Indigenous Peoples Speak Out to Save Ancestral Lands

Alicia Korten and Dialis Ehrman

Leaders from five Congresses* of the Kuna, Embera, Wounaan, Ngobe and Bugle indigenous peoples in Panama have announced that they would oppose any plan to build the Pan-American Highway through the Darien Gap in eastern Panama. The leadership was responding to growing pressure to complete the highway's Darien Gap link, which international business interests see as critical to facilitating trade between North and South America.

The declaration was made in July of '95 at the third national meeting of the Indigenous Pan-American Highway Commission (IPAHC), a body that includes organizations representing more than 50,000 indigenous peoples in Panama. The meeting's primary goal was to draft an alternative development document that would take into account indigenous and environmental needs in the region Indigenous leaders hope to use this document to pressure the government and involved financial institutions to consider more sustainable and equitable land-use plans for the Darien Gap.

Leaders unanimously agreed to reject construction of the Pan-American Highway, a railroad, or any other project crossing their lands until these lands have been legalized and demarcated. Indigenous people's fears regarding the highway's negative impacts were reinforced by catastrophic flooding last year that destroyed several Kuna communities situated near the Pan-American Highway, which stretches for roughly 160 kms into the Darien Province. "The night [the Chucunaque River rose] our children had to swim to stay alive, the water came up to the necks of the older people. All our fields and many of our houses were washed away. I have never seen such a flood in my lifetime," explained Horacio Lopez Turino, community leader of Wala. He and other residents believe that the flood was a consequence of unprecedented deforestation in the last two decades by loggers and cattle ranchers who have used the highway to gain access to the region's resources.

South American governments and industries view the road as vital to facilitating trade between North and South America. The Dec '94 Summit of the Americas agreement to unite North and South America into a free trading zone by the year 2025 gives the highway construction new urgency. Colombia's Minister of Transportation under the Gaviria administration. Jorge Bedeck Olivella, asserted that "the Pan-American Highway is the only unfinished international highway even though it is the most important in the world... all of humanity is awaiting [its completion]."

Plans to build the road are rapidly moving into gear. According to official documents from the Ministries of Foreign Relations in Panama and Colombia, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is providing $1.5 million to finance the environmental studies related to the completion of the last section of the highway. Such financing is significant as the IDB rarely funds such a study if they are not interested in helping to finance the actual project. IDB representatives, however, have insisted that they would not finance such a controversial project. The study is not an environmental impact statement, but rather a general environmental diagnosis of the region, explained an IDB official close to the project, who further maintained that the IDB would provide no financing for either the construction or renovation of roads in the Darien Gap.

The World Bank may also be involved. Luis Castañeda, Director of Planning at the Ministry of Public Works in Panama, said that the World Bank is funding an environmental impact statement for the paving of the 107 km. dirt road that already penetrates the Darien.

Panamanian officials stated that both road projects are part of a five-year nation-wide road-building program. Of the $406 million budgeted for the program, the IDB and the WB are provinding $220 million in loans. "No highway construction can take place in Panama in the next five years that does not follow IDB guidelines," stated one IDB official.

The Panamanian and Colombian Good Neighboor Commission (see Vol. 12, No. 9) is exploring three different routes--one along the Pacific Coast, one along the Atlantic Coast, and one through the border community Palo de Letras in the center of the isthmus. Until recently the Palo de Letras route, the shortest and least costly option, appeared to be the most favored. However, at a June meeting of the Commission, Panama President Ernesto Pérez Balladares stated that his preference was to build the road along the Atlantic Coast (see Vol. 14, No. 8). All routes pass through Embera, Wounaan and Kuna territories as well as through the Darien National Park in Panama and the Katios Park in Colombia--both of which have regulations permitting the highway's construction.

As plans for the highway move forward, opposition to the road is gaining momentum. Organizations as diverse as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Panama's Association of Catle Ranchers have written resolutions opposing the road's construction. These groups argue that the road would devastate the area's biological and cultural diversity and facilitate the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease into North America. They also fear that the road will accelerate drug trafficking into the region. Even in Colombia the government-run Institute for Development and Natural Resources (INDARENA) recommended, in Dec '94, halting the project due to its potential environmental impact.

Yet indigenous peoples, whose homelands and cultural subsistence are at stake, continue to be marginalized from all government discussions. "We have been fighting to gain a voice in the dialogue, but the government has blocked indigenous participation," stated Edy Degaiza, the IPAHC delegate to the Embera-Wounaan General Congress.

The government has responded to pressure with some concessions. Government officials invited an indigenous delegate to participate in the Feb '94 meeting of the Good Neighboor Commission, but refused to finance the trip. "Without monies to cover expenses, we could not send our delegate," explained Cacique Leopoldo, the chief of the Embera-Wounaan in the Diaren.

IPAHC delegates are now demanding that the Panamanian government officials and multilateral bank representatives give them participation in all studies and development projects for their homelands. They are also reaching out to organizations nationally and internationally, which have expressed concern regarding the highway plans. Leaders hope that through their continued efforts, and with the support of solidarity organizations, they will be able to influence the destiny of their peoples and the rainforests of the Darien Gap on which they depend.

For more information contact: Edy Degaiza, Commission Indígena Carretera Pan-Americana, COONAPIP, Apartado Postal 4473, Zona 5, Panama. Tel: 262-8448; Fax: 262-8772.

Authors: Alicia Korten is a staff member of the Center for Popular Legal Assitance (CEALP), a legal assistance and research NGO based in Panama (14 East 17th St., Apt. #5, New York, NY 10003). Tel: (212) 645-3139; FAX: (212) 242-1901).

Dialis Ehrman is the Kuna General Council's representative to IPAHC.

Note: A version of this article was published in Abya Yala News, Journal of the South and Mesoamerican Indian Information Center (P.O. Box 28703, Oakland, CA 94604. Tel: (510) 834-4263, Fax: (510) 834-4264).

*The traditional governing bodies of the Panamanian Indigenous Peoples
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