Interviewee: Geodisio Castillo
Interviewer: Karis McLaughlin and Martin Mowforth
Location: Panamá City, Panamá
Date: 3rd September 2009
GC: Resuming, what happened is that the PEMASKY programme depended a lot on the Association of Kuna Employees who were labourers who worked on the military bases at that time. The military bases were closed in 2000, so many members [of PEMASKY] were left without work and many returned to their communities. So logically the programme also came to a halt. But before transferring the protected area where PEMASKY worked, on Narganá, the Association transferred all its activity to the Kuna General Congress (KGC) to administer the protected area of Kuna Yala, from the Narganá administrative area. Since then, the PEMASKY programme has not taken off again. Many work plans and management plans for the area were taken over by the Congress.
So what’s happening now to the protected area that we left under the administration of the KGC? Well the Congress is having problems coping with the area’s administration and also therefore with its own finances. It doesn’t generate funds for the administration of the area. The Congress generates funds only for the administration of its offices and not for their reasonable distribution to the area of the comarca.
Nevertheless, the Congress is making a lot of effort to be able to seek technical and collaborative support from the National Environment Authority (ANAM) which is the environmental body of the government. It’s undergone various processes on how to manage the area jointly, but it’s not established itself. The Congress has agreements with ANAM, as it used to have with the Association of Kuna Employees – an agreement of mutual work, of projects, but it hasn’t managed to get to a co-administration because ANAM is [still] set in its management plan drawn up between 1983 and 1987 which has still to be carried out. Honestly, it still has to be made operational because there have been so many changes. The time when the plan is made operational will be when the government adopts a continuous fund for the protected area’s administration; but for the moment, no; and the management plan has not surfaced for a revision and operationalisation. The government has the funds for this, almost $60,000, but nobody has taken on the responsibility, neither in the government nor the Congress.
In that way, PEMASKY has disappeared. Many professionals from PEMASKY are willing to work on the plan, but nobody has yet made use of it.
MM: So what’s your work at the moment?
GC: After PEMASKY disappeared, I came back to work with the Congress to try to keep PEMASKY’s programmes going, but it wasn’t easy because my people had other ideas regarding the protection. These were based in their cosmovision, of what was protected by nature. But it’s not really like that – there are settlers invading the edges of the protected area and there are problems of felling and many other things.
MM: The comarca includes the narrow part of the territory on the mainland?
GC: Yes. For example, the protected area which is the Narganá administrative area has 100,000 land hectares and the marine part is where the communities are found. After 2 or 3 years of work there, I left the Congress and began working independently in our foundation. In 2005 I carried out a consultancy for ANAM and in 2006 they hired me. One month ago I finished with ANAM.
Karis McLaughlin (KM): What did you do with ANAM?
GC: First, I did some consultancy work on how the institution could improve its environmental programmes with the communities and then a lot of planning and promotion for institutions. In the last years I became ANAM’s regional administrator in the comarca. Then it changed with the new government.
Now I’m working independently and I’ve just done a consultancy on the extended programme of work on biodiversity, on the biodiversity agreement, which is being applied here in Panamá but not with the indigenous peoples.
I’ve already finished that and now they want to contract me for some work on the reduction of …???… for deforestation and woodland degradation. It’s a big UN programme on the framework convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC]. But in Panamá it’s not even been approved; it’s in discussion with indigenous peoples and others – it’s hardly in process.
MM: Do you have any information on this programme which you could send by email?
GC: Yes, I’ll send you it and some work I’ve done.
KM: What do you think about the DAR programme?
GC: Well, it’s hardly discussed in Panamá. I think that in Panamá there is still time for the government to act, because the previous government was beginning to promote the programme. It began with the Torrijos government which started to push for community participation, but only in inverted commas, not fully. It was a type of participation as if it was just to attract funds; they didn’t really do it. This government is studying how to get the communities to participate, but we’ll see how they get on with this.
My opinion is that if the participation of indigenous peoples is not taken into account, then the programme is not going anywhere, because almost the majority of the forested areas are in indigenous territories here in Panamá. Elsewhere I think it’s the same. So they want to work with the forests, but they’re indigenous comarcas – and they can’t impose it.
MM: What do the Ngobe-Bugle think of the Panamanian government? Perhaps there are changes from government to government. During the Omar Torrijos era many of the comarcas were created.
GC: Panamá is a small country in comparison with other countries and it has many problems. Since the 1890s when the Republic was created, the National Constitution of Panamá has had an article which says that it recognises indigenous territories, the indigenous comarcas, but each government has applied it in its own way. With [Omar] Torrijos it was then that the indigenous movement assumed the concept of the comarca, of territory; that was when the concept was strengthened and more comarcas were created.
The government of Torrijos’ son [Martin], however, talked of no more comarcas, and this current government is seemingly going to follow the same line, or rather doesn’t want to yield any more territory to indigenous peoples because the Naso-Teribe people are claiming that their territory is recognised as a comarca. That’s currently under discussion.
MM: It’s a problem for them. As far as the Kuna go, they have their comarca.
