Panama’s Supreme Court recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ land rights and role as guardians of the environment

By Sarah Dorman & Carla García Zendejas, Attorneys for CIEL

Originally posted on January 20, 2021 by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL, We are grateful to CIEL for allowing reproduction of this article through their Creative Commons License. The original article can be found at: 

In a key decision paving the way for the creation of the long-awaited Naso Tjër Di Comarca, Panama’s highest court confirmed the State’s obligation to secure Indigenous collective rights to land and emphasized the critical role of Indigenous Peoples in protecting biodiversity, natural resources, and the climate. The decision joins a growing chorus of similar cases aimed at upholding Indigenous Peoples’ rights around the world.

The Indigenous Naso people — like many other Indigenous Peoples around the world — have struggled for generations to retain access to and control over their ancestral territories, which are central to preserving their cultural identities, surrounding environment, and spiritual relationship with the lands that they have inhabited for millennia. Late last year, the Naso people achieved a key victory when Panama’s highest court sided with them in a ruling to uphold their communal right to their ancestral land.

As one of Panama’s seven Indigenous Peoples, the Naso people have lived in the areas surrounding the Teribe River on the northwestern edge of Panama for generations. For the last fifty years, they have sought to have their traditional lands officially recognized under Panama’s system of semi-autonomous Indigenous regions, known as comarcas. This struggle has involved numerous initiatives undertaken by the Naso people both nationally and internationally, including advocacy before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The repeated encroachments that Naso communities have endured over the years illustrate the critical need for legal recognition of the Naso people’s claims to their ancestral lands. In some instances, Naso communities have even faced violent evictions and the destruction of their homes and crops – see articles in the sub-section on ‘The Naso of Panamá’ under the land disputes section of Chapter 8 of this website.

A turning point for the Naso people came in 2018, when their decades-long campaign finally succeeded in getting Panama’s legislature to formally recognize their traditional lands by passing legislation to establish the Naso Tjër Di Comarca. However, this legislative victory was soon delivered a blow when then-President Varela vetoed the law, calling it “unenforceable” and “inconvenient.”

Ultimately, the fate of the Naso people’s territorial claim made its way to Panama’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Justice. On October 28, 2020, the Court issued its ruling in this case, paving the way for the Comarca’s creation and expanding the set of legal precedents that courts are developing around the world to uphold Indigenous Peoples’ rights.


A critical decision for Indigenous land rights

This ruling regarding the Naso people’s claims to their ancestral lands in Panama comes decades after Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (1989) and Convention 107 of the International Labour Organisation on Indigenous and Tribal Populations (1957) had established a clear international legal framework on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including their rights of ownership and possession of their traditionally occupied lands. In the years since, this legal framework has been further developed through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These instruments make clear that Indigenous Peoples have collective rights to the lands, territories, and resources that they have traditionally owned, possessed, and used and that States are responsible for ensuring legal recognition and protection for Indigenous Peoples’ lands, territories, and resources.

In considering whether the legislation creating the Naso Tjër Di Comarca should be allowed to take effect in this case, Panama’s Supreme Court of Justice emphasized that the Panamanian State has a duty to ensure Indigenous land rights. Specifically, the Court described how, according to the Panamanian Constitution, this obligation requires the Panamanian government to secure for Indigenous communities the necessary lands and collective property rights to these lands for the achievement of their economic and social well-being.

By adopting this decision, Panama’s highest court joined the ranks of other regional and national tribunals in acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ property rights over ancestral lands, such as in the landmark cases: Yakye Axa v. Paraguay and Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua, decided by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; Endorois Welfare Council v. Kenya and African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights v. Kenya (regarding the Ogiek Community of the Mau Forest), decided by the African Commission and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, respectively; and the case of the Federación de la Nacionalidad Achuar del Perú, in which a Peruvian court recognized the Federación as a self-governing entity in representation of the Achuar Indigenous Peoples and ordered the recognition and titling of their territory.


A key step forward in recognition of Indigenous Peoples as guardians of the environment

In its ruling, Panama’s highest court took another important step by explicitly recognizing the key role that Indigenous Peoples play in protecting biodiversity and maintaining a healthy environment. In its own words, the Court considered:

[W]ithout a doubt, that ancestrally the Indigenous population has preserved the environment in the places where they have settled, because they are bearers of ancient knowledge about biodiversity, plants, animals, water, and climate that allows for the sustainable use of the resources available to them. [Translation by CIEL.]

This explicit recognition by Panama’s highest court echoes the well-established understanding — expressed by such experts as Victoria Tauli-Corpuz during her tenure as the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples — that Indigenous Peoples are among the best stewards of the biodiversity, ecosystems, and natural resources that make up their environment. This is demonstrably the case in the area that is home to the Naso people, who have protected and conserved the lush tropical forest along the Teribe River, effectively preventing the deforestation that has occurred at much higher levels in surrounding areas.

Panama’s Supreme Court of Justice further emphasized the significance of the intrinsic relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the environment, adding that: 

Hence, the link between culture and the environment among Indigenous Peoples is evident. That is, from a careful analysis of their traditions, it becomes apparent that they share a spiritual, cultural, social, and economic relationship with their traditional lands. Likewise, [their] laws, customs, and traditional practices reflect both an attachment to the land and the responsibility to conserve it for the use of future generations. [Translation by CIEL.]


Going forward: Translating Indigenous land rights into effective decision-making authority

Following the decision by Panama’s Supreme Court of Justice, the executive branch was constitutionally required to move forward with ratifying the legislation creating a comarca for the Naso people. This occurred on December 4, 2020, when current President Cortizo Cohen traveled to Sieyick, the seat of government of the Naso people on the banks of the Teribe River, in order to sign the law and finally bring the Naso Tjër Di Comarca into being.

Going forward, Indigenous Peoples’ land rights must be consistently recognized and protected, as Panama’s highest court did for the Naso people in this case. At the same time, the experiences of other Indigenous communities — from the Yakye Axa in Paraguay to the Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni in Nicaragua — demonstrate that even after land rights receive recognition, political will is needed to ensure that these rights are respected and enforced. For example, in previous cases in Panama, official demarcation of Indigenous territories hasn’t been completed even after comarcas have been legally brought into being. This has left Indigenous communities — such as those who have long awaited official demarcation of the áreas anexas of the Ngäbe, Buglé, y Campesinos Comarca in Bocas del Toro — with uncertain legal status, which undermines their efforts to protect their ancestral territories in the face of outside pressures aimed at accessing their lands and exploiting their resources.

In addition, for Indigenous Peoples to be able to effectively exercise their right to conserve, restore, and protect the environment in their traditional lands, legal recognition of their rights must translate into corresponding decision-making authority over what happens in their territories in practice. Unfortunately, it has repeatedly been the case in Panama that legal recognition alone has not been sufficient to protect Indigenous lands against incursions by outsiders — such as private agriculture and tourism companies, as well as illegal miners and loggers — as has been emphasized by James Anaya, another former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Despite the challenges that remain, the recent ruling that upheld the Naso people’s territorial rights and paved the way for the creation of the Naso Tjër Di Comarca is indicative of a growing chorus of judicial decisions and government policies upholding Indigenous land rights around the world. Through this decision, Panama’s highest court has given new momentum to the ongoing work, led by Indigenous Peoples, of ensuring that their legal rights serve in practice to allow them to protect their lands and natural environment for generations to come.


By Sarah Dorman & Carla García Zendejas, Attorneys for CIEL

Corte Suprema de Panamá reconoce derechos territoriales de los pueblos indígenas y su rol como guardianes del ambiente

Sarah Dorman con Carla García Zendejas, Abogadas por CIEL

Publicado originalmente el 20 de enero de 2021 por el Centro para la Ley Ambiental Internacional (CIEL, Estamos agradecidos a CIEL por autorizar la reproducción de este artículo bajo su Licencia Creative Commons. El artículo originario se localiza a:

En la sentencia clave que allanó el camino para la creación de la esperada Comarca Naso Tjër Di, el máximo tribunal de Panamá confirmó la obligación del Estado de asegurar los derechos colectivos al territorio, enfatizando el papel crítico de los pueblos indígenas en la conservación de la biodiversidad, los recursos naturales y el clima. La sentencia hace parte de un coro creciente de casos similares dirigidos a la defensa de los derechos de los pueblos indígenas alrededor del mundo.

El pueblo indígena Naso —al igual que muchos otros pueblos indígenas alrededor del mundo— ha luchado durante generaciones para conservar el acceso y el control de sus territorios ancestrales, los cuales son fundamentales para proteger su identidad cultural, el ambiente y la relación espiritual con las tierras que han habitado por milenios. A fines del año pasado, el pueblo Naso logró una victoria clave cuando el máximo tribunal de Panamá decidió a su favor en la sentencia que protege su derecho colectivo a sus tierras ancestrales.

