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Panama Indians Battle Modern 'Invader' Over Mining Rights

Tribes unite to fight Canadian company seeking to mine on their proposed reserve

When Spanish conqueror Vasco Nuez de Balboa first arrived on the Isthmus of Panama looking for land, silver, and gold, there were roughly 60 indigenous groups who opposed his presence.

Five hundred years later, that number has shrunk to about six.

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But perhaps for the first time since the Spanish conquest, Panama's Indians are presenting a united front against what they perceive as a modern-day conquistador - a Canadian mining company seeking to tap one of the world's largest copper reserves in the northern province of Chiriqui.

For the Ngobe-Bugle tribes and other indigenous groups, the proposed mining plan is the latest foreign intrusion.

"Politically, we are all united on this issue," says Atencio Lopez, a human rights lawyer for Indians from the San Blas Archipelago, who is himself a member of the Kuna tribe.

Although many Ngobe-Bugle living near San Felix and on the mining concession welcome the mine, some worry about potential environmental problems and question the actual benefits to the community.

"We are fighting for a law that guarantees protection of the environment ... and some degree of territorial control," says Marcelino Montezuma, the president of the Ngobe-Bugle, who is spearheading the antimining campaign.

Other indigenous groups share Mr. Montezuma's worries. Logging and ranching - not just mining - threaten their lands, they say.

In an effort to defend the Indians' reservations, Panama's Legislative Assembly last year voted in favor of an environmental bill to protect the country's extensive natural resources. But the legislation was vetoed by President Ernesto Prez Balladares.

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And a bill that would grant the Ngobe-Bugle tribes a comarca (reservation) - first proposed in 1970 - is currently being debated in the Legislative Assembly for the first time.

The government's comarca plan would grant the Ngobe-Bugle 1.7 million acres covering parts of three northern provinces - Chiriqui, Bocas del Toro, and Veraguas. But Montezuma and other members of the Ngobe-Bugle tribes want 3.2 million acres and clearly defined environmental and civil rights legislation included in the bill.

"Some Indian leaders are trying to peg the [mining] issue to that of the comarca," says Matthew Edler, vice president of a subsidiary of the Canadian mining company, Tiomin Resources, which aims to harvest the minerals beneath Cerro Colorado - located in the center of the disputed comarca.

According to Montezuma, no one from the company or the government contacted the Ngobe-Bugle before the 1995 Legislative Assembly approved the mining concession on their proposed reserve. "We found out through the newspapers," he says.

"We want more participation ... otherwise it's not feasible," Montezuma says.

During his 1994 presidential campaign, Mr. Balladares wooed the Ngobe-Bugle vote by promising to grant them their comarca.

Many Ngobe-Bugles now feel cheated by a government they increasingly view as racist toward its indigenous supporters.

"There exists a strong undercurrent of racism towards the indigenous. We have a racist government and racist laws," says Mr. Lopez.

However, among the non-indigenous, the fight for wider autonomy by Panama's Indians has attracted widespread public support.

Lopez says the demands of Panama's indigenous reflect the demands of many other Panamanians - deliverance from social misery: a nationwide 29 percent malnutrition rate among 1- to 4-year-olds, for example, and an economy that distributes 60 percent of the country's wealth among 20 percent of the population.

Government officials argue that mining is essential to combat poverty - a notion many economists dispute.

"The future of Panama's economy is not centered around extraction of our natural resources," says Juan Jovene, an economic analyst and director of the Institute for National Studies.

But Mr. Jovene estimates that the Cerro Colorado mining concession is worth at least $40 billion.

Relations between indigenous groups and the government are at an all-time low, according to analysts.

In October, during a protest in the town of Remedios, police and tribe members exchanged gunfire. Two indigenous protesters and one policeman were wounded.

Later Balladares claimed that the Ngobe-Bugle had stockpiled 200 AK-47s and urged them to disarm.

William Barrington, spokesman for the National Council of Indigenous Peoples in Panama, denies the allegation.

"If we [Ngobe-Bugle] had such an arsenal, we'd already have our comarca," he says.

Meanwhile, government officials say they want to talk - not battle - with indigenous groups, and students are growing restless.

"We don't want any type of confrontation," says Francia de Sierra, the director of mineral resources for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Vincente Saldana, a tribal student leader in the province of Chiriqui, vowed that the next demonstrations will not be peaceful.

"The indigenous have not wanted to sit down and talk," Ms. Sierra says, while Montezuma claims the government has been deliberately avoiding an open debate.

But to date, apart from one meeting with Balladares at which no agreement was reached, negotiations between all parties appear to be in state of disarray.

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