Julio Yao

Interviewee: Julio Yao
Interviewer: Karis McLaughlin and Martin Mowforth
Location: Panamá City, Panamá
Date: 3rd September 2009
Theme: TBC
Keywords: TBC
Notes: Please note that … denotes that the recording was not decipherable at that point..



Julio Yao (JY): Just imagine, it’s a cattle ranching concession – they say that they registered the finca in 1960. The indigenous people claim that they have lived there for a long time. The fact is that they have always been there. The problem you have to see is with the illegal registration of lands. Here anybody can register a property and everything inside it if nobody has already registered it, especially after you pay some official to put an earlier date on the registration. That happens a lot.

So I founded a movement, called the National Coordinating Body for the Defence of Lands and Waters, to address this issue. It began with a concern for the defence of dolphins. A company called …???… arrived here which wanted to build a huge hotel on the San Carlos beach with three dolphinariums for tourists in Bocas del Toro, in the Gulf of Pearls, and we opposed it. I founded the Front for the Defence of Dolphins. The business was well thought out because in Latin America there are no dolphinariums, so all the Latin American tourists go to Miami; but we had strong opposition and we defeated it.

There are lots of environmental groups here. I started on the Petaquilla issue because of an incident that there had been with an indigenous person, whose house was not only destroyed but also he was thrown off his land. He and I joined forces and I took him onto the television to make his denunciation – he came on Thursday and on Monday his home was destroyed. That was a long way off from here, in a place called San Benito, in the Petaquilla area. He made his denunciation and we got involved and now we are active on the Petaquilla issue.

I realised when I went there that there is a massive problem because the land concession is enormous. Also, the type of people they’ve got there are really dangerous, very dangerous – these are the people of Richard Fifer, a really dangerous person who has a bad background. Fifer is the President of Petaquilla Gold S.A.. That has changed a bit – the company is complex because there are various things which they don’t make public. They’ve got lots of divisions and they make sales and transactions amongst themselves, and it’s apparently legal, but they don’t make it public and you have to discover it.

Karis McLaughlin (KM): I have some questions which I sent to you. I’ve read a lot about this, but I’d like to hear in your own words, what are the environmental effects of the Petaquilla project?

JY: I always give the opinions of the communities directly. I’m very close to the communities, we defend the communities, their independence and their way of doing things.

We think that the resistance movement, the rejection movement we conceived as a non-violent resistance movement, and it’s given us excellent results. There are other people who recently have been trying to get into and take control of the movement of the communities through various members. They haven’t managed to do so yet, but it’s a very strong movement, like a strong union movement in Panamá. But they haven’t had much success. Previously they had problems with some other campesino coordinators, and they didn’t allow them to take control …???… So we are in line with the biggest campesino coordinators in Panamá, called the Campesino Coordination for Life (CCV). In Panamá there are two large campesino coordinating bodies. The CCV works in three provinces. Previously they were called the Campesino Coordination Against Dams. They campaign against dams and reservoirs that …???… they’re with me. I’m with them. But there’s another large coordinating body which works to the east of the Panamá Canal.

Petaquilla is on the coast, below Colón – it’s a place cut off and distant from Colón because there’s no road. So there are many campesinos there – they are mestizos – and there are more than 1,000 indigenous people who live in three communities. They’re also completely with us.

So the Campesino Coordination dominates three provinces: Colón, part of Coclé and part of Panamá. Here they are going to create a large lake and inundate the lands of and expel 50,000 families. So the people joined the Campesino Coordination. Then there is another Campesino Coordination that’s east of the Canal which is called the Campesino Coordination for the Rights to Life and Land. They’re also with us and I’m with them. We are on the point of merging completely. And then there’s a big association of La Pintada farm producers which is in one district of Coclé. They have done …???… to the Petaquilla project. We are also unified with this association.

We’ll talk about whether we’re going to make a campesino union or a national campesino movement from these three organisations. It’s an idea that’s maturing now.