Siendo uno de los siete pueblos indígenas de Panamá, el pueblo Naso ha vivido a orillas del Río Teribe en el extremo noroeste del país por generaciones. Durante los últimos cincuenta años, ha buscado el reconocimiento oficial de sus tierras tradicionales de acuerdo al sistema Panameño de regiones indígenas semi-autónomas conocidas como comarcas. Esta lucha ha incluido una serie de iniciativas a nivel nacional e internacional por el pueblo Naso, incluyendo incidencia ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos.

Las repetidas invasiones que las comunidades Naso han sufrido a través de los años ilustran la necesidad crítica del reconocimiento jurídico al reclamo del pueblo Naso por sus tierras ancestrales. En algunas instancias, las comunidades Naso han enfrentado hasta desalojos violentos y la destrucción de sus hogares y cultivos – véase otros artículos en esta sub-sección de este sitio web.

Un momento crucial para el pueblo Naso surge en el 2018, cuando su campaña de décadas finalmente logró que la legislatura de Panamá reconociera formalmente sus tierras tradicionales al aprobar una ley para establecer la Comarca Naso Tjër Di. Sin embargo, este triunfo legislativo fue objeto de un golpe cuando el entonces Presidente Varela vetó la ley, llamándola “inexequible” e “inconveniente”.

Al final, el destino del reclamo territorial del pueblo Naso llegó hasta el máximo tribunal de Panamá, la Corte Suprema de Justicia. El 28 de octubre de 2020, la Corte emitió su fallo en este caso, allanando el camino para la creación de la Comarca y ampliando el conjunto de precedentes jurídicos que las cortes han desarrollado en todo el mundo en defensa de los derechos de los pueblos indígenas.


Un fallo crítico sobre los derechos territoriales indígenas

Este fallo sobre los reclamos del pueblo Naso a sus tierras ancestrales en Panamá surge décadas después de que el Convenio 169 de la Organización Internacional del Trabajo sobre Pueblos Indígenas y Tribales (1989) y el Convenio 107 de la Organización Internacional del Trabajo sobre Poblaciones Indígenas y Tribales (1957) establecieran un marco jurídico internacional claro sobre los derechos de los pueblos indígenas, incluidos sus derechos de propiedad y posesión de sus tierras tradicionalmente ocupadas. En años posteriores, este marco jurídico fue ampliado aún más a través de la Declaración de las Naciones Unidas sobre los Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas y la Declaración Americana sobre los Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas. Dichos instrumentos dejan en claro que los pueblos indígenas ejercen derechos colectivos sobre sus tierras, territorios y recursos de los cuales han tenido dominio, posesión y uso. Igualmente establecen que los Estados son responsables de asegurar el reconocimiento y protección jurídica de dichas tierras, territorios y recursos de los pueblos indígenas.

Al considerar si la ley que crea la Comarca Naso Tjër Di debiese surtir efecto, la Corte Suprema de Justicia de Panamá enfatizó que el Estado Panameño tiene el deber de asegurar los derechos territoriales indígenas. En forma específica, describe que la Constitución de Panamá ha establecido la obligatoriedad del Estado de garantizar a las comunidades indígenas la reserva de las tierras necesarias y la propiedad colectiva de las mismas para el logro de su bienestar económico y social.

Con este fallo, la suprema corte de Panamá se une a las filas de otros tribunales regionales y nacionales que han reconocido los derechos de propiedad de los pueblos indígenas sobre sus tierras ancestrales, tal y como fue en los casos emblemáticos: Yakye Axa vs. Paraguay y Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni vs. Nicaragua, decididos por la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos; Comunidad Endorois vs. Kenia y Comisión Africana de Derechos Humanos y de los Pueblos vs. Kenia (sobre la comunidad Ogiek del Bosque Mau), decididos por la Comisión Africana y por la Corte Africana de Derechos Humanos y de los Pueblos, respectivamente; y el caso de la Federación de la Nacionalidad Achuar del Perú, en el que la Corte Peruana reconoce a la Federación como entidad de autogobierno y representación del pueblo indígena Achuar y ordena el reconocimiento y la titulación de su territorio.


Un verdadero paso hacia adelante en el reconocimiento de los pueblos indígenas como guardianes del ambiente

En su fallo la suprema corte de Panamá dio otro paso importante al reconocer explícitamente el papel clave que juegan los pueblos indígenas en la protección de la biodiversidad y el mantenimiento de un ambiente sano. En sus propias palabras la Corte consideró que:

[S]in lugar a dudas, que ancestralmente la población indígena ha preservado el medio ambiente en los lugares en que se han establecido, esto debido a que son portadores de un conocimiento milenario sobre biodiversidad, plantas, animales, agua y clima que permiten la utilización sostenible de los recursos a su alcance.

Este reconocimiento explícito por parte de la suprema corte de Panamá hace eco a la establecida noción —expresada por expertos como Victoria Tauli-Corpuz durante su mandato como Relatora Especial de las Naciones Unidas sobre los derechos de los pueblos indígenas— de que los pueblos indígenas son los mejores guardianes de la biodiversidad, los ecosistemas y los recursos naturales que conforman su ambiente. Esto es evidente en el área que es hogar del pueblo Naso, quienes han protegido y conservado el exuberante bosque tropical a lo largo del Río Teribe, impidiendo efectivamente la deforestación que ha ocurrido en áreas circundantes a niveles mucho más altos.

La Suprema Corte de Justicia de Panamá enfatizó además la importancia de la relación intrínseca entre los pueblos indígenas y el ambiente, agrego que:

De ahí, que se evidencie el vínculo entre la cultura y el medio ambiente en los pueblos indígenas, y es que, de un atento análisis de sus tradiciones se hace palpable que éstos comparten una relación espiritual, cultural, social y económica con sus tierras tradicionales. Así mismo, las leyes, costumbres y prácticas tradicionales reflejan tanto una adhesión a la tierra, como la responsabilidad por la conservación de ésta en aras del uso de sus futuras generaciones.


A futuro: Convertir los derechos territoriales indígenas en autoridad decisoria efectiva 

Después del fallo de la Corte Suprema de Justicia de Panamá el poder ejecutivo tenía la obligación constitucional de sancionar la ley que crea la comarca para el pueblo Naso. Esto ocurrió el 4 de diciembre de 2020, cuando el actual Presidente Cortizo Cohen viajó a Sieyik, la sede de gobierno del pueblo Naso a las orillas del Río Teribe, para firmar la ley que finalmente logra la creación de la Comarca Naso Tjër Di.

A futuro, los derechos territoriales de los pueblos indígenas deben ser reconocidos y protegidos de manera constante, como la corte suprema logró hacer en este caso para el pueblo Naso en Panamá. Al mismo tiempo, las experiencias de otras comunidades indígenas —desde los Yakye Axa en Paraguay hasta los Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni en Nicaragua— demuestran que aun cuando se reconocen los derechos a la tierra, se requiere de voluntad política para asegurar que estos derechos se respeten y se cumplan. Por ejemplo, en casos anteriores en Panamá, no se ha llevado a cabo la delimitación oficial de tierras indígenas incluso cuando las comarcas fueron creadas conforme a derecho. Esto ha dejado a comunidades indígenas, como las que han esperado por años la demarcación oficial de las áreas anexas de la Comarca Ngäbe, Buglé, y Campesinos en Bocas del Toro, en un estado jurídico incierto, lo cual socava sus esfuerzos por proteger sus territorios ancestrales frente a presiones externas que buscan acceder a sus tierras y explotar sus recursos.

Además, para que los pueblos indígenas puedan ejercer efectivamente su derecho a conservar, restaurar y proteger el ambiente en sus territorios tradicionales, el reconocimiento jurídico debe convertirse en la correspondiente autoridad decisoria efectiva sobre lo que ocurre en sus territorios en la práctica. Lamentablemente, en reiteradas ocasiones en Panamá el reconocimiento jurídico por sí solo no ha sido suficiente para proteger las tierras indígenas contra las incursiones de extraños, como sucede con empresas privadas de agricultura y turismo, así como mineros y madereros ilegales, tal y como lo resaltó James Anaya, otro ex Relator Especial de las Naciones Unidas sobre los derechos de los pueblos indígenas.

