Large protests by indigenous people, occasionally accompanied by violence, have been occurring in Panama since late January. On March 1, leaders of Ngöbe-Buglé people walked out on talks with the Panamanian government after several of their young supporters were shot with rubber bullets. Ngöbe-Buglé protestors subsequently reestablished roadblocks on the Pan American Highway that they had dismantled in early February when the talks began.
As if often the case in regard to indigenous right issues, the conflict centers on dam building and mining. A new Panamanian law recently pushed through the National Assembly allows the construction of dams in Ngöbe-Buglé territory, infuriating tribal leaders. In negotiations, the Panamanian government agreed to suspend mining in the area, but remained unwilling to cancel the hydroelectric projects.
At first glance, Panama seems like an unusual place for such indigenous-rights protests. The country not only has a thriving economy, but it has also allowed an unusual degree of territorial autonomy for its larger American Indian groups, including the Ngöbe-Buglé. In Panama’s comarcas indígena, indigenous peoples have been granted a relatively large degree of power. This policy has been widely viewed as relatively successful in eastern Panama, where the Guna (Kuna) people have been able to develop their own resources and their own eco-tourism-based economic sector.
Conditions among the Ngöbe-Buglé, who number more than 100,000, are much less favorable. Arable land has grown scarce, forcing many men to work as migrant laborers. With low level of competence in the Spanish language, many have difficulties adapting to life outside of the comarca indígena. According to the Wikipedia, “malnutrition is prevalent, especially in children and expectant mothers.”
As the Ngöbe-Buglé territory contains vast copper deposits, it seems likely that struggles with the Panamanian state will continue for some time.