February 14, 2012

Mercy Sisters Join Justice Campaign for People of Panama

For centuries the Ngöbe people have lived by the rivers in the remote hills of western Panama, but now the government of Panama sees profit in those rivers, and they have given concessions to subsidiaries of the American company AES to build a series of large hydroelectric dams. The dams would flood the Ngöbe's traditional territory, destroy their homes and fields, and break apart communities and families. To clear the way for the dams, the AES subsidiary and the Panamanian government are pressuring the Ngobe to sign away their rights on documents they can't read, and are using unscrupulous techniques to drive them out.

The Indigenous Peoples, environmental groups, and labour organizations in Panama are outraged over new laws that undermine human rights and erode environmental protections. When thousands of protesters took to the streets in July 2011 the police responded with unprecedented violence, killing at least two protesters, blinding dozens with lead birdshot, and injuring and arresting hundreds more. Indigenous leaders say more people were killed, but the government has not released complete information to human rights investigators. To quiet the protests, government officials hurriedly set up a 90-day negotiation period, but they excluded many sectors of the population from the negotiating process -notably the Indigenous Peoples and environmental organizations.

This week more than 1,000 Ngöbe people – men, women, and children – took to the streets in different parts of Panama to protest a proposed change in the country’s mining law. Nine Ngöbe people were reported wounded and 22 jailed, including three children. Environmental and human rights organizations and students carried out parallel protests against the mining law reform at the National Assembly. If passed, the law would allow foreign governments to invest in mining projects. Panama’s president has been wooing the governments of China, South Korea, and Singapore, all of which are poised to get into the mining business in Panama, where copper reserves are among the highest in the world. The copper and significant gold deposits are within Ngöbe territories in western Panama.

Edia Lopez is a Sister of Mercy who ministers to the Ngobe people in Panama and has alerted us to the excessive police violence unleased against these Indigenous People as they conduct non-violent protests in opposition to a proposed mining law that would open their traditional lands to mining and hydroelectric development. The Sisters of Mercy urge us to help stop the violence in Panama by signing their petition to urge President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama to halt police violence against the Ngöbe people. They welcome the Associates, Companions, co-workers, volunteers and friends from around the Mercy world to join in this advocacy.  If you are not a vowed member in the United States, simply edit the opening and closing lines of the petition to reflect your geography and affiliation with Mercy. The petition is worded as follows:

"As a Sister of Mercy in the United States, I am a member of a congregation of women religious who have been following with concern developments on mining and associated violence against the Ngöbe people. I am disturbed to learn about the most recent use of lethal force against the Ngöbe people, who have been conducting non-violent protests since January 30 in defense of their territories and their rights as indigenous people. I urge you to use every means at your disposal to immediately halt this violence. I also urge you to conduct a special investigation of Panama’s Minister of Security, José Raúl Mulino, and the head of the National Police, Gustavo Perez, for human rights violations associated with these protests, which have resulted already in at least one death and many serious injuries. Human rights abuses committed under the authority of these officials during the protests in Bocas del Toro during July 2010 should also be investigated. In the absence of state recognition of their rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Ngöbe people have been forced to resort to protests many times over the last two years. To restore peace and create a path toward resolution of the underlying conflicts, I urge you to establish a process of dialog with the traditionally recognized Ngöbe leadership, under the auspices of international mediators. The Sisters of Mercy throughout Latin America and the United States will continue to be alert to how you handle this situation."

and can be signed at : www.capwiz.com

James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, called on Panama’s government to enter into dialogue with the protesters. In a 2011 report, Professor Anaya warned that megaprojects like hydroelectric dams and extractive industries have become “one of the most significant sources of abuse of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the world.”

This campaign is being heard and as recently as Tuesday (February 7th), Ngöbe leaders and government officials reached an agreement that put an end to protests that left two people dead and dozens of others injured. The Catholic Bishop of David, José Luis Lacunza, served as a mediator between the two sides. Indigenous leaders said they would end the protests and the government agreed to remove police from contested areas and stop flying police helicopters overhead. The government agreed to release all detainees, drop all charges against protesters, and provide medical attention to the people who were injured during the protests. They also agreed to provide compensation to the relatives of Jerónimo Rodríguez, who was killed Sunday.

Dialogue was scheduled to begin on Wednesday in the National Assembly on the subject of the construction of hydroelectric dams and mining in Indigenous territories. Representatives of the United Nations, the Evangelical Church of Panama, and the rector of the University of Panama will serve as observers.


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