A pesar de los desafíos que persisten, el reciente fallo en defensa los derechos territoriales del pueblo Naso allana el camino para la creación de la Comarca Naso Tjër Di y es muestra de un creciente coro de decisiones judiciales y políticas gubernamentales en defensa de los derechos territoriales indígenas en todo el mundo. A través de esta sentencia, la máxima corte de Panamá ha dado un nuevo impulso al trabajo en curso, liderado por los pueblos indígenas, para asegurar que sus derechos jurídicos sirvan en la práctica para permitirles proteger sus tierras y el ambiente natural para las generaciones venideras

Sarah Dorman con Carla García Zendejas, Abogadas para CIEL


Garifuna community continue to suffer violence

By Martin Mowforth, March 2021

The organised crime and drug trafficking syndicate of Honduras (also known as the government of Honduras) continues to promote tourist developments and other extractive industries throughout the country and to favour foreign investors, especially Canadian and US, over Honduran people. A particularly disadvantaged and threatened group is the Garífuna community based largely on the northern coast of the country, as articles in Chapter 8 of The Violence of Development website expose.


On 4th March this year two Garífuna rights defenders were assassinated in La Ceiba. They were Martin Abad Pandy and Víctor Martínez. Martin Pandy was President of the Garífuna community council, and both were members of the Corozal community. In February in the same area Fernando Padilla was also murdered by hired assassins. Two Garífuna environmental defenders, Jenifer Sarina and Marianela Mejía Solórzano, were also detained.

Pandy (shown here) was noted for his entrepreneurship through his small grocery store, his help for members of the community and for his work with Garífuna youths. Luther Castillo, a Garífuna rights activist, explained: “My Corozal village is once again a victim of organised crime, which has installed itself in sight of the security entities in the area. They cynically facilitate the criminality that murders our people, extorts our entrepreneurs, and plunders our resources.”

Naama Ávila, a lawyer and defender of the Garífuna people, also described the response of the security forces as cycnical. She described the communities as living in fear because the foreigners who come and impose themselves on the community are soon followed by daily acts of violence. Ávila knew Pandy and said, “I am a witness of his love for the people, his work, his humility, and his desire to see Corozal move forward.”

According to the Honduran Black Fraternal Organisation (OFRANEH), the two Garífuna environmental defenders were arrested on trumped-up charges of usurpation and damages to a real estate company whose origins are Canadian. Both of them are leaders of the community of Cristales whose land is under threat in the department of Colón and both are members of OFRANEH. In their initial hearing on 7th March, the judge denied access to national and international human rights organisations and the court was filled with army personnel and police which generated an atmosphere of hostility towards the community members who attended. This is and was a clear example of intimidatory criminalisation – see the article on SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) in the final section of Chapter 9 of this website.

Jenifer Sarina and Marianela Mejía Solorzano, Garifuna land defenders illegally jailed by regime in land dispute related to “Residencias Las Conchas”, where NJOI Trujillo Beach Residences operates from. [Photo from Rights Action]

On March 18, it will be eight months since the forced disappearance of the Garifuna Five, leaders of Triunfo de la Cruz, forcibly removed by a squadron in military fatigues. Since then, defenders of life have demanded the government give an explanation for Alberth Snaider Centeno Tomás, as well as Milton Joel Martínez Álvarez, Suami Aparicio Mejía, Albert Sentana Thomas and Junior Rafael Juarez Mejía.

Many suspect government complicity in the crime: the administration of President Juan Orlando Hernández, which until recently has been strongly backed by US administrations, is accused by activists of being behind “a well-crafted plan to exterminate the Garífuna community.” Palm-lined and pristine, Garifuna territory has long been coveted by tourism developers and palm oil barons historically favoured by this government of organised crime.

In relation to these and many more crimes, OFRANEH urges the national and international community to come to the aid of the Garifuna community fighting for the defence of their ancestral territory and the protection of their rights as a distinct and at-risk people.


  • Telesur, 4 March 2021, ‘Gunmen Kill Garífuna Indigenous Leader in Honduras’
  • Rights Action, 8 March 2021, ‘Garífuna people between jail and grave – Two more killed’
  • Federación Internacional Por Los Derechos Humanos: ‘Honduras: Criminalización de las defensoras garífunas Marianela y Jennifer Mejía Solórzano’, available at:
  • Vice World News, August 2020, ‘5 Black Men Kidnapped by ‘Police’ in Honduras Are Still Missing’, available at: 5 Black Men Kidnapped by ‘Police’ in Honduras Are Still Missing (

An audio clip of a 2010 interview with Berta Cáceres

In 2010 Dominic McCann, Kerstin Hansen, the late Juliette Doman and Michael Farley conducted an interview with Berta Cáceres in her home town of La Esperanza in the department of Intibucá, Honduras. The interview was conducted on behalf of the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA) which had recently supported a programme of cultivation of medicinal plants run by COPINH, the Honduran organisation of which Berta was the Director. To commemorate the 5th anniversary of Berta’s assassination, Dominic circulated an audio clip (of just under 5 minutes) of their interview with Berta. The clip is in Spanish only, and a link to it is given below the picture of Berta and the text following.

Berta Cáceres 

Interviewee: Berta Cáceres, leader of COPINH, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Peoples of Honduras
Interviewers: Dominic McCann, Kerstin Hansen, Juliette Doman and Michael Farley
Location: Intibucá, Honduras
Date: March 2010
Theme: COPINH; resistance; indigenous knowledge.

  1. The full interview with Berta can be found at:
  2. The reader is referred to Chapter 4of this website for news of the award of the Goldman Environmental Prize to Berta Cáceresfor her leadership of COPINH’s struggle against hydro-electric power projects in Honduras, and in particular for a link to a video clip of her acceptance speech:
  3. Further below the link to the interview clip with Berta is another short recording made by Dominic of some community singing in San Francisco de Opalaca, Honduras, one of the communities with which COPINH worked.

From Dominic McCann:

For those who are interested this is part of an interview I recorded with Berta Caceres in 2010

Or listen here:

And if you want to hear some uplifting singing from Copinh community:

Maya Communities Respond to Land Predation and FPIC Violation in Belize

Levi Gahman, Shelda-Jane Smith, and Filiberto Penados

December 15, 2020

We are grateful to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) for permission to reproduce this article on The Violence of Development website. NACLA Report on the Americas is a progressive magazine covering Latin America and its relationship with the United States –  More details on the authors, to whom we are also very grateful, are given at the end of the article. The original article can be found at:

Even after the Maya’s watershed 2015 Caribbean Court of Justice land rights victory, the Government of Belize continues to condone land grabs in Indigenous territory.

Survey workers in an unmarked vehicle place survey pegs without FPIC near Laguna, Belize. (Julian Cho Society)

Maya villages in Toledo District, Belize reported that during October [2020] speculators illegally opened survey lines in an attempted land grab.  The lines were established without Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), cut through forests and corn and cacao fields, and the living spaces and homes of Maya families. The survey activity was reported in a press release issued by the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) and Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA).

State-sanctioned FPIC violations against Qʼeqchiʼ and Mopan Maya communities have been going on for decades. But these most recent encroachments call into question the Government of Belize (GoB)’s commitment to recognizing Indigenous land rights. They occur five years after the Maya won an unprecedented legal victory in the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) regarding the recognition of Indigenous land rights. The 2015 CCJ decision affirmed that communal land tenure of Maya communities is commensurate with property rights found in the Belizean constitution. Since the ruling, however, the GoB has not complied and refused to meaningfully engage in delimiting and protecting Maya lands, which are conditions of the CCJ order.

Maya Alcaldes (traditional leaders) led investigations into the recent unauthorized surveying and found that it involves foreign parties, non-Maya individuals from outside of Toledo District, and speculators from southern Belize. Surveyors were claiming between 30 and 400 acres of land, which contravenes the 2015 CCJ order, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which the GoB adopted in 2007. Land predation of this nature, which violates FPIC, has historically facilitated dispossession, corporate extraction, and environmental damage to Maya lands.

Cease and Desist: The Maya Response

Qʼeqchiʼ and Mopan villages are located throughout the southernmost region of Belize, Toledo District. Within Toledo District, there are 39 Maya communities that comprise over 20,000 Maya people. Each community has two traditional leaders, called alcaldes, meaning 78 alcaldes constitute the TAA. The TAA is the main representative body and highest central authority of the Maya people in the region, which has historically had a complex relationship with the national government. The communities are also supported by an autonomous social movement, the MLA, which is made up of Maya land defenders.

Upon being alerted of the incursions by village leaders, the MLA and TAA issued a formal statement reminding the GoB that it is legally obligated to, “…cease and abstain from any acts, whether by the agents of the government itself or third parties… …that might adversely affect the value, use, or enjoyment of the lands that are used and occupied by the Maya villages, unless such acts are preceded by consultation with [Maya people] in order to obtain their informed consent.”

