NATIVO Story #3 - Land Rights in the comarca Ngäbe-Buglé

Throughout the American continent, from Mexico to Patagonia, voices have been raised against land exploitation perpetrated by large transnational corporations. Social organizations and movements have organized in order to reject the advance of companies that have landed to spoil natural resources, using processes that displace indigenous populations and destroy the environment. This fate has been dramatically hitting the Ngäbe people in Panama since the 1980’s.

The Ngäbe are Panama’s largest indigenous ethnic group, made of around 300,000 people. By means of a variety of actions carried out throughout decades, they managed to obtain the recognition of the comarca Ngäbe-Buglé by the Panamanian Constitution with  the Law 10, approved on March 7th, 1997. This territory is a physically-demarcated area under a regime of self-governance which recognizes the collectivity of land, their indigenous assemblies as a traditional body, the traditional authorities and their customs and traditions. In article 16, the law specifies that “the State will recognize the property titles and the possessory rights of all the natives of the Ngäbe and the Buglé ethnic groups, residents in the area, which are outside the limits of the comarca, established in accordance with the legal provisions in force and in accordance with the inventory made by Agrarian Reform.”

The Ngäbe people have been representing the cheap labor force in the Panamanian agricultural sector for more than a hundred years. They are the essential workforce in the banana plantations and in the sugar and coffee harvest, both in Panama and in Costa Rica where they migrate to work. Despite their important economic contribution, they have been receiving for decades the worst salaries and they have been subject to racial discrimination. They inhabit the cordillera of central-western Panama, an area that turned out to be not very productive for agriculture but instead rich with deposits of copper and gold that are worth millions of dollars. The process of land expropriations through mining and damming has been hitting the whole comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, especially in the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí.



“Since I can remember, when I was around 6 or 7 years old, my grandparents always told me about their disagreement towards mining.”


The comarca Ngäbe-Buglé from the mountains in Hato Chami.

The resistance against mining

 Julián Caballero Jiménez is a former policeman and is now dedicated to community service in in Llano Tugrí, the capital of the comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. “Since I can remember, when I was around 6 or 7 years old, my grandparents always told me about their disagreement towards mining”, says Julián, “The history of what happened in the area of Llano Tugrí starts in the 80’s when the first explorations of Cerro Colorado were initiated.” During the 30 years of protests, the mining has been planned, started and executed without the least consideration of the opinion of the Ngäbe people. This lead to protests by the populations of the areas next to Cerro Colorado, the peak being reached in the years 2009-2012.

In 2009 Rogelio Montezuma, leader of the Hato Chamí area, joined hundreds of Ngäbe and walked 19 days from the borders of the comarca to Panama City, covering a distance of 370 kilometers. They arrived on October 6 to the Legislative Assembly where they presented a draft law that aimed to fix a 25-years moratorium on mining intentions that could occur in Cerro Colorado.This bill did not get any consideration from the Legislative Assembly. Montezuma used to say: “The government thinks that this is the only thing that can be good for us. I do not understand this. We want to do our agriculture and get our products, they want to get us out. We have our crops, we only want education and that people have the possibility of having professions, we do not want to be destroyed with pollution.”

The unions of independent banana companies in Changuinola, Bocas del Toro.

In July 2010 the government intended to impose a set of laws under one bill (the so-called “Chorizo Law”) that, among other things, aimed at weakening the trade unions by cutting the discounts of workers' quotas, modifying environmental legislation to facilitate projects without environmental impact studies, and allowing police officers accused of violating human rights to remain in office without sanctions. On that occasion, the unions of workers from Chiriquí and the unions of the independent banana companies called a strike in the province of Bocas del Toro. The mobilization was harshly repressed at the cost of ten deaths and hundreds of wounded, but it led to the first national general strike of the last decade and the law had to be partially repealed.


“Protecting Cerro Colorado is important because of the existing biodiversity, on which the Ngäbe culture, traditions and customs depend, as well as the rivers, which supply food.”

Portrait of Pedro, villager of Llano Tugrí.

