Father  Gregory Gay forwarded this description from Joseph Fitzgerald, CM about how the new encyclical of Pope Francis  relates to the work of the Vincentians in Panama with indigenous people. ( Published in La Estrella de Panama, Saturday, June 27, 2015)

“The Barro Blanco Dam and the New Encyclical of Pope Francis”
Joseph Fitzgerald, CM

When food is scarce, especially in the month of July when they are between harvests, indigenous Ngäbe families practice the ritual known as ´jurite´, which joins the Ngäbe words ‘home’ and ‘share’. Jurite is the practice of reciprocity and solidarity between families, when those who have abundance freely share with those who have had difficulties. The spiritual foundation of the practice of ‘sharing the home´ is the recognition that there is one single owner of all creation, God, or Ngöbö in the Ngäbere language. We all live in one house, the house of God, which is the earth and everything it contains.

 Reading the new encyclical of Pope Francis ‘Praise be to You: On Care for our Common Home´, one can imagine in several parts of the document that the Pope wrote the Encyclical sitting along the river bank under a mango tree, listening to the oppressed of our ‘common home’, taking seriously the great wisdom that they offer to help the world out of the current crisis, a crisis caused by placing economic interests far above cultural, spiritual and environmental ones. The Pope directly criticizes the gross violations of governments and companies against the rights of peoples like the Ngäbe; he points out the sins against the integrity of God’s creation by the imposition of projects that do not consider the environmental, cultural and spiritual effects such as the Barro Blanco dam; and he presents all this as an offense against God in his plan for the renovation of heaven and earth. 

 With faulty criteria – unplanned ‘development’ based on a ‘consumerist vision of human beings’ (Praise be to You 144) – economic and political powers have denied the rights of the Ngäbe people and forcefully imposed a project that the communities have been rejecting for more than 15 years. The pope says that “in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on (indigenous peoples) to abandon their homelands to make room for… extraction projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.” The imposition of a dam that cuts the life of the Sacred Tabasará River, denies fish migration and dramatically changing the ecosystem that God has established in this corner of the earth does not take into account the social, cultural and spiritual importance of the river for the ngäbe. 

The Ngäbe know well what is the created order that God has ordained in this part of the earth, where heavy rains come from the mountains, fall on the lands, move down the streams and are carried to the sea by strong rivers. The river for the Ngäbe is a sacred place, which, together with the petroglyphs of the ancestors it contains, is the vein of life through which the spiritual beings that we cannot see in plain sight move. One single dam destroys that order to replace it with an artificial lake, which is not part of the tropical ecosystem in this part of the country. The argument of the promoters of the project, that the dam is below the designated Ngäbe lands, is invalid from the criteria of the Ngäbe who respect the local ecosystem – rivers that form in the mountains and flow to the sea. 

 The pope also expresses that “it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed” (Praise be to You 146). The Ngäbe understandable do not trust the governments ‘dialogue tables’ after so many years of being disrespected, deceived and not be accepted as true actors in the decisions that dramatically affect their lives. Approval mechanisms of these projects do not take into account those who are directly affected. After presenting erroneous studies to the community, the projects are approved without considering the strong opposition of the population. 

 Recognizing that the criteria for assessing the viability of a project such as the Barro Blanco dam should include much more than the economic, the Pope says in the encyclical that for indigenous people “land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.” He asserts that it is they who know how the Tabasará River should flow, saying that “when (indigenous peoples) remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.” (Praise be to You 146). 

 Another common argument heard from the government and the company in charge of the work is that the dam is nearing completed. This is like saying “the damage is done”. According to National Geographic, 72 dams were dismantled in the United States in 2014 and nearly 900 in the past two decades. They are recovering natural ecosystems by freeing the rivers, disarming hydroelectric dams after a century of damage. The fish are now migrating up river again where more than 1,100 kilometers of river have been recovered. It is not too late to make a responsible decision about the Barro Blanco dam… dismantle the construction and let the river run free. 

 In light of the destruction of almost all the major rivers in this part of the country due to the construction of hydroelectric dams, it would be a significant step in the right direction to place the Tabasará River under environmental, social, cultural and spiritual protection, from its birth in the mountains to the sea. And at the same time, it would be significant to accept that the consumerist style of many causes grave harm to the poorest among us. It is time to hear ‘the cry of the earth, the cry of the poor’, as the pope says, who ends the encyclical saying that we can restore our damaged relationships and that we can commit ourselves in putting life above egoism and materialism. We can open our eyes and our hearts to see once again the greatness of the Lord in our ´common home´. We can hear the miracle of a mountain river flowing freely into the sea and cry out together, “Praise be to You!” 

 Published in La Estrella de Panama, Saturday, June 27, 2015