In an interview reproving the encroachments shortly after they were reported, Maya land defender and MLA spokesperson, Cristina Coc, pointed out that the increase in FPIC violations were coinciding with the run-up to the national election in Belize, which took place on November 11, stating, “…one has to ask the question whether or not it is politically motivated, and whether or not it is related to what we have seen historically in Belize, where around campaign time politicians offer land in exchange for votes.”

Upon denouncing the attempted land grabs at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), the MLA and TAA submitted a request for precautionary measures against the GoB to halt all illegal activity. Rather than an isolated issue related to the ownership of private property, movement activists reiterated that grabbing communal Maya lands poses a grave threat to the material wellbeing and cultural survival of Qʼeqchiʼ and Mopan people who are experiencing the slow violence of dispossession and extractivism.

This is a story about Indigenous resistance to ongoing assertions of post-colonial power, capitalist logics, and Western worldviews. The GoB is based upon a Westminster model of governance imposed by British imperialists that has failed former colonies all over the world. Moreover, the GoB has a track record of abetting multinational corporations while repudiating Indigenous people’s claims to communal land ownership, notions of complex tenure, and right to self-determination. Coc, who has bore witness to decades of state-sponsored FPIC violations, summed up the GoB’s persistent penchant for land grabbing by stating, “there’s always been incursions on Mayan land; this is exactly why we went to the courts (CCJ) to seek affirmation of protection.”


Denial and Disavowal: The State Response

The GoB’s response to the Maya came on October 30. Patrick Faber, leader of the then ruling United Democratic Party, admitted that, in accordance with the CCJ decision, the presence of surveyors without the consent of the Maya would indeed be illegal. But he dismissed the allegations by the Maya and Coc by stating, “I listened very carefully as Miss Coc spoke and there is no evidence to that [surveying] happening… …She is only telling you what she saw and what people reported is happening but no concrete evidence of anything happening.”

Despite the Maya issuing written reports with photographs to both the Lands and Surveys Department and Attorney General, the GoB rejected the claims by suggesting there was no evidence. Incidentally, for nearly a year in 2015-2016, Coc, along with 12 other Maya activists, were detained, jailed, and dragged through the courts by the GoB after protecting a sacred heritage site against similar incursions. Despite the criminalization, all the charges levied against the Maya environmental defenders were eventually dismissed.

Similar to Faber’s response, Belize’s Attorney General, Michael Peyrefitte, implying the Maya were merely trying to make the government look bad, said to Coc, “…if you have a legal issue ma’am, go dah court. To me, you don’t really have a legal issue because if you had a real legal issue, you would go to court, you wouldn’t go to the media.” Peyrefitte then went on to suggest the Maya wanted a “separate country” and that Indigenous people’s self-determination was irrelevant in the face of state power, asserting, “they [the Maya] may not like to hear that… …nothing can stop the executive of the country to do what it feels like it needs to do for the betterment of the country.”

A survey line cut through a forest near the Maya community of Golden Stream. (Julian Cho Society)

The Attorney General’s response ignores the actual allegations of land grabbing being made against the GoB. Instead, Peyrefitte suggests the encroachment claims are irrelevant because “they want their own country,” which is a rhetorical attempt to undermine both Coc’s credibility and the validity of the reports issued by Maya Alcaldes. The state’s evasive response was a divisive disavowal of Maya land rights. And by prioritizing the desires of private capital over Indigenous people’s customary systems, relationships with the environment, and livelihood strategies, which the GoB has a history of, it is also  hostile and dehumanizing.


State Authoritarianism vs. Indigenous Autonomy

When we consider the GoB’s response alongside the ongoing struggle for Indigenous land rights in southern Belize, three issues require urgent attention.

Firstly, good faith leadership is lacking because the government refuses to investigate the claims of Maya Alcaldes. The GoB insists that because the Maya used the media to raise awareness about FPIC violations, they do not have a ‘real’ issue. This argument is nonsensical and contrived.

Secondly, when Indigenous people report violations to government agencies, agencies are slow to investigate––if they investigate at all. Moreover, arguing Indigenous people must always operate (i.e. “go to court”) and exist on the state’s terms is colonial. This is not an uncommon refrain from the state, though, as the GoB realizes that going to court for rural subsistence-based Maya communities is an expensive and protracted process. Certain government agents also realize that, even if the courts rule against the state, it can get away with violating decisions and rule of law, as it has done before.

Why, when under legal mandate to protect Maya land rights, are the claims discounted without investigation? Furthermore, in addition to photographs and reports, what would satisfy the state’s need for and definition of ‘concrete evidence’?

Lastly, the imperious tones of Faber and Peyrefitte’s responses are not only dismissive, but dangerous––and not only for the Maya. Peyrefitte says, “…nothing can stop the executive of the country to do what it feels like it needs to do for the betterment of the country.” This is authoritarian nationalism par excellence and should concern the whole of Belize.

The GoB’s lack of rights-based leadership and draconian posturing is nothing new. Back in 2015, when the CCJ ruling was passed in favour of the Maya, the GoB’s Attorney General was quick to diminish Maya customary tenure by stating Indigenous land rights “cannot trump the constitutional authority of the government.” Hence, the state appears only to be willing to take the lead on refuting the rights of Indigenous people and fettering Maya autonomy.

Maya leaders afforded the GoB the opportunity to demonstrate good faith adherence to consent processes and strengthen its relationship with Maya communities. It was also a chance for state officials to denounce FPIC violations, prevent deleterious land encroachments, and uphold its obligation to protect customary Maya land rights, as ordered by the CCJ. Instead, the GoB doubted the veracity of the Alcaldes’ reports, attacked the credibility of Maya people, attempted to turn the larger population against the Maya, and declared to all citizens of Belize it could impose upon them whatever it wanted, arbitrarily, for “the betterment of the country.”


The Reality of Land Grabs under Covid-19

These encroachments on Maya land during the pandemic threaten their livelihoods, says, MLA spokesperson Cristina Coc:

…not only are farms and milpas being affected, but even residential areas where we have our own villages living. This is concerning because it impacts our livelihood, and we have seen throughout the Covid pandemic how valuable land is, and how valuable the production of land is for the food security of Mayan communities and Belizeans alike.

We recognize that the government cannot feed our people, they cannot employ all of our people, they cannot rescue us from this economic spiral that we’re experiencing. But what we can do is provide full security for our people by protecting their tenure on the land…

…it is very alarming that the government would allow such actions–––the Maya communities have been informed and are aware that there is a standing consent order that affirms our rights and protects ancestral rights to lands and territories.

The authoritarian behaviour and contemptuous rhetoric of the GoB continues to disrupt Indigenous life and close avenues for Maya people to exercise their rights and have their voices heard. It is also signalling to all Belizean people that the state is more than willing to sacrifice the rights and wellbeing of the marginalized at the altar of ‘development.’

Filiberto Penados is Chair of the Julian Cho Society and technical advisor to the Toledo Alcaldes Association and Maya Leaders Alliance. His research focuses on Indigenous future-making.

Shelda-Jane Smith’s research focuses on the conceptual, social, and political dimensions of contemporary psychology and biomedical practice, with an emphasis on youth wellness.

Levi Gahman focuses on emancipatory praxis, environmental defence, and engaged movement research. He is author of Land, God, & Guns: Settler Colonialism & Masculinity (Zed Scholar).

This research was supported by a Heritage, Dignity, and Violence Programme Grant from the British Academy under the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (Award: HDV190078), for which all the authors are co-investigators and collaborators.


‘Canadian tourism mafia’ file trumped-up charges against Garífuna leader Miriam Miranda in Honduras’ corrupted legal system

Honduras Solidarity Network and Rights Action alert, November 17, 2017


Article reproduced here by kind permission of Grahame Russell of Rights Action and Karen Spring of the Honduras Solidarity Network.

Original posting by Rights Action at:

A member of the ‘Canadian tourism mafia’ along Honduras’ north coast, that includes Patrick Forseth and Randy “the porn king” Jorgensen, filed trumped-up charges against indigenous Garifuna leader Miriam Miranda and three other women, in Honduras’ corrupted legal system.

(Miriam Miranda, General Coordinator of OFRANEH demanding justice at a large protest outside of the Honduran Supreme Court in Tegucigalpa on the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Lenca indigenous activist, Berta Caceres of COPINH. Photo: Karen Spring)

The four must go to court, November 24, to respond to these “charges”.  They potentially face up to 2-3 years in jail, and now must spend time and resources (of the few they have) to defend themselves from these manipulative charges.

