For the second day in a row, Indigenous groups protesting mineral resource extraction and hydroelectric projects in Panama shut down parts of the Pan-American Highway yesterday. Hundreds of Indigenous Panamanians from the Ngabe Buglé comarca in the country’s northwest placed tree branches and rocks at points along the highway in Chiriquí and Veraguas provinces, as well as on the highway between Chiriquí and Boca del Tora. All locations are part of the comarca, a type of reservation for the Ngabe and Buglé Indigenous groups with a high degree of administrative autonomy.
The demonstrators were protesting mining activities and the construction of hydroelectric projects in the region. Their leader, Toribio García, told local press that “we don’t want transnational companies to take over our natural resources and [cause people to] lose their lands.” Specifically, the Indigenous protesters were incensed over the approval last week by the National Assembly’s Commerce Committee of a bill, Ley 415, which addresses the protection of mineral, water and other natural resources in their region. They said they were not consulted during debate over the bill, and demanded that Article 5 of the original bill, which was dropped in the approved version, be reinstated. That article had called for an immediate suspension of all active concessions to national or foreign companies interested in mineral resource extraction or the development of hydroelectric plants within Ngabe Buglé and neighboring territories.
Representative Raúl Hernández, president of the Commerce Committee, said all groups had been invited to contribute, and the bill as it was endorsed “fulfills its obligations from all sides.” Before becoming law, the bill will go through two more rounds of debate and, possibly, further modifications.
In March 2011, faced with strong opposition and protests by Indigenous groups, the Panamanian government was forced to repeal a law that would have opened mining activities in Panama to private and foreign investment.