Unfortunately, the people who live in Petaquilla are different from the people who live in Colón. In Colón 95% of the people are of African or Caribbean origin and there is a complete disconnection between the culture and economy of Colón. Donoso is the name of the district where the Petaquilla project is found. The link with Panamá [City] is by road rising up to Penonomé to …??… This climbs the central cordillera and goes through the Mesoamerican Corridor, more or less comes here and ends in Colón. Petaquilla is in the Corridor and beyond that you have the Caribbean Sea. It’s not connected because there is no road [shows map]. There is a road planned, but they’ve not started to build it yet.

This mining project is creating an extra problem of the pressure brought by land owners and land speculators coming here because these are virgin mountains. It’s in one of the most forested protected areas of the Republic of Panamá, and the most preserved. So people who are greedy for land are trying to get in there – some support the Petaquilla mine and others are there just for their own account. Some leave the land to the campesinos or register it and then sell it on to the mine, or maybe even work indirectly for the mine. They are people from the oligarchy, and they’re very corrupt. Some of these people are linked to drug trafficking. Even, in my opinion, although we haven’t said this publicly – it’s a carefully guarded opinion – but we have indications and suspicions that the Petaquilla mine is itself linked to drug trafficking.

I’ll tell you one case. Last year (2008), in the month of March, the Panamanian police of Colón carried out a drug seizure. The mine is in the area which comprises Coclé and Colón. That’s the initial project because the complete area is much bigger. The contract originally talked of 13,600 hectares but if you look at the Petaquilla web page it talks of 79,000 hectares, that’s seven times bigger than the original size. Now, Minera Panamá is the new name of Petaquilla Minerals Ltd, which was the company composed of Canadians and Panamanians. Fifer sold off the copper part to the Canadians because the Canadians decided to separate themselves from Fifer because of his villainy and gangsterism and many other things – so they separated. So the Canadian interests are now called Minera Panamá. Before that Minera Panamá was Teck Cominco and Inmet Mining.

When we held a protest outside the Canadian Embassy – I have here the letter we sent to the ambassador – that was on 12th November [2008]. On the 13th November, the same day that we held the protest outside the Canadian Embassy and sent the letter, that same day there was the annual [general] meeting of Teck Cominco in Canada, in Vancouver, and Fifer had to present a report. Also in Canada at the same time, Mining Watch Canada strongly denounced what was happening in Canada and described Fifer’s company as a company without international support and which lacked any seriousness, etc.. This prompted the Teck Cominco people who were there to leave and then Teck Cominco sold everything to Inmet Mining. For us that was a triumph because it was one enemy less because everything was now with Inmet Mining. So, Inmet Mining is with Minera Panamá and Fifer is with Petaquilla Gold.

In this Petaquilla concession there are three rivers: the Río Caimito which flows out to the Caribbean Sea; the Río Petaquilla which comes down from the Petaquilla Sierra to the sea; and the Río Palmilla which partially crosses the concession. They are all affected. A curious thing is that there are three indigenous communities here: Nuevo Sinaí, Nueva Lucha Petaquilla and Río Palmilla. The cargo of drugs was cocaine – there were three tons of cocaine in 7,000 packets. They were found in the Río Petaquilla, inside the mining concession, because I compared the police map with the one that we have which shows the Petaquilla mining communities. So I said: how curious. From the Río Petaquilla, the nearest people are the indigenous groups and they are loyal to us, and trustworthy and disciplined. I asked them how it came about that 7,000 bags were found in the Río Petaquilla – more or less 7,000 pounds. It happened on 21st June 2008. Now, in my opinion, that’s the biggest seizure there has been in this country, but the indians didn’t know anything about it. But the map says that it was inside Petaquilla, and there was an armed confrontation between the police and drug traffickers. I know this because one of our campesinos has a finca very near this area which is called the Río del Medio and he told me that he heard the firing for several hours and he saw the dead and wounded who they took out of Petaquilla.