Canadian tourism investor Patrick Forseth, of the CARIVIDA Villas company, has falsely accused Miriam Miranda, the General Coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), and three other Garifuna women – Medeline David, Neny Heidy Avila, and Letty Bernardez – of slander and defamation.

Miriam Miranda is a leading Honduran Garífuna activist who has faced numerous threats and direct acts of repression for her courageous, articulate long-time work with OFRANEH and other Honduran groups and movements.

The reasons behind the malicious charges against these four Garífuna women are quite simple.  Forseth and CARIVIDA are involved in a major land dispute with the indigenous Garifuna community of Guadalupe in Trujillo Bay, located on the Caribbean coast of Honduras.  Forseth has used several very questionable legal maneuvers in the now (since the 2009 military coup) deeply corrupted Honduran legal system, to criminalize any indigenous Garífuna people involved in land, territory and human rights defence work, in order to further claims that CARIVIDA’s illegal land purchase in Guadalupe was valid.

One of the local woman being charged, Medeline David already faces charges of illegal possession of land as a result of her participation in a community-led land reclamation project to recuperate their own land – land in dispute with CARIVIDA.

Geovanny Bernardez, another OFRANEH leader and other Guadalupe community activists including leader, Celso Guillen, also face charges laid by the Honduran state and CARIVIDA as a result of the same land dispute.

The legal case against Miranda and the 3 women was presented on May 26, 2017 and the first court hearing is scheduled for November 24, 2017.  If found guilty, Miriam, Medeline, Neny, and Letty could face up to 2-3 years in prison.

This defamation accusation is a clear example of how wealthy North Americans use and take advantage of the impunity and corruption in Honduras’ post 2009 military coup political and legal systems to criminalize people that resist their economic interests and projects.

The land defence project in the Garífuna community of Guadalupe in Trujillo Bay. The area where many community members are camping out is the land that is claimed to be owned by Patrick Forseth. Forseth plans to build a resort and villa project on the land. (Photo Karen Spring)

As the General Coordinator of OFRANEH, Miranda is being directly targeted in an attempt to silence the resistance of Garifuna communities not only in Trujillo Bay, but in other land disputes across the coast of Honduras.

Forseth is the husband of the stepdaughter of Canadian businessman, Randy Jorgensen (“the Porn King”) who owns and operates several gated community projects in the same Trujillo Bay region.  Some of Jorgensen’s tourist projects are adjacent to the land that Forseth claims he owns and “legally purchased.”

Forseth, Jorgensen and other North Americans continue to take control of lands that are inside ancestral indigenous Garífuna titles, some of which date as far back as the 1860s. Jorgensen is facing charges of illegal possession of land for his project Campa Vista owned by his company, Life Vision Development.

Karen Spring, Honduras Solidarity Network,
Grahame Russell, Rights Action,


OFRANEH members denounced for defamation by Canadian tourism investors Patrick Daniel Forseth (Carivida Villas) and Randy Jorgensen (Life Vision Developments)

Lands To Die For: The Garifuna Struggle In Honduras
December 20, 2016, CCTV Americas
35 minute film about violent and corrupt challenges facing the Garífuna people, lead by the OFRANEH organisation, in the context of the violence and repression, impunity and corruption that characterise the Honduran military, economic and political elites and their international partners.

Miriam Miranda, OFRANEH leader, detained and threatened by Honduran police
On January 11, 2017, Miriam Miranda and three other members of OFRANEH (Fraternal Organisation of Black and Garífuna Peoples) – Luís Gutiérrez, Oscar Gaboa, Luís Miranda – were illegally detained and threatened by police at a roadside stop in La Ceiba, along Honduras’ north coast.

The Canadian porn king and the Caribbean paradise: Is a businessman taking advantage of lawlessness to scoop up land?
November 20, 2016, by Marina Jimenez

The U.S. and Canada Have Blood on Their Hands in Honduras
October 22, 2016, by Grahame Russell


Carivida Villas
(778) 242-8678
Carivida Club Café
Trujillo, Colón, Honduras

Life Vision Properties
90 Admiral Blvd. Mississauga, ON, Canada, L5T 2W1
1 (416) 900-6098

Ambassador Michael Gort, Embassy of Canada in Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua, Tel: (504) 2232-4551;;

More information

OFRANEH (Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña),,





Copyright © 2017 Rights Action, All rights reserved.

Rights Action

Box 50887


Washington, DC 0


The Naso of Panama and their land demarcation struggles

The indigenous Naso people occupy a region of north-west Panama in the Bocas del Toro province, with a population of approximately 3,500. They live in 11 communities along the Teribe River and survive primarily as subsistence farmers. Their territory lies within two protected areas rich in biodiversity: the Palo Seco National Forest and La Amistad International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. They are one of the few remaining indigenous peoples in the Americas to have a monarchy recognised by the state.

Like many indigenous peoples, the problems faced by the Naso are rooted in their ongoing struggle for legal recognition of their traditional lands. The Naso people of the Bocas del Toro province in western Panama never enjoyed the benefit of Omar Torrijos’ 1970s designation of indigenous lands as comarcas within which they would enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy and in which land could be held communally rather than individually. As a result, they have had to continue their struggle to retain their territory since the 1960s. According to Osvaldo Jordan of the Panamanian NGO, Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD):

The Naso were unable to create sufficient public pressure for the creation of their comarca when the government still had a favourable opinion towards these autonomous territories. Now, the public consensus has turned against comarcas and the Naso are left trapped in this situation.[1]

Without official recognition of their comarca by the Panamanian government, the Naso stand in a weak position to defend their right to autonomy and self-determination. Without appropriate legal recognition and control over their territory, they feel unable to confront recent processes of acculturation and globalisation. Refusing legal title to the Naso territory constitutes a violation of the Naso’s rights according to the country’s constitution, as well as violating the American Convention of Human Rights. [2]

The Naso face two particular developments brought by the predominant Panamanian society. Both of these are especially crucial to the survival of their environment and their culture. The first of these is an ongoing battle with a cattle ranching company; and the second concerns the construction of the Bonyic dam and access roads to it.

Land conflicts between the Naso and the livestock company Ganadera Bocas are ongoing and have often turned violent. The disputed land is claimed by the Naso on grounds of ancestral ownership, whilst Ganadera Bocas possess a property title stating legal ownership since 1962.[3] Felix Sánchez, President of the Naso Foundation, explains the origins of the land ownership conflict:

“the Standard Fruit Company at that time [early 1960s] were the bosses, but at the same time they were not the owners; they were the nation’s tenants and not the legitimate owners. But afterwards in the seventies, the company went up for sale as a business, changing its name to one which had possession of the land amidst a pile of rules and arrangements which they made. That’s when it all started happening.”[4]

The Naso see this supposed ownership of their land by Ganadera Bocas as false and as having been conjured up by lawyers years ago rather than by any legitimate purchase. The conflict this has caused is still being played out on the ground today.

On 30 March 2009, police and employees of Ganadera Bocas entered the Naso villages of San San and San San Druy with heavy machinery, destroying 30 homes and the Naso Cultural Centre, the construction of which was only completed the previous day. Protests continued throughout 2009 and 2010, with a Naso camp based in Panama City, demanding that the government grant them the right to live on their land.[5]

In September 2009, the local mayor of Changuinola attended a meeting of the residents of the Naso village of San San Druy with King Valentín Santana and other Naso leaders in attendance.[6] This was an amicable meeting with considerable sympathy and empathy between the mayor and the residents. But two months later on 19 November 2009, the police moved in again and allowed the Ganadera Bocas company to enter with their machinery to destroy the village for a second time that year.[7] The photograph collage that follows this text illustrates a little of the Naso’s experience at the hands of Ganadera Bocas.

Indigenous comarcas of Panama

Indigenous comarcas of Panama

This struggle has not been helped by a division within the Naso people between King Valentín Santana and King Tito Santana. Interviews with Felix Sánchez and with King Valentín and the recording of the meeting with the local mayor made it crystal clear that the people of San San Druy community saw only King Valentín as their valid representative. Moreover, the villagers of San San Druy overwhelmingly saw Tito Santana as corrupt, having accepted money from Ganadera Bocas and having deserted the village. Doña Lupita from San San Druy, for instance, said: “King Tito says that he is the true king, but he is the government’s king. We recognise Valentín Santana – he is our king because he [Tito] has left the community. … We don’t recognise Tito as king because he is selling us out.”[8]

The second of their major battles is against the development megaproject of the $51m Bonyic hydroelectric dam, sponsored by Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) which has a 75 per cent controlling stake in the Panamanian generating company Hidroecológica del Teribe (HET), the company which is building the hydroelectric plant.[9] The Bonyic dam is one of four planned in the Bocas del Toro province – known as the Changuinola-Teribe Dams – with a combined estimated capacity of 446 megawatts, equivalent to 30 per cent of Panama’s total production in the year 2004.[10] However, as with most development projects, the costs and benefits are rarely equitably distributed and the Naso may stand to lose more than they gain.

