Vincentian family fighting for indigenous people in Panama

Tracy L. Barnett, writing for the Global Sisters Report, offers insight into the work done by an Eastern Province confrere and a Sister of Mercy who is the blood sister of another Eastern Province confrere.

Sr. Edia “Hermana Tita” López, pictured below, is the sister of Edgardo Lopez who is assigned in Concepcion

Sr. Edia “Hermana Tita” López holds an impromptu strategy session with members of the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of the Natural Resources and the Rights of the Ngäbe-Buglé People at the 20th anniversary celebration of the comarca in Llano Tugrí. (Tracy L. Barnett)

A sister’s role

At its peak in 2011, and again in 2012, the battle to stop the dam effectively shut down commerce in the western part of the country, as thousands of Ngäbe protestors and their allies blocked the Pan-American Highway. Mercy Sr. Edia López was among them. As was Fr. Joe Fitzgerald.

“I came into the area just to ask for a service job as a missionary with the poorest population of the country, without realizing that they were facing a very big problem with land and water,” said López, known as “Hermana Tita” throughout Chiriquí province.

A native of Chiriquí, she has been working in the comarca since 2010, when she moved from another district near the Costa Rica border. A small, animated woman with an easy laugh and a quick wit, she has witnessed the severe police repression that has occurred. She was moved to tears as she recalled seeing several indigenous activists injured in clashes.

Long before Pope Francis released “Laudato Sí, on Care for Our Common Home,” López was focused on land and water issues. “I was always interested in the struggle before the pope’s call and had a passion for the matter of caring for the common home, and I became involved in the mining struggle of the indigenous population and the local leaders,” she said. “It was a tremendous struggle.”

In the beginning, the fights against the mining and against the hydroelectric dams were linked, she said. The movement won a victory with a law to stop international investment in the mining industry in 2011 and with a new law to prohibit mining in the comarca in 2012. But a growing number of hydroelectric dams were still underway, including Barro Blanco, and the fight went on.

“I honestly didn’t know what to do, but there we were in the streets, in the protests, and in meetings with the leaders, the coordinators, the grassroots leaders,” López said. She found herself helping with logistics, with mediation with government leaders and police — roles that were beyond anything she’d imagined, but it was what needed to be done, and so she did it.

“I was just a witness, a logistical support, a moral support, a spiritual support, a friend of the leaders. I supported in any way I could.”

Victim’s Story

Bulu and his wife, Adelaida González, stood in the mud and recalled that terrible night last August when they awoke to find the waters of their sacred Tabasará River seeping into their home. They scrambled to collect their children and as many of their possessions as possible. Neighbors weren’t so lucky; their houses were completely washed downstream. A child narrowly escaped drowning in those harrowing hours.

All that remains of the farm of Bulu Bagama, a family compound that was once home to more than a dozen people (Tracy L. Barnett)

They had been given no warning, he said, and since negotiations with the government and dam builder were ongoing, the family had thought they were safe. The affected communities of Kiad, Nuevo Palomar, Quebrada de Caña and Quebrada de Plata weren’t consulted about the flooding of their lands, they say, which directly affects around 500 people but also has an important impact on the entire Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, an autonomous territory that is home to more than 150,000 individuals of the Ngäbe and Buglé indigenous groups. The Tabasará River in itself is sacred for them, as is the ceremonial site that is now submerged.

Despite the years of fierce resistance, the dam was built downstream, and last May the reservoir began to fill. Now the residents of the flooded communities are just asking that the water level be brought down to the boundary of their territory, consistent with the law.

Kiad is an important cultural and ceremonial center for the Ngäbe; there along the river lay two sets of ancient petroglyphs that contain the clues to the wisdom of their ancestors. The boulders are now completely submerged, cutting off their connection to their past.

The Honduras-based company Genisa said it was conducting a “test flooding” of an area that, according to its environmental impact statement, was uninhabited. Just another deception, opponents claim, in a long line of them, including carbon-credit certification under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a program designed under the Kyoto Protocols to allow industrialized countries to “offset” their greenhouse gas emissions by supporting sustainable development projects in less-developed countries.

International human rights and environmental groups have maintained that Barro Blanco was anything but sustainable, and that the history of human rights violations associated with the dam project should make it ineligible. Finally, the Panamanian government withdrew the CDM registration last November — a first for the CDM program.

Fr. Joe Fitzgerald’s testimony

“The tactics this company used were pretty much what all companies have used — falsifying studies, not doing interviews or doing them far from the affected communities,” said Fr. Joe Fitzgerald, a member of the Vincentian community of Soloy who has ministered to the Ngäbe people in the region for 12 years.
“Genisa has been horrible in their whole treatment of the situation.”

[See his “A Panamanan Case for Laudato Si” and “A Voice for the voiceless”]

The project was temporarily suspended in part for noncompliance with the environmental impact assessment, but the suspension was eventually withdrawn and the project continued.

Genisa, contacted by telephone and Twitter, has not responded to requests for an interview.

[Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer, editor and photographer specializing in environmental issues, indigenous rights and sustainable travel.]