on the seemingly ignorant ears of the Panama government. Such a lack of recognition of the voices and opinions of the indigenous people sparked yesterday’s road blockade along Panama’s busiest highway.

Carrera maintains that the indigenous protest is wholly peaceful and continues to be the only medium they have to defend themselves and their lands, stating “we don’t have anything, we only have words”.  But what use are these words when they are not listened to? Indigenous reports state that their peaceful protest was met with a riot response from the police and government, utilising tear gas and rubber bullets on all protestors including women and children which resulted in three indigenous deaths. Even if the indigenous protest was not ultimately as peaceful as spokesmen imply, this reaction simply cannot be considered to  be “just” response by the police or the government to the desperate plea from the people for a recognition of their rights over the land.

Unfortunately, this unjust scenario is not specific to Panama.  An interesting recent journal by Urkidi reiterates an equivalent process occurring in Guatemala. Here “95% of mining licences granted in 2004 were in indigenous provinces” (Urkidi, 2004), this demonstrates great injustice for indigenous people who have their homeland forcibly removed from them and their spiritual connection undermined. We can conclude therefore that the development of these communitarian struggles are not simply motivated by environmental injustice, but more prominently factors of social justice, land rights, ethnicity and human rights of the indigenous people. Indigenous communities world wide must be acknowledged to posses agency- the agency to make their own decisions and have their views not only heard, but taken into consideration and positively acted upon.

Sources:

Black, R.  (2012), Panama clashes: Indigenous groups angry over mining law. Available:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12513084 Last accessed 21.2.2012

Cook, C. (2012), Indigenous Mining Protestors Killed in Panama. Available: http://www.pacificfreepress.com/news/1/10893-indigenous-mining-protesters-killed-in-panama.html Last accessed 21.2.2012

URKIDI, L. (2011), The Defence of Community in the Anti-Mining Movement of Guatemala. Journal of Agrarian Change, 11: 556–580.

Image Source:

Ngobe People Protesting- Cortesia de Patria Grande http://www.internationalrivers.org/blog/monti-aguirre/2012-2-7/stop-violence-against-ngobe-indigenous-peoples Last accessed 21.2.2012

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