The Bonyic project has caused yet more rifts within the Naso people. Their former king Tito Santana collaborated with EPM, keen to embrace the advantages of modernity and development, including the offer of a school, clinic, jobs, infrastructure and university scholarships. His support for the project provoked a revolt and he was forced into exile in 2004, with his uncle Valentín Santana assuming his position, backed by opponents of the project. The government, however, continues to recognise Tito as the legitimate king. As Rory Carroll commented in the Guardian “the discord reflects an anguished debate about Naso identity and the balance between heritage and modernity”. [11]

Supporters of King Valentín Santana doubt that benefits will compensate for the environmental and social costs of the dam, and maintain that the project will destroy their cultural and natural heritage. A new highway is planned to connect the population of the large town Changuinola with the dam, which will undoubtedly bring radical changes to their lives including migration. The testimony of some of the Naso opponents to the project is given in The testimony of the Naso given in the interviews section of this website includes the words of Alicia Quintero whose land stands in the way of the proposed road.

The project received an early setback in 2005 when the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) rejected an application to finance the dam, its rejection being at least partly based on the inadequate environmental impact assessment. This represented a clear victory for the Naso opponents, but funding was raised by HET from private sources and construction began in 2007. Since construction work began, human rights abuses of the Naso have also taken place, these including the detention of fourteen Naso people and sexual assaults of Naso women. Additionally, local police officers work as armed security guards for the development during their out-of-work hours; the Panamanian environment ministry granted to the developer the right to administer land that belongs to the Naso; and clearance and construction work along the valley began illegally in February 2009 before the Panamanian government gave permission for it to do so, which they did in March 2010.

On 30 November 2009 the Naso resistance movement reported on the ongoing struggles. Extracts from their communication are given below.

Naso leaders of the San San Druy and San San communities have accepted the establishment of a round table of negotiation with the government on a possible comarca and under the coordination of the President of the Commission of Indigenous Affairs, Leopoldo Archibold. The proposal was accepted this morning in a meeting with the Indigenist Policy Group and the Vice-Minister of Government and Justice and to which the executive invited the illegitimate King Tito Santana, dismissed by the community and an habitual associate of Empresas Públicas de Medellín and Ganadera Bocas. The round table starts work on 11 December and is made up of 10 delegates of the legitimate King Valentín Santana and 10 of Tito Santana. Although these accords have been reached, the Minister of Government and Justice, José Raúl Mulino, insisted on calling the residents of San San Druy and San San ‘squatters’, and likewise his director of the Indigenist Policy Group, José Isaac Acosta, was contemptuous of the community, insinuating that they are incited by NGOs and foreigners. The Naso leaders accepted the round table although without much hope of reaching a good solution given the repeated failure of the government to comply with the most basic accords which have been reached over the previous eight months.[12]

On 10 December 2009, a day before the planned meeting, with no explanation, the government unilaterally suspended the round table planned for the following day. Comuna Sur reported that

… theoretically, the purpose of the meeting was to begin discussions about the creation of a new Naso comarca. However, following the pattern of recent months, everything has been suspended without any convincing reason and without a new date. So the Naso communities of San San Druy and San San continue to re-build their houses on the land in conflict under the view of private security agents. According to the director of the Indigenist Policy Unit in Panama, there is no conflict with the indigenous people. In this way, they try to make them invisible so that they cease to exist. But the communities in resistance constantly remind themselves that their rights are being denied.[13]

Opponents of the Bonyic project include more than just the Naso people. In 2010 the international heavyweight organisation IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) and the World Heritage Centre reported their concern about the impacts of all four proposed dams:

The World Heritage Centre and IUCN conclude that it will likely be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to adequately mitigate the habitat loss and fragmentation effects of the proposed dams on the property’s freshwater ecosystem, and that the possible secondary and cumulative effects of eliminating up to 16 migratory aquatic species within portions of the property may significantly affect predatory bird and mammal populations. Until the State Party of Panama investigates alternatives to the four proposed dams through a detailed transboundary Strategic Environmental Assessment process, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN recommend that all dam construction be halted to safeguard the property’s values and integrity.[14]

The International Rivers Network has also demonstrated major holes in the preparation and arguments in favour of the Bonyic dam and in the company’s underhand tactics to gain Naso approval for the project.[15] The Global Greengrants Fund has also lent its weight in support of those who oppose the project.[16] The Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF) website has a HydroCalculator tool which can be used to estimate basic economic feasibility analyses of hydro-electric projects as well as summarising their social and environmental costs. For instance, their calculator produces a statistics for the number of displaced persons per megawatt of electricity produced. From their analysis of the four Changuinola – Teribe Dams, they conclude that “the projects would most likely be both economically and financially feasible. Nonetheless, they would cause environmental damage in an area of global conservation interest and impose serious hardship on indigenous communities living along these rivers.”[17]

Most Third World governments serve as agents of the prevailing economic model of development, and in that role they are keen to capitalise on the income potential represented by natural resources within their national boundaries. Exploitation of natural resources such as mineral wealth, timber, plant diversity, hydroelectric energy and even wildlife has proven easy to exploit if destruction of the natural environment and removal of its inhabitants can be disregarded. And some Central American governments have indeed managed to disregard the natural ecosystems in their ‘development’ of natural resources whilst at the same time waxing lyrical about the need to protect the environment.

[1] Personal communication
[2] Environmental Defender Law Center (accessed 16 July 2009)
[3] (accessed 16 July 2009)
[4] Felix Sánchez interviewed for this book, San San Druy, Panama, 1 September 2009.
[5] (accessed 16 July 2009)
[6] The meeting in San San Druy on 1 September 2009 was recorded for the purposes of this book, and the quotes from Naso residents and leaders which appear in this chapter are taken mainly from this recording.
[7] Karis McLaughlin and Martin Mowforth (December 2009) ‘For the second time this year the Naso have their houses destroyed to make way for a cattle ranching company’, ENCA Newsletter No. 49, Environmental Network for Central America, London.
[8] Doña Lupita in meeting with Mayor of Changuinola, Panama, in the village of San San Druy, 1 September 2009.
[9] OneMBA (6 November 2003) ‘EPM pagará US$6,6mn por Teribe’,*6,6mn_por_Teribe (accessed 15.06.11).
[10] Cordero, S., Montenegro, R., Mafla, M., Burgués, I., and Reid, J. (2006) ‘Análisis de costo beneficio de cuatro proyectos hidroeléctricos en la cuenca Changuinola-Teribe’, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (July).
[11] Rory Carroll, ‘Hydro plant splits jungle kingdom as tribe feels damned by new way of life’, The Guardian, 16 June 2008
[13] Comuna Sur (2009) ‘Gobierno de Panama falta una vez más a sus compromisos’, email communication, 10 December 2009
[14] World Heritage Centre and International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) (2010) ‘State of conservation of World Heritage properties inscribed on the World Heritage List’, WHC-10/34.COM/7B, p.86.
[15] Payal Parekh (2010) ‘Comments on the Bonyic Hydroelectric Project (Panama)’, International Rivers website: (accessed 14 June 2011).
[16] Global Greengrants Fund (1 August 2006) ‘Panama: Fighting Hydroelectric Dams’, (accessed 14 June 2011).
[17] Tathi Bezerra (24 March 2009) ‘Changuinola – Teribe Dams in Panama’, Conservation Strategy Fund website: (accessed 14.06.11).

“In all of Latin America there is resistance against dams” Gustavo Castro, ecologist

The activist points out that development of hydroelectric megaprojects continues to aggravate climate change.

By Vinicio Chacón, Semanario Universidad (Costa Rica), 

Sep 21st 2016. | Translated by Rick Blower

 Key words: Berta Cáceres; COPINH; criminalization; hydro-electricity; climate change; Kyoto Protocol; free trade treaties.

 The Mexican ecologist, Gustavo Castro, gained notoriety by being the sole witness to the assassination of Berta Caceres, the Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist, on March 2nd [2016].

Castro is the leader of the organisation Other Worlds – Friends of the Earth and with calm but with forcefulness took on the Honduran judiciary, who, with incredible manipulation, sought to charge activists of the Civic Council of Popular Organisations and Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH) with the assassination.

From COPINH, Cáceres led the Lenca peoples’ fight against the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project (PH), a project of the company Desarrollos Energeticos S.A. (DESA).