I suspected that Petaquilla was involved in this for obvious reasons because the only company around that has planes and helicopters is Petaquilla and nobody controls it, nobody registers anything for Petaquilla. They come in and leave by the river, by land, by sea, by air as they wish and nobody says anything. The news was only in the papers for two days and then it disappeared. I checked who was in charge of the operation and it was the Drug Tsar at that time who was called José Abel Almengor who a month ago was removed, supposedly sacked. But I suspect that he knew something and that he was being silenced.

Three weeks ago I went to a morning TV programme and he was there and I was going to ask him. He’s now something like the Minister of Security, it’s a new responsibility. I said to him: “I heard last year that there was a very important drug seizure in Donoso, very near to the Río Petaquilla, three tonnes worth, and I was very curious because the news disappeared after two days. What do you know about it?”

He was really nervous and said: “I don’t remember anything about that.”

I said to him: “You don’t remember anything about it? That can’t be.”

And he said to me: “I don’t remember anything about it” and he looked at me and asked: “And who are you?”

I told him: “I’m Julio Yao.”

Then he said: “Ah, yes, I don’t remember anything, but I’ll check it out. Call me at the Presidency of the Republic and I’ll fix a meeting for you.”

I told him that I would call because we were very interested in this.

I think that he was involved in some way or is part of the business or they threatened him or who knows what; but he knew something because three tonnes of drugs can’t just appear and disappear as if it didn’t exist. For starters, it’s never been known what happened to the drugs. Then as far as what happened, well it happened, like I told you, in a zone next to the Canal and to the east there are nothing but campesinos. The indigenous are to the west. The Caimito campesinos who are here beside the sea are constantly complaining that they are being thrown off their land and that the people who are throwing them off their land are armed with heavy arms, and they’ve told me that these people are involved in drug trafficking. The narco-traffickers even …???… to people who live here. I’ll give you a name: Benjamin Boyd, he’s the son of a famous Panamanian ophthalmologist who is the first cousin of the wife of ex-President Ernesto Pérez Balladares who was the one who awarded the contract to Petaquilla in 1997. He’s one of those who have land there. There’s another one whose surname is Vallarino, also a member of the oligarchy, who has monopolised large land tracts. I think that what they want to do is to take over the best lands, because they’ve got a huge tourism potential because they know that the road is going to be built – this coming year they are possibly going to build it.

So, as well as the problems associated with Petaquilla there are extra stresses on the communities. It’s very difficult to go there. To get there you have to go up to Penonomé, go up to Coclecito, go down the river, it’s seven hours getting down to the coast, and on the coast you take another boat to go by sea. It’s a really big problem and it’s dangerous because there are dangerous currents along the coast. Those boats are not at all safe. So I’ve told the campesinos that they should form a committee to defend their lands against the monopoly of land. The indigenous groups don’t have these problems because …???… they have to respect all interventions, and they’ve been cutting wires designed to mark private property because this land is theirs.

It’s a complex struggle and we suspect that drugs are part of it because the people who live there talk of those things. For example, containers come in every day, loads of containers, with no registration and nobody knows what’s in those containers. And if they are authorised, they are not in the exploration nor the exploitation phase but they’re in a phase of preliminary prospecting. A cargo comes in with many quintals of coffee in the container and people wonder: OK, how many people drink coffee and what quantity of coffee? How much coffee do they drink in a week? 20 pounds, and that’s not much, and yet there they see containers full of coffee coming in, because the employees tell us.

Then there is a question of deforestation. Look, Petaquilla began its operation in 2004, the contract was earlier, without an environmental impact assessment, without consulting the communities, and without being authorised – totally illegal. Why did they do that? First, because Fifer is considered to be a very important man – he was governor of the province of Coclé. When he was the Coclé governor, he was also a member of one of the most prominent families in Coclé, because he is Fifer Charles, and the Charles is one of the most powerful families in Penonomé; within the Penonomé oligarchy is the Carrizo family, the Arauz family the Charles family and others. They are all completely a part of the Petaquilla system, with soft jobs / sinecures. For example, one of them who is a secretary gets $10,000 per month. And that was what the Canadians found, and so the Canadians distanced themselves somewhat from it. They join forces on many things because the two were involved in the same contract; so the Canadians are jointly responsible, at least in some way, for what is happening. The Canadians have tried to be more careful – in inverted commas – in this country.

