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 http://www.edlc.org/cases/communities/naso-of-panama/2/ (accessed 16 July 2009)
[3] http://mensual.prensa.com/mensual/contenido/2009/05/31/hoy/panorama/1803560.asp (accessed 16 July 2009)
[4] Felix Sánchez interviewed for this book, San San Druy, Panama, 1 September 2009.
[5] http://mensual.prensa.com/mensual/contenido/2009/07/06/hoy/panorama/1844317.asp (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’, www.bnamericas.com/news/energiaelectrica/EPM_pagara_US*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
[12] http://resistencianaso.wordpress.com
[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: www.internationalrivers.org/panama/comments-bonyic-hydroelectric-project-panama (accessed 14 June 2011).
[16] Global Greengrants Fund (1 August 2006) ‘Panama: Fighting Hydroelectric Dams’, www.greengrants.org/2006/08/01/panama-fighting-hydroelectric-dams/ (accessed 14 June 2011).
[17] Tathi Bezerra (24 March 2009) ‘Changuinola – Teribe Dams in Panama’, Conservation Strategy Fund website: http://conservation-strategy.org/en/project/changuinola-teribe-dams-panama (accessed 14.06.11).

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 (http://www.almanaqueazul.org/comunicado-naso/), 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

Testimony from the Naso, Panama

The following testimony was taken from members of the indigenous Naso people of the Bocas del Toro province of Panama on 15 September 2010 at their homes along the Bonyic River, a valley that will be affected by construction of the Bonyic dam and hydro-electric project.

Alicia Quintero
The Bonyic company came here four and a half years ago. They wanted to build a road and put up lights. My mother was born here and she died here. I was born here and I have to die here. … You could fish here, and now if you go fishing with a hook, you cannot catch anything. Many different kinds of fish were killed when they dried up the river.

I will not sell my land because the land gives me so much. They are not going to fool me with money; money runs out; my land will not run out. I will come to an end, but my land will not.

Eudulo Quintero
We used to live quietly in the area. … I was arrested with my wife and young daughter and were taken to the barracks. They also took my son to the barracks – he was unjustly detained for defending our rights, for defending our land. … We defend our rights, we defend our land; here we have everything, natural things like oranges, pifa [a palm fruit like yucca], plantain, bananas, chicken, pigs and cattle. This helps us to survive and to look after our children. I am 53 years old and until now I have never worked in any kind of business. I have everything I need to look after my children at home, they are not hungry. And any neighbour that does not have what he needs comes and buys from me, and I sell to him. I plant rice, corn, yucca, all kinds of products that we can eat.

Ernesto Jimenez
At the moment they are developing a hydro-electric project that passes through the territory of our community. I am one of the most badly affected and I look to the Government for help. I cannot go out or go to church alone, and I have young children, and when the law comes to take me, it is my children that will suffer. They accused me of kidnapping four of them; three female engineers and one male engineer. This is a false testimony from them, because how do you think I would be able to kidnap four people by myself. Can you believe that?

Hugo Sánchez
My name is Hugo Sánchez and I am a resident of the Bonyic community. I am one of the residents that have always been at the forefront of this struggle against one of the projects that goes against the protection of our nature, our culture, our traditions and above all, is in favour of deteriorating our ethnicity. We as Naso have been massacred by the Panamanian Government; they have violated our rights as an indigenous village.

I had the opportunity to train in taxonomy, with both freshwater and saltwater fish. This has served me well today because with the basis of this knowledge, we have been able to make a complaint against the company for an environmental crime against the aquatic species that were here. The river ran its course in that direction, but as the residents of the community have not wanted to sell their land, the company were forced to divert the river without a proper permit and without having the equipment to move an aquatic species from the natural river course to the other river course. They never thought that we would have somebody that could tell which of the species should be given a change of climate with caution. They brought the police and the police moved us out of the way while they diverted the river. …

After they managed to close off the river channel, all that was previously in the current was left on the beach bouncing around, fish of all kinds. … Immediately the company’s lawyer came, saying that the fish had died and that nothing had happened. … there was a big loss of fish life, so we have lodged a criminal lawsuit against the company for environmental crimes against the aquatic species, but we are still awaiting a response from the authority that has to decide if they will plead guilty or if they are going to be fined for this crime.

Panama: Situation Turns Critical for the Naso

By Jennifer Kennedy* on August 27, 2013 | Intercontinental Cry Magazine | Reproduced by kind permission of Jennifer Kennedy

A critical situation is developing in Naso territory, Bocas del Toro province, Panama. Some 50 Naso protesters are blockading the access road to the Boynic hydroelectric project, preventing workers from entering the construction site of the 30 megawatt dam, which is scheduled for completion later this year.