In 2011, the government tried to impose a new Mining Code that facilitated the exploration and mining exploitation throughout the country. Thousands of Ngäbe went down to the Interamericana highway and cut it for several days, forcing President Martinelli to repeal the Mining Code and to sign an agreement by which it committed to suspend all mining and hydroelectric exploitation in the region, in particular of the Cerro Colorado copper deposit where thousands of families live. The government had to negotiate and agree with the movement.

In 2012, thousands of people left their regional communities to cut again the Interamericana due to the government's intention to revive a new version of the Mining Code, an update that did not include the prohibition to develop mines and hydroelectric plants in the region. Lead again by Rogelio Montezuma and by Silvia Carrera, president of the comarca, the protest demanded the prohibition of mining exploitation and construction of new hydroelectric plants in its region.

 Before repressing the protest with the force, the government also cut down communications with the conflict zone and forbid any water or food supplies to those who protested. One protester - Jerónimo Rodríguez Tugrí - died, dozens were injured, hundreds were detained.

Thanks to the enormous support that the protest received throughout the country, from other indigenous ethnic groups as well as citizens, finally the then President Ricardo Martinelli sanctions the Law 11 of March 26, 2012 (Ley 11 de 26 de marzo de 2012), which guaranteed the non-exploitation and exploration of the Cerro Colorado mine or any other deposit within the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca, but which excluded the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project as it is officially outside the region.

“Protecting Cerro Colorado is important because of the existing biodiversity, on which the Ngäbe culture, traditions and customs depend, as well as the rivers, which supply food. In addition, Cerro Colorado is considered a Mesoamerican biological corridor and is the lung of the region.” - said Montezuma back then and it’s way of thinking is still deeply rooted in the current generations. According to Julian, “Our people have opposed any kind of exploitation of the natural resources on our land. One of the main reasons for this is that it is something we inherited, the awareness that natural resources are not meant to be exploited, but rather to be preserved.That is why, by nature, the Ngäbe people disagrees with such activities within our territory.”

The delimitation of the comarca Ngäbe-Buglè in Norteño, Bocas del Toro.

The fight to preserve the rivers

Not far from San Felix, just 10km outside of the comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, there is another area that has been hit by displacement, this time because of damming, and that is the area around the Tabasara river. Despite the resistance of the Ngäbe communities, the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project commenced in 2016, flooding an area of about 258 hectares and causing more than 150,000 people to leave their land, not to mention the loss of the ancient petroglyphs that surround the Tabasara river. According to the government, the 28 megawatts of energy produced by the plant everyday will “increase hydroelectric production and reduce dependence on fossil fuels which are imported to generate electricity.”

The construction of Barro Blanco is the first step into the implementation of the 2015-2050 National Energy Plan, that aims to tackle climate change with an economy of low carbon. Panama generates 70% of its electricity from renewable sources, with a majority of that proportion (90%) coming from hydroelectric plants and, more recently, wind energy. A figure that is expected to reach 80% between this year and 2020.

The Robálo river near Norteño, Bocas del Toro.

Since 2015 at least 37 hydroelectric projects have been recorded to be either at the design or construction stage, all of them affecting Panama’s most heavily-flowing rivers, home to indigenous populations. The plan unequivocally defines how the country’s energy consumption is determined by a service-oriented economic model. In that sense, the Panama Canal is vitally important as it is considered to be an important cog in world trade.

 The construction of infrastructures seems to be necessary to make the switch towards clean energies. However when it comes to the conflicts that have originated from it, the different parts of civil society are expected to find a point of agreement, given that the energy system will need to be constantly expanded. Such agreement is the key missing part of the equation. Since 2007, when the government announced the construction of the Barro Blanco project, the Ngäbe have strongly opposed it, and have been fighting it since then. They went to court and protested, but the government has neither listened to them nor consulted with them.

“Before the company built the dam we were living freely in a spacious and safe area. Once the dam was built, we no longer could dedicate to hunting and farming they way we used to as we found ourselves confined to a much smaller and tighter area.” 

The Chan I dam in Valle de Risco, Bocas del Toro.

