The Ngabe-Bugle Comarca: Panama’s democracy on the line*
By The Panama News
As of November 1, a civil disobedience campaign is underway in the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca. The leaders of the incumbent General Congress, backed by the leadership of most Ngabe factions and the great majority of the people in the quasi-autonomous indigenous commonwealth, have withdrawn their recognition of the national government and are refusing to have dealings with it and urging the people to do likewise. It’s not hard to imagine the scenarios in which violence may – probably will – erupt from this.
Property Rights Unrecognised
The primordial issue is property. The national government believes that when lands are held collectively they belong to nobody, so that if they throw someone out of their home on collectively held land they owe nobody any compensation. The national government, relying on a constitution imposed during the military dictatorship, claims ownership of all water and mineral rights, including in the traditionally autonomous indigenous lands, and the right to sell them to foreigners. These processes are underway with respect to indigenous communities both inside and outside the comarcas, over hydroelectric projects, exclusionary beach resorts and strip mines.
The lightning rod issue is the government’s plan to transfer Cerro Colorado, a mountain that some of the locals consider sacred and that serves as the headwaters of the several streams and rivers upon which about one-third of the people in the comarca, and beyond the comarca, depend for their farms, cattle herds, fish to eat, water for households and recreational uses.
The “state of the industry” in copper mining is such that holes would be drilled in Cerro Colorado and pumped full of sulfuric acid. The acid dissolves the copper in the rock into a greenish sludge, which is copper sufate that gets scooped up and exported for processing into copper. (Panama gets no copper smelting jobs from the Martinelli sale — those would go to Korea or someplace other than here at the option of a foreign corporation.) There would be leftover green goo and sulfuric acid to wash away into the rivers and streams, but worse than that there would be a devil’s brew of other chemicals from the acid’s reactions with other substances in the soil. Heavy metal poisoning we can easily predict, but the specifics of how the waters flowing off of Cerro Colorado would be contaminated wouldn’t be known until after the fact.
Of course the people in the comarca oppose the sale of their mountain and their water resources. But Martinelli, who lost in the voting in indigenous areas in 2009, decided to get himself a mandate. In violation of the law that created the autonomous comarca, he issued a decree stripping Ngabe and Bugle residents and the Ngabe-Bugle General Congress of the power to oversee elections in the comarca, and transferred this to the Electoral Tribunal. Then a massive fraud proceeded.
Lack of Voter representation
In the 2009 elections, the Electoral Tribunal reported that there were a total of 62,626 votes cast for the office of president of Panama from the comarca, with 26,389 eligible voters who abstained from voting. This past July, the tribunal reported that there were 104,646 eligible voters in the comarca. The government proceeded to schedule an election in October, when heavy rains mire many dirt roads and paths in mud, making it difficult for many voters in remote areas to get to the polls; and when coffee harvests here and in Costa Rica are underway and much of the local population leaves the comarca for seasonal coffee picking work. On the eve of the October elections, the Electoral Tribunal announced that there were only 58,603 eligible voters in the comarca. After October 24 voting that most leaders of most political factions in the comarca called upon the citizenry to boycott, the Electoral Tribunal announced that 14,025 people had voted. The government proclaimed this as a victory for democracy, and weirdly enough, for women’s rights. The General Congress called the elections illegitimate and began to organize a civil disobedience campaign.
The government will be supported by international mining corporations, everyone who wants to grab indigenous land and a pathetic rump of traitors in the comarca. Aligning with the majority of people in the comarca are environmentalists, human rights groups, non-indigenous people who live further down the rivers that originate on Cerro Colorado, political factions that oppose Martinelli and indigenous nations throughout the Americas.
The election fraud in the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca is a dry run for what a dictatorial Ricardo Martinelli intends to impose on all of Panama. The Ngabe-Bugle General Congress is on the front line in the defense of what remains of Panamanian democracy. The indigenous civil disobedience campaign against the national government deserves everybody’s support.