Panama: The devastating cost of ‘green’ development for the indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé community

Guaymi are the most numerous indigenous people in Panama. They are also known by the name Ngäbe and are closely af liated with a small group known as Buglé. They traditionally live in the western provinces of Bocas del Toro, Veraguas and Chiriquí, though many have migrated to other parts of Panama in search of employment.

Most Ngäbe-Buglé live in small rainforest settlements and identify with their communities more directly than with their ethnicity, which in turn affects their level of national political organization.

The Ngäbe-Buglé organized in the later twentieth century to protect their land and culture. Their society was disrupted by the spread of banana plantations, the construction of the Inter-American Highway through their territory and the appropriation of their communal lands by mestizo peasants and cattle ranchers.

The 1972 Constitution required the Panamanian government to establish comarcas or reserves for indigenous communities, but this policy was not universally implemented. After years of protest, in 1997 the Ngäbe- Buglé were finally granted their own comarca. Nevertheless, the erosion of their land rights caused many to leave and join Panama’s migrant workforce, where they were generally given the lowest paid and most physically challenging jobs.

Inadequate social services continue to be the major issue in the remote areas where Ngäbe-Buglé settlements are located. Although the Panamanian government has expressly committed itself to children’s rights and welfare, these bene ts often do not reach Ngäbe-Buglé areas. Indigenous children are not always able to attend school due to nancial and economic constraints, lack of schools or transportation and insufficient government resources.

In the country’s sugar, coffee and banana plantations, Ngäbe-Buglé continue to work under worse conditions than their non-indigenous counterparts. Migrant Ngäbe-Buglé families leave their isolated settlements in search of income. During the harvest of sugar cane, coffee, bananas, melons and tomatoes, farm owners often pay according to the volume harvested, leading many Ngäbe-Buglé labourers to bring their young children to the fields to help with the work.

Like other indigenous communities in Panama, they have also had to contend with land rights violations. The most recent instance of this included a highly controversial hydroelectric project known as ‘Barro Blanco’. This project was rst proposed by then-President Martín Torrijos and was championed by his successor, President Ricardo Martinelli, as a means for the country to improve its energy security through green energy sources. The project was subsequently registered in the United Nations (UN)-sponsored Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a financing tool set up in the wake of the Kyoto Protocol to support climate adaptation by providing development projects with the opportunity to claim credits based on the estimated volume of CO2 offset. Following this approval, the project subsequently received US$50 million in additional funding from European investment banks.

However, the project attracted increasing international condemnation amid reports that the project was approved without the free, prior and informed consent of the affected Ngäbe-Buglé community, who stood to lose their entire way of life. In particular, the project was strongly criticized by the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, in 2014. The controversy eventually resulted in the Panamanian government formally withdrawing the project from the CDM in November 2016. However, despite the community’s opposition to the completion of the dam, in December 2016 Panama’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the project, deeming Barro Blanco a matter of ‘public interest’.

The project illustrates the potential pitfalls of many international environmental nancing mechanisms, such as CDM and UN Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), if large-scale projects are implemented without adequate consultation with local communities. Though the Ngäbe- Buglé are not the only indigenous people to have suffered displacement, loss of livelihoods and other impacts as a result of development programmes supposedly intended to reduce climate change impacts, the human and environmental costs to the community have been devastating. Since the ooding of the river, crops have been destroyed and the area plagued by mosquitoes. The project has led to the ooding of Ngäbe-Buglé homes. Sacred petroglyphs that have traditionally been worshipped during an annual Ngäbe-Buglé pilgrimage have also been submerged under the waters of the dam. In May 2018, the Tabasará River was drained for dam maintenance work, wiping out local sh stocks and leaving many Ngäbe-Buglé with no source of protein. Their case highlights the importance of ensuring that any investments in climate resilience respect the rights of indigenous communities and are undertaken only with their full consent.

This profile is an edited version of the community profile featured in the Panama country entry of MRG’s World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.

Jaume Rius Lopez

Photo: An indigenous Ngäbe Buglé woman stands at a distance from the Barro Blanco dam in the Chiriqui, Panama. Agustin Abad