Picture by Jennifer Kennedy

Picture by Jennifer Kennedy

The protesters are demanding the government ratify an agreement that was made two weeks ago, on Aug. 14, 2013. According to Panama’s national newspaper La Prensa, attendees at the meeting, held in the Naso capital, Sieiyik, discussed issues such as the right to a comarca (a semi-autonomous region), future hydroelectric projects in the area, and current projects the king has negotiated without community consultation.

A resolution came out of the meeting, calling for King Alexis Santana to renounce the throne, new elections to be held, and the revocation of compensation agreements made with Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), the Colombian company constructing the project.

The King was told he had 48 hours to leave the royal palace in Sieiyik, and the meeting turned violent when one of the attendees, Luis Gamarra, was attacked by the spokesman of the board of the king, Adolfo Peterson.

Although notified, neither national nor local government officials attended the meeting.

The road closure is indefinite say protesters, who insist that the agreement must be ratified by the government. They are now waiting for the Minister of Government, Jorge Ricardo Fabrega, to meet with them.

In a statement announced over the weekend, EPM said the blockade is affecting 3 thousand families who benefit from the project. Elizabeth Sanchez, a local leader, told La Prensa she is unhappy that a small group of people are threatening a workforce of some 600 Naso.

The project has been controversial since its inception.

In 2005, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) decided against funding the project after considering the environmental and social impacts.

A year later, the Naso made international news when the former king, Tito Santana, made a deal with EPM to build the dam on the Bon River in the heart of Naso territory. Tito divided the nation of some 3000 people when he failed to consult with them. Tito was exiled to the nearby town of El Silencio and his uncle, Valetin, replaced him as king. The government refused to recognize the staunchly anti-dam Valetin and in 2011, another election took place and Alexis Santana, who also opposed hydroelectric projects, was voted in.

In September 2012, protests erupted and the road closed. Several Naso were dismayed at the destructive way in which EPM was proceeding. Others were fed up of waiting for promised compensations. Faith in the new king began to wane.

Talking to the US-based NGO Big River Foundation in July, Edwin Sanchez, and a leader with the Organization for the Development of Sustainable Eco-tourism for the Naso (ODESEN), said “Promises are not being kept and the company is expanding in our territory. What our ancestors left us is going to be lost. They left us this land for us to care for. We expect our King to give us the support we deserve.”

The Naso are one of the few indigenous groups in the Americas that continue to have a monarchy, and this small nation, which is spread across 11 riverside communities, has relied upon and protected the surrounding rainforest and its rivers for generations. Cultural traditions include fishing, hunting, traditional medicine, and bush craft, but their culture, like their land, is under threat.

Bordering the UNESCO World Heritage Site, La Amistad International Park (PILA), which Panama co-manages with Costa Rica, Naso territory is also of ecological importance.

PILA was deemed to have ‘outstanding universal values’ because of its high biodiversity. But ongoing hydroelectric development is threatening the park. In UNESCO’s 37th World Heritage Committee in July, it regretted that Bonyic’s construction continued without considering the results of the on-going Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). UNESCO also noted with concern the permanent damage to fresh water biodiversity in the Bonyic watershed and “the absence of adequate measures to mitigate for biodiversity loss…”

In January, UNESCO sent a monitoring mission to PILA to assess various threats to the park, such as ongoing dam development and potential hydroelectric projects. One of the comments in the mission report focused on the immense social impact that dams are having upon communities like the Naso.

“The social conflicts related to the hydropower construction (and even before, in the feasibility stage) have changed many parts of the traditional lifestyle, damaged internal relationships and threatened the interaction of men with the environment (through displacement and new immigrations).”

The Naso are particularly vulnerable. Unlike many other Indigenous Peoples in Panama, their territory has never received official status as a comarca. James Anaya, the Special Rapporteur for Indigenous People, visited Panama in July and in his concluding declaration on the rights of indigenous people in Panama he stated that “of particular concern is the territorial insecurity of the Bribri and Naso whose territories do not have comarcal recognition.”

Promises of a comarca have been made often but never fulfilled.

Luis Gamarra, a community leader, told the Big River Foundation in July that according to the Commission of Indigenous Affairs in Panama, “no authority has ever submitted any petition for the region for the law creating the Naso County 19.” Adolfo Villagra, an ODESEN leader who runs the Naso eco-lodge, WEKSO, also told Big River Foundation that the government was refusing to give the Naso their land for political reasons. He said they will not rest “until the Naso community has a comarca…”


* Jennifer is a freelance journalist writing about human rights, hydroelectric development, the extractive industries and corporate malfeasance in Latin America, Africa and the UK.
jenniferjkennedy.com