In Costa Rica to participate in the II Latin American Congress on Environmental Conflicts (COLCA), Gustavo Castro spoke with Semanario Universidad in an interview coordinated through the Conservation Federation of Costa Rica (FECON).

What awakened your ecological conscience?

“It was a process of spending many years participating in co-operatives; I worked a lot with Guatemalan refugees who had come from the war. The jump to the fight for environmental causes came about in the nineties, when many investment projects came into the country after the North America Free Trade Agreement (NALCA), which obviously favoured the transnationals and the plunder of the country.

They were the country’s oil, gas, use of water, electricity, etc. It was not that there were no conflicts before, but when these pass into the hands of the corporations, they demand yet more favourable conditions for investment. They begin to modify the Water and the Mineral Laws, to hand over to the large mining companies the exploitation of gold, silver, strategic minerals of the country; now with the energy and also oil and gas reforms. This, in one way or another, begins to impact more and more on the environment, then begins a fight with more force about the defence of the territories; but also when we begin to see the deforestation that causes the infrastructure to favour the investments, not only in my case, but also in the peasant and indigenous communities you begin to have a greater awareness on the environmental impact.”

When did you begin to have contact with COPINH and Berta Caceres?

“I knew Berta in 1999, when we began to call for many processes of resistance, amongst them the creation of the Convergence of the Movement of the Peoples of the Americas, the Hemispheric Meeting against Militarisation, or the meeting against the Plan Puebla Panamá. We used to organise all of these meetings in Chiapas, later we repeated them in Honduras. A connection was made around the process of resistance in which we and COPINH not only took part but the whole region of Mesoamerica. There was much affinity in the process of putting together the movement with Berta and COPINH for more than 15 years.”

What is the most important lesson that you can take from the history of Berta Caceres?

“It is very difficult to name just one, because she was a very complex person, in the sense that she was very lovely, a very coherent person who had the capacity of structural analysis; also she could communicate strongly both with academics and members of congress, and at the same time she was involved in mobilization with the people.

“She was extremely respected and very tenacious, a very brave woman, always at the front of all COPINH demonstrations. Berta was very coherent in her analysis, her speeches and her attitude with the people and with the movement.

“With Berta’s assassination her personality was reborn on all fronts. As we say, Berta did not die, she multiplied, her presence is very strong.

“She was a happy person, she was very optimistic in spite of all of the adversity, even though she received many threats and assassination attempts.”

After the assassination was carried out and the hitmen took you for dead as well, what was the attitude of the authorities?

“I believe that what first took them by surprise was that there was a witness, they did not expect that. I arrived a day earlier at La Esperanza, (where Berta lived), so I think that only COPINH and Berta knew that I was going to be there. I believe that it was intended to be a ‘clean’ assassination, where Berta would be alone in her home. When they realised that there was a witness, they had to modify the scene of the crime and begin to make up a way to criminalize and implicate COPINH. They failed, so they begin to look at how to criminalize me.

“The authorities were unable to present to Berta’s family a credible version of events leading to the assassination, COPINH, the national community or the international community, when there was so much background information and the origin of the problem was very clear.

“For this reason they somehow tried to detain me in an illegal way in the country in order to find a way to impute me. In the end those who ended up being sacrificed are the manager of the company, the army and the hitmen. We know that they are not the only ones who are involved.

“The deal that they gave me was like a record card, as an object of proof, violating my human rights but also many judicial procedures. Everyone knows why, in the press, it emerged how the crime scene was altered. In those first days there were very many irregularities in the investigative process.”

Even when they produced an artist’s impression, the artist drew another person.

“I didn’t know that while I was in the Public Ministry, they had detained a member of COPINH on whom they were intent on placing the blame. Effectively, whilst I had not slept, was wounded, and with all this tension, they took me to the person who produced the ‘artist’ portrait. I told him that it was not like that, he erased the image and began to draw the same thing.

“They told me on various occasions that I could leave. I was obviously willing to help in all the proceedings, even though they had left me not having eaten, no sleep, without a blanket even if I had wanted one; anyway I went on supporting, left in my bloodied clothing. One way in which they tried to implicate me is that they stole my suitcase, which I left in Berta’s house, there was obviously the possibility to plant whatever thing which could implicate me – to date they have not returned it to me.

“They did not carry out any process of justice even though I appeared before the fiscal, the Public Ministry, the lawyer of the Honduran Commission of Human Rights, everyone is witness to me requesting a copy of my ministerial declaration, yet they wouldn’t let me have it – the copy of my declaration before the judge, and they did not give it to me; I asked that they return my suitcase, the same response. It was a total cynical violation of the Procedural Code, the Penal Code, and human rights.

“There wasn’t even a formality in the recognition of the faces. In the beginning they showed me photographs and videos of COPINH as if to say that the person responsible for the assassination was there.

“Many irregularities occurred in this process and so the government ruled that all of these ministerial formalities be kept secret.

“In the case of the state kidnapping at the airport, they took me back again for more meetings. Later, I stayed at the Mexican Embassy’s house for a month, up until the last day, without them giving an explanation as to why they wanted me, without even giving me a copy of the judge’s resolution which decreed the prohibition of my being allowed to leave the country, and before the insistence of the lawyer in the face of such judicial anomalies, such irregularity, the judge suspended the right of my lawyer to practice.”

Subsequently the authorities connected officials from the company DESA and the military institution with the murder, but you have said that it goes further?

“I did not say that, the press said it, COPINH said it, the family said it, there was even an attack against a journalist who explained a lot about the relationship and links between the judges and politicians in the problem.”

You have argued that to consider hydroelectric energy as clean is a ‘stupid idea’, which is a direct hook to the jaws of the proud Costa Ricans who produce energy in this way.

“It is not only Costa Rica, but the whole of Latin America, which for decades has always associated hydro electric as a clean development.

“If in Costa Rica they do not know it, they might know there is an impressive resistance in the whole of Latin America – the number of people who have been displaced and assassinated, who have not had an experience of adequate resettlement or redress. Even the same World Commission on Dams, which financed the World Bank, in the year 2000 published a report where they say that 60% of the basins in the world have been dammed, that 30% of fresh water fish have been killed as a result of the dams which generate 5% of greenhouse gases, that more than 50,000 large dams have been built in the world, that these countries remain extremely indebted to the World Bank, that 30% of the dams in the world have not generated the energy that they were meant to, that 80 million people have been displaced in the world at the same time flooding villages and towns. This is what the evidence tells us in the world, in all of Latin America, in Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Panamá and in Mexico there is resistance against the dams.

“Since this report the social movement against the dams said “we have to disarticulate that discourse”, a discourse in which hydro-electricity is the same as clean energy, when it has generated all these disasters, including the disappearance of mangrove swamps and whole basins as a result of the construction of dams.

“With the Kyoto Agreement they returned again with the intention to reposition the dams as a form of clean energy, in the sense that the countries of the North, in their attempt to reduce their output of greenhouse gases, are looking to replace it with an investment in clean energy. So, if I have to reduce 10 tons of CO2 from the Northern countries, I can’t do it; better I build a dam that according to me will eliminate these 10 tons, it can be saved with clean energy.

“The effects of the dams in the world are a disaster. So how do we generate another paradigm for clean energy? This is the big problem; but not building, blocking more basins, displacing more communities, that favours the construction companies of dams throughout the world. There are other ways and mechanisms to generate clean energy. Even in Europe and the United States they are dismantling dams. But if we have to build dams in the South with the idea that it is clean, sustainable and green energy, it is actually the dirtiest energy that has generated all these socio-environmental impacts.”

Is the ecological mentality and this new paradigm to produce energy that you mention losing the pulse against the ideology of extraction, of which the construction of dams is part?

“I believe rather that much of the resistance is strengthening. It has even managed to stop many hydro-electric projects in Brazil, Mexico and many other places.

“The big challenge that we have is how the same communities build alternative forms of development. I went to COPINH as a guest so that we could reflect on other models and mechanisms of generating clean energy, autonomous, community-led, serving the communities, not flooding the COPINH territories for special economic zones, for mining projects. For example, the leaching of gold can use, depending on the size of the mine, some 2 to 3 million tons of water every hour. They need dams and large quantities of energy.

“The use of energy and water is required for monoculture, for industrial parks, for model cities, even for large tourist centres, large hotels, for the automotive industry; and in the end, the people are those who pay the price of this so-called development.”

At what point in all of this process is it driven by Free Trade Agreements? Is it realistic to hope that these countries will denounce these agreements and make room for a new paradigm of energy generation?