This is the case for another highly disputed hydroelectric plant that was built in the province of Bocas del Toro, near Changuinola, called Chan 75 (also known as Chan I). “Before the company built the dam we were living freely in a spacious and safe area. Once the dam was built, we no longer could dedicate to hunting and farming they way we used to as we found ourselves confined to a much smaller and tighter area”, says Genaro Palacio, a villager from Valle del Rey.

In 2007, the Panamanian government awarded a concession to AES subsidiary, AES Changuinola, to build Chan 75 – a 233 megawatt dam on the Changuinola River in Bocas del Toro Province, which borders Costa Rica in western Panama. In 2008 a group of community members submitted a petition to the Inter–American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) detailing the abuses to the communities. In 2009, the IACHR asked the government of Panama to suspend the construction pending further investigations. The request was ignored and the project was completed in 2011.

The Palacio family, Valle del Rey, Bocas del Toro.

Chan 75 displaced 1,000 people and 180 Ngäbe families. “Out of the 6.6 hectares that we were given to rebuild our homes, there is not a single document that establishes we are the owners of the land, or that can legally bind, defend and guarantee our life here”, continues Genaro, “that makes all the residents of Valle del Rey feel uncertain of what will happen in the near future. How are future generations going to live? How can they defend themselves?”

To date, the number of uncompensated or under-compensated Ngäbe affected by Chan 75 is unknown. The compensation provided so far will not support their families in the long term. Genaro shares the same view: “They destroyed and never compensated us for the permanent damage that they have caused us. The company failed completely when it comes to relocating the families. Roads and sidewalks were never constructed, as well as the pier that was promised. But they have on record that they did all this, when in reality nothing has been done. And when you ask, there is no answer.”

The house where Genaro Palacio and his family live, on the cliffs of Valle del Rey.

The aftermath of the construction of the Chan I hydroelectric plant is affecting all the other plans within the comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. Not very far from there, the plan for the Chan II hydroelectric station has come to a halt after the concession has been withdrawn from Odebrecht Energy (Luxembourg). The government announced that it will reform the project and summon a new bidding, and reconsider the characteristics of the original project. The Chan II plant is not a minor project, as its construction will supposedly generate about 10% of the current energetic demand of Panama. The impact of a new dam in the area would affect thousands of Ngäbe in the areas of Guayacán, Culebra and Norteño.

In these communities, people have very clear ideas about the project. “We live a simple life that wouldn’t be the same without natural resources”, says Beatriz Martinez, a villager from Norteño. “We don’t agree with the construction of the hydroelectric plant because it jeopardises our future. The river is where we have the fish we eat, the jungle and grass is where our animals breed and where our plants grow. All this cannot be taken away from us because it will affect the way we sustain ourselves, it will ruin forever the environment we live in.” Despite the insistence of corporations and the support that the government grants them, officials say they want to make things right this time and involve the communities in the conversation. “In our community we have a group of environmental management that evaluates project proposals that can affect the whole community, such as the one for the building of the Chan II”, says Guillermo Pinedo, a member of the community council in Norteño.

Norteño, Bocas del Toro.

The Chan I plant has brought displacement of the population as well as impoverishment, denial and violation of human rights, without considering the autonomy of the population in their own land. If the hydroelectric will be built, whole communities will have to be relocated and the people forced to leave. “Where are they going to live, how are they going to make a living, how will they be reimbursed for their loss?”, continues Guillermo, “The great majority of us live with what we cultivate… Giving money as a reimbursement to families that are evicted is not enough, because that money will be finished after a year and then what? How can they sustain themselves if they cannot make crop or farm the land?”

Portrait of Ngäbe women wearing the traditional Nagua, Norteño.

The Ngäbe culture lives next to nature and wouldn’t be the same without it for all the good that the nature provides. When mining caves of hydroelectric plants are built, this equilibrium collapses and their living is compromised.

The rivers have been preserved so far because the Ngäbe have never considered them as a commodity. The modern lifestyle and economic development has compromised many natural resources for the Ngäbe, claiming that this is all in order to produce clean energy. But when it destroys rivers and dispaces entire populations, is it really clean?