GC: What happened with the Kuna of Kuna Yala – because there’s Wargandi and Madungandi as well – is that the comarca is very questionable. What happens now? is the big question, so the leaders say. We’ve got the territory and defined it as a comarca, but now the process of development isn’t happening in the comarca. There are 49 communities; it’s like an independent world; they develop their community, but only at the comarcal level. The leadership has no vision of development, or perhaps they have one but they don’t apply it. They generate income but they don’t distribute it. So what would be the outcome of the comarca …???… because many young people are emigrating to the city because of the lack of job opportunities for generating income within the comarca and for developing agroforestry and traditional agroecology. There are many professional people working in the different cities of Panamá. It’s really serious. The majority of professionals want to be teachers/educators because the Ministry of Education is the only entity which provides work within the comarca in primary and secondary education. That’s the situation. There’s no means of working. The comarca is maintained, the woodland is maintained, ….
MM: But, are there threats to the autonomy of the Kuna Yala comarca on the part of the government or mining companies or other plantations?
GC: The great thing about Kuna Yala is that faced with a problem the communities unite to defend the territory. Moreover, every six months the Kuna General Congress is held and everything is discussed there. So the big government projects have to pass through this Congress and there is our own fundamental law of the Kuna people on which the Congress is based and which is recognised by the government. So, for any project, such as for example the last one which involved the laying of the electric line from Colombia to Panamá – well, the Congress rejected it. That’s the cohesion of the Kuna people; there exists that union, that territorial defence; but the issue is that there is no development in their own reality.
MM: Are there still many people who have a house in the comarca where they have their family, and they have another place in the city?
GC: That can also be a strategy, that the Kunas are emigrating to the city and there are various Kunas here in Panamá City. There are three kinds here in Panamá City, three kinds of Kunas in Colón, all with their own modes of living. It seems to me that they are spreading. In Bocas there are also various kinds. But always they keep contact with their communities. What happens is that it is the older people who live in the community and the youngsters who don’t want to stay in the community – they’re living here, they have work and dedicate themselves to a company. That’s what’s happening at the moment.
MM: We’d like to know more about CENDAH, the Foundation of Environmental and Human Development.
GC: I’ll tell you my own history. I studied in the Soviet Union. When I went there in 1980 I worked as a teacher in Kuna Yala. I studied Agricultural Sciences. Then I organised what was PEMASKY, because the Association of Kuna Employees wanted to develop that programme. The aim was to halt the invasion of colonisers and to defend the boundaries, because they were opening a highway. I worked until 1990. In 1991 I founded what is today the Noboyaga [???] Foundation, until 1994. In 1995 and 1996 I began to work again for the Association of Kuna Employees, in PEMASKY, till 1999. In 2000 I began to organise the Environmental and Human Centre (CENDAH). I founded it, but left it after a number of years to work with the government as a demonstrator; then I began to take on consultancies and went back to CENDAH. CENDAH’s aim is to develop an agroecology project and various environmental projects. It continues to exist, and now I’m going to dedicate myself more to it. It was only functioning at a low level, but now it’s on the up again.
MM: As far as deforestation goes, are there any woodland certification programmes?
GC: No. there have been some attempts at certification in Panamá, but the government – that is to say, ANAM – hasn’t taken it into account. Private companies have to look for certification schemes outside the country. The government hasn’t put certification into law, so there are independent certification schemes.
KM: Is certification a good way of moving towards a sustainable management?
GC: Yes. There’s an experiment that’s being tried with indigenous peoples with the Tupiza project in the Darién – with our Emberá-Wounaan brothers. It’s a project sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). They’ve had this project of sustainable forest management for a year now. I don’t know if they’ve managed to get to the point of certification yet, but they’re talking about one of the aims being to certify the forest. I have the name of the boss of Tupiza, he’s called Franklin Mezúa – his cellular is 6538 1005. He’s an Emberá.
MM: Would you like to tell us any more about the problems of development, specifically the problems of reforestation or problems which affect indigenous peoples especially?
GC: According to the latest data on the forest cover of Panamá for 2008, deforestation has decreased. It’s been tested scientifically by means of satellites. Within the indigenous comarcas, the greatest deforestation is in the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca. There are reforestation programmes, but there is certainly a high deforestation rate. The majority of the remaining indigenous comarcas (Emberá-Wonaan, Kuna Yala, Wargandi, and Madungandi) have maintained a coverage of almost 80 per cent.
But there’s a problem in Wargandi and Madungandi. For their economic gain they hire and pay companies to extract the timber, but they have no control over the activity. They don’t pay them much. For example, in Madungandi there’s a project with a Dutch company, Ardan International Group, which is extracting timber submerged in the lakes. The company is also working in Lake Gatún in the Canal. They are having problems with the Kuna of Madungandi.
Meanwhile, the Emberá are looking for other alternatives to this project.
GC: Letters from the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca, cheques to pay the Ngöbe-Buglé and the Kuna. Where is Kuna Yala? It’s incredible that a government functionary doesn’t know his country, isn’t it? That’s a functionary who believes that there are roads all over the comarca. They ask for information about petrol, how much it costs; but there you need an outboard motor. This is a problem which we have faced. One asked to carry out an activity there and they said no because of the gasoline. How much gasoline does it need? Distances in Kuna Yala are great, and so they began to discuss it.