“It is a challenge. The responsibility is not only for indigenous populations and peasants to be alert to and resist this. Certainly the commercial Free Trade Agreements accelerate this process and not only the agreements, but the so-called Kyoto Protocol too.

“The Free Trade Agreements open the doors to investments: if before there were not 10 industrial parks, now there are and they require water and energy; if before there was not a European, Japanese, North American automotive industry in our country, now there are 3, 4, 5, and they require water and large quantities of energy. If before there were no monoculture plantations and now there are, like Monsanto in zones which require large quantities of water, so now there are. If before there were no mining projects requiring large quantities of water and energy, today there are.

“Free Trade Agreements accelerate the need for water and energy, which is why they speed up investment in all of these types of mega-projects that require these inputs.”

Is the Paris Accord on the same lines as the Kyoto Protocol?

“Yes, at the end of the day they do not touch the root of the problem and they keep on seeing how to carry on giving excuses, as happened with the Kyoto Protocol: 15 years after its approval, after the urgency is announced, and they accept a reduction of 5% in greenhouse gases not after those 15 years, but 15 years further on – that is absurd.

“Then, that 5% I am not even going to reduce; I am going to look at how I can compensate for it. I continue producing tons of CO2, but I can buy the Costa Rican jungle, the environment services, which may breathe 10 tons. So the contamination balances out to zero: here I produce 10, there I breathe 10; I buy breath and we give carbon credits or elegantly a green economy.

“The same is happening in all of the Conferences of the Parties to the Framework Convention of the United Nations on Climate Change (COP) that there have been. It’s not been anything other than keeping on postponing and postponing without getting to the heart of the problem.”

What is at the heart of the problem?

“We have to change the paradigm of the system; we have to stop it at the source of climate change and that does not mean only this atrocious capitalism, but also the pollution generated by the most developed countries: between 60% and 66% of greenhouse gases that affect warming of the planet.

“We have to stop it and, as Berta said, there’s no time left. She said a lovely phrase: “wake up humanity”. I believe that the problem is systemic, it is planetary and we have to become aware of the necessity to change this paradigm of development.”

©2015 Semanario Universidad. Derechos reservados. Hecho por 5e Creative Labs, Two y Pandú y Semanario Universidad.

Reproduced here by kind permission of Vinicio Chacón.

Threats to and assassinations of COPINH members, 2016

COPINH is the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras. It was founded in 1993 and its headquarters are in the town of La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras.


  • 2009 military coup.
  • November 2009 elections were so fraudulent that even the US no longer acknowledges them.
  • 2013 elections brought us President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) in another fraudulent election.
  • 2011-2014: the highest intentional homicide rate (per 100,000 population) in the world outside a war zone.
  • Berta Oliva (Coordinator of COFADEH, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras) describes Honduras as ‘a failed state run by the mafia’.
  • Since the 2009 coup in Honduras, 59 Honduran journalists have been assassinated.

COPINH, 2016

screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-08-41-49On 3rd March 2016, at about 1 am – 2 am, two men broke into Berta’s house and shot her dead having first shot and left for dead her Mexican colleague, Gustavo Castro. Berta was the Coordinator of COPINH and had been awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.
On 15th March, Nelson García was assassinated shortly after he had been witnessing, recording and advising on the Río Chiquito eviction. The eviction of the campesino families had been carried out by 100 security forces in a violent manner. Nelson was killed later the same day.
screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-08-41-49-1On 3rd May, Felix Molina, a radio journalist who had reported critically on the Honduran government and who had featured COPINH in some of his reporting, suffered two murder attempts on the same day. He was wounded, but survived.
screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-08-41-50In early July, the body of Lesbia Janeth Urquía Urquía was found on a rubbish dump. Lesbia had been a COPINH member and had been working to stop an HEP project in La Paz department.
screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-08-41-50-1On 13th July, the office of Victor Fernández was raided. Victor is the lawyer for the family of Berta Cáceres.
On 28th September, the court case records relating to the trial of the alleged murderers of Berta Cáceres were stolen when assailants carjacked the vehicle belonging to Appellate Court Judge Maria Luisa Ramos in Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital.
screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-08-41-55On 10th October, gunmen opened fire on the car of Tomas Gómez Membreño, COPINH Coordinator, as he was driving home from COPINH’s office in La Esperanza.
Also on 10th October, gunmen opened fire on the house of Alexander García Sorto, an elected COPINH community leader in Llano Grande community, whilst he and his family members were asleep.


The Lenca peoples’ struggle against hydro-electric projects in Intibucá, Honduras

The reader is referred to Chapter 4 of this website for news of the award of the Goldman Environmental Prize to Berta Cáceres for her leadership of COPINH’s struggle against hydro-electric power projects in Honduras, and in particular for a link to a video clip of her acceptance speech.

Se refiere el lector/la lectora a Capítula 4 de esta página web para noticias del otorgamiento del Premio Goldman a Berta Cáceres para su liderazgo de la lucha de COPINH contra proyectos hidroeléctricos en Honduras, y especialmente para ver el vínculo al video de su discurso de aceptación.

The Naso’s Cultural Centre

Taken from a communiqué from the Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD), 16 June 2009.

Naso Culture Center, still a dream

The Naso are one of the smallest indigenous groups in Panama, with only an estimated 3,800 individuals, and are considered an endangered group. The Naso Cultural Center project is the result of five years of collaborative work within Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo (ACD) and Alianza Naso Tjerdi. During this work, in 2006, a group of representatives of all Naso communities chose to create the center as an important aim to help preserve their identity. With the project we would like to support the Naso cultural revitalization process that started in recent years, paralleling their political struggle with the government for the recognition of their ancestral lands.

This first part of the Naso cultural center project involves three main elements. The first is the refurbishing of a building in one the community that will host the center. The second is the collection of documentation done about, and/or by the Naso, in order to form a small public library. Finally, the third element consists of workshops and recreational activities to: spread the information collected by the center; to facilitate the gathering of new information; and more importantly, to facilitate the transmission of the Naso Culture into the newer generation. May 10, 2009 were the official date that naso people planned to open culture center with a grand ceremony and start with workshops on traditional music and dance.

The creation of a Naso Cultural Center has as its main objective to help facilitating the transmission of Naso traditional Culture to the newer generations through the recompilation of information and different educational and recreational events.

The Naso are in particularly weaken position to confront recent processes of acculturation and globalization because, unlike other indigenous groups in Panama, they have yet to be granted their Comarca, the Panamanian term for indigenous reservation.

Naso cultural center was destroyed along with more than 30 homes by Ganadera Bocas Company. The difference was that the naso culture center was destroyed on the third day of forced evictions carried out by communities of San San San San and Druy due to this center served as a refuge for the National Police of Panama.

We travel to the site to try to defend it, but when we arrived it had destroyed by heavy machine in front of the community who watched as their dreams and work ends badly.

Valentin Santana, king of Naso People said: “our houses, our school, our church and our new cultural center, which was on the eve of its inauguration, were demolished by heavy machinery of Ganadera Bocas, escorted by the National Police of Panama.

They destroyed our towns, but they have not destroyed our hopes to live in peace. The lands where the Naso live have been ours for centuries, but the state of Panama still does not recognize our rights to them, to our own Naso Tjër-Do Comarca. This is why we are vulnerable and defenseless. We are treated like indigenous invaders, in our own lands.

Since April 15th, Naso People are protesting in Panama City, to get goverment respond to his proposal that includes compensation for all damages including the cultural center. “We will NOT walk away from this Plaza until the Government of Panama legally grants us the rights to the lands where we were born. Only then will we return in peace, knowing that no one will evict or hurt us again on our own territory. We will not accept relocation. We want the land where we were born,” was part of special speech of the Naso King to his people.

ACD invites you to support Naso communities, by writing letters of solidarity, signing the press release (, making donations, visiting the Naso camp in Plaza Catedral or staying with them a few days in new Naso houses rebuilt in San San and San San Drui, Bocas del Toro.

Shi Nasoga Unkon / We are all Naso.

Force used against the Naso

March 31st 2009 – opening the new Naso Cultural Centre

March 31st 2009 – opening the new Naso Cultural Centre

April 1st 2009 – Ganadera Bocas move in

April 1st 2009 – Ganadera Bocas move in

April 2nd 2009 – King Valentín surveying the wreckage

April 2nd 2009 – King Valentín surveying the wreckage

November 19th 2009 – Ganadera Bocas move into San San Druy again to destroy houses

November 19th 2009 – Ganadera Bocas move into San San Druy again to destroy houses

Protected by the police

Protected by the police

November 20th 2009 – homeless inhabitants of San San Druy

November 20th 2009 – homeless inhabitants of San San Druy