February 21, 2012

Success for Mercy Sisters and Panama Campaign

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 Ngöbe 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 rsm is a Sister of Mercy who ministers to the Ngöbe people in Panama and alerted us to the excessive police violence unleashed against these Indigenous People as they conducted 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 urged us to join the campaign and help stop the violence in Panama by signing their petition urging President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama to halt police violence against the Ngöbe people.

This campaign has proved to be successful and as recently as last Tuesday (February 7th), Ngöbe leaders and government officials reached an agreement that put an end to the protests that left two people dead and dozens 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 during the dispute. Dialogue was scheduled to begin on February 8th 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 are serving as observers.

We hope that these talks are fruitful and that the rights of the Ngöbe people are protected. James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is supporting them and 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.'

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