They began clear felling in 2004 and on 28th April 2007 the Regional Administration of the National Environment Authority (ANAM) said that they had seen 28 hectares deforested. We’ve seen more than 28 hectares, because we see what the campesinos see, and the campesinos are all over the area. And ANAM has no capacity to supervise anything inside Petaquilla, not inside nor outside.

The ANAM Administrator, Dra. Ligia Castro, is a member of the PRD [Democratic Revolutionary Party], but everybody says that Martín Torrijos is interested and active in Petaquilla. In fact, Fifer’s people always said to the communities: you have to move from here for better or for worse because President Martín Torrijos is the boss of Petaquilla, perhaps not the boss, but for sure he’s a very active supporter even though his name doesn’t appear. The fact is that Torrijos has protected Petaquilla 100 per cent, he’s been complicit in the devastation of the forest. The most recent report I saw last year talked of 150 hectares which have been deforested.

The deforestation is one thing, the other is the contamination and another is the destruction of the rivers and streams. They have destroyed hundreds of streams and important lakes. The Río San Juan, which is one of the most important, they destroyed; they dredged the channel and built a road in the centre of the river. It’s an abundant river, big and very pretty, and these people built a road all along the side of the river which was the deepest part, dredging its banks and filling it in; and why? So that they could move their machinery and get building material throughout the length of the river for their plant, to build their own site. I’ve been there, in July I took my car, and drove along the centre of the river, and realised what an enormous destruction it was. Then all the water stagnated – it was horrible. I was in Petaquilla and Coclecito quite a time before, in the 80s, because General Torrijos had a house near Coclecito. I had to go there for official reasons. And when I went there, there was no Petaquilla, it was a beautiful place with plenty of water and big rivers, one which goes to the Pacific and others which run down to the Atlantic; but they are near one of the others. It’s a strange phenomenon.

But the deforestation is huge, they make loads of explosions without any control, frequently, day and night. They don’t give any warning to the communities; they place childrens’ lives in danger when they walk to school, and they pollute the waters. There are multiple effects: the explosions, the dredging and the illegal felling. They say that as the Petaquilla contract is from 1997 and the environment law came some months afterwards, they are not obliged to comply with what the law says, so they keep on doing this. ANAM publicises it but at the same time it gets hidden, because a long time ago they had to suspend their operation and were called to account because they violated their contract from A to Z, they violated everything about it. The contract had been violated substantially.

I’ve got here last month’s resolution of the Ombudsman – it’s completely favourable to us. The Ombudsman finds 100 per cent in favour of the communities and asks …???… This document is very important because the Ombudsman made a resolution of five pages of serious points, and in considering those …???… it has three, but it’s very clear. In this resolution, the Ombudsman asks the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MICI) to annul the Petaquilla contract because of its substantial non-compliance, and it says that the same contract actually makes allowance for this possibility. It asks both ANAM and MICI to be more rigorous in order to oblige it [Petaquilla] to pay the fines, because there is a fine of almost $2 million which they of course have refused to pay. Because the legal question is like that, when they responded to ANAM’s administrative processes, they claimed that it was a matter for the Supreme Court. But the Court decided that the laws can indeed be applied to Petaquilla, and I think the argument is correct, by reason of special public order / interest, when it is thus, it is retroactive. So they have already begun to lose. That was in November last year (2008), when ANAM fined them $2 million, it was ordered to suspend operations and to pay a very small sum of $900 in costs for mitigation of the damages. Notwithstanding that, ANAM approved an environmental impact assessment, one month after, under pressure, but conditioned on the insistence that the mine must comply with it – but the mine didn’t accept any of it. So they are in rebellion against the state and in contempt, or perhaps they’re in total non-compliance. It is totally illegal.

KM: And the money for the fine – where did it go?

JY: In that case, all the money goes to ANAM, because ANAM argues that it depends on an administrative process by which they opened the mine in 2004 or 2005. We, the communities, looked for a lawyer in 2007, and she [?] also made a claim, but they said that this argument was later and that therefore the earlier demand was the one that applies and that all the money would go to them. We had hoped that if the argument failed that it was well made and that legally half of the fine would go to the claimants, the communities. That would have been good because it would have been useful for the struggle against Petaquilla and to close it, but it didn’t happen like that. So ANAM should have surrendered the same amount, but they didn’t pay either. In any case, the fine was very small.

KM: I want to ask about the issue of sustainability. Is there a sustainable way of mining?

JY: No there isn’t. Sustainability implies that in all ways a mode of production can continue permanently; or perhaps that the raw materials, the natural resources that are destroyed must be replaced in an integral way, in a way that ensures that our children and grand-children can continue to make what we made. But that’s impossible because the damages caused by Petaquilla cannot be mitigated in any way. What we’re dealing with here is, well, we’ve destroyed 150,000 trees here and we are going to sow 300,000 trees elsewhere – no, that is not the same. First, there’s no place where you can sow 300,000 trees. In their case [Petaquilla’s], they have felled, I think, millions of trees, all illegally – there is nowhere you can put all those trees. The problem is not the trees, but the people who live there. The people who live there now are not as bad from the point of view of …???…

JY: …???… they still haven’t started their work, but it’s what they are going to do. Suppose they give the total, everything. Fifer more or less has this now, but if it develops fully, they are going to take everything. If the new lands which they have asked for are approved, seven different sites will disappear, and it’s known that these seven new sites amount to 75,000 hectares. These 75,000 ha. bring what they already have to 78,000 or 79,000, and then we would be talking about an area of land of about 1,500 sq km, a figure greater even than the area of the former Canal Zone which the US had. You can see the area of the Canal on the map. It was 16 km by 86 km, the Canal Zone, plus the hydrographic basins of the Canal.

To say that this area is going to be given to Petaquilla in exchange for 2 per cent is totally ridiculous, absurd. It’s 2 per cent that they give to the state, it’s nothing. To give you an idea of what it means, when there’s income from the mine, providing that other conditions are met, then they’ll give 2 per cent to the state. They are paying 50 cents per hectare p.a.. That means that for the year 2008 they paid the district of Donoso the grand sum of $318, for the whole year. So, I don’t know what this really means – it’s a pillage; the government has presented the Canadians and the Panamanians with the best metallic resources, because this is a zone that historically has always been very rich. Christopher Columbus arrived in Panamá in 1503 – Panamá was discovered, in inverted commas, by Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1501, but Christopher Columbus arrived in 1503, buying gold. He journeyed round Central America and then went to Venezuela, but he came back to Petaquilla. It wasn’t called Petaquilla at that time, but it was on the Río Petaquilla. He arrived there with his brother Bartolomé. They asked the indigenous who were living there in Petaquilla – because they brought interpreters with them – where was their king, and they said: “quibián/sleeping”. Quibián means sleeping. And at that moment the king was asleep in his hammock – I suppose it was his siesta. They said to him [Columbus]: “Quibién”. But they thought that he was called Quibién, so they referred to him as Quibién.

He [Quibién] was a fierce warrior, so they began their diplomacy very delicately offering little mirrors and other trinkets and at the start they had very good relations. But when he saw that they wanted gold, because there was a lot of gold in Petaquilla, they began to apply pressure. They kidnapped Quibién’s family and took them away in boats, and they kept them on the boats. They also seized Quibién and tied him up. But when they took him by boat along the Río Vera – now it’s called the Río Veraguas – he threw himself in the river and swam away. Then he made an alliance with the neighbouring indigenous peoples and routed Christopher Columbus. He burnt the town of Santa María de Belén, today called Belén and it’s by the side of the Río Belén. It’s a river with a Ngobe name. So, Columbus is defeated and Bartolomé fled. That was the first defeat suffered by the Spanish in the whole continent. But when they went to find Quibién’s family, most of them had been killed in the boats or had been thrown into the sea and drowned. Christopher Columbus never returned. In my opinion this was an important moment in history.

Five decades later the Spanish returned and encountered another warrior called Urracá. He was more famous and in the same region, between Colón and Veraguas. In Veraguas there is also a lot of gold, but the gold is really in Petaquilla. So the communities which are living in the area must know the history and I told them that if they want to defend their indigenous rights more strongly they must unite into one single entity, and they must get the services of a legal person so that they can make claims on the state and in the case of the state failing them they can make appeals to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) – and if necessary to the UN Commission for Indigenous Affairs.

We are going through the legal proceedings and the association is called the Quibién Association, in order to recover the history and identity. In the history books it’s written as ‘Quibián’, but I’ve been correcting it to ‘Quibién’, with an ‘é’, because I asked what that meant to an indigenous person, and I was told ‘quibién’ means that he sleeps, and that it’s not ‘Quibián’. So the Spanish copied it wrongly. Now we’re always doubtful about whether to correct it or to leave it as it is because to the warrior known by the Spanish as Quibián, the lord of the lands, he had sovereignty there. The tribes were from all over Panamá – they came from Coclé, and they came to fight at Petaquilla. They made a statue of gold to Quibián but the Spanish stole the statue and took it away to Spain. They became mad because they saw so much gold. There’s actually a part of Petaquilla which if you go now you will see gold in the road. The campesinos and the indigenous people collected it but it took them a long time because they use artisanal methods, but they always earn a little money from it. It’s preferable that they get it than that the Canadians take it.

The Canadians and Petaquilla Gold blame the artisanal miners, who are very few, for the contamination, the explosions and the deforestation. It’s incredible. And that’s totally false because the artisanal miners don’t use cyanide.

KM: It’s been mentioned that you’ve been threatened. Can you comment about that?

JY: Yes. I’m used to driving in a 4×4 – to get here you have to go in a 4×4, full traction. At Penonomé there’s no problem, any car can get up to there, but from there you have to use a 4×4. One time I came in a double cabin pick-up with my son and another member of the team. In the afternoon we had been …???… and that road is almost exclusively used by the mine. But listen, the mine says that they built the road, but that’s false; the road was built with a loan of $23 million from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The company boasts that this is part of the social development that they have brought to the communities. The thing is that we came by that road and my son was driving – he was driving very well. Five minutes after the village of Villa del Carmén, there was a white pick-up truck – vehicles belonging to the mine are white, but there are others which are black and with darkened windows. Strangely the black cars arrive at night, and they belong to the top brass. Why do I know this? By one of life’s chances/coincidences.

One of the mine bosses’ drivers was the husband of the leader of the Coordinating Body of Campesinos for Life which works directly with me every day. He works there. So the information came through their daughter. We have many sources.

On that day, that car got itself in front of us, but it seemed perfectly normal to us. We were going at a normal speed along an unsurfaced road. Strangely it was increasing its speed, but we did the same, increasing speed because it was still within the normal. But when we arrived at a place called Molejón they increased their speed but we kept our distance. Suddenly the other vehicle braked really fiercely, without showing its lights, without hand signals or anything, and we had to break sharply. He braked, and he turned round 90 degrees really sharply, and it seemed we would hit it. This was all very sudden. We didn’t suspect anything, we didn’t see anything strange. The car in front braked, but my son avoided it, then it swerved so that my son would hit it whatever he did, but my son swerved again to avoid hitting it. In the end the car did hit it in the back bumper and it was left hooked up to it. We took photos of the prints of the tyre and all, and a tall, white, young man got out – he was alone in the car. The car was a white Toyota Land Cruiser. We also got out and said, “Listen, you brake like that without any lights and without any hand signals or anything – how come? We didn’t suspect anything.” Now the police don’t operate in that place, they just don’t get there because it’s too far out. There was no way of making a report of what happened. The thing is the two people with me said something, but it didn’t get to anybody. So I thought I’m going to do something. So I went up to him and said: “Listen, neither you nor I are going to stay here and wait for the police to arrive the next day. But why did you do this? There are five of us, five leaders in the car. We think that it was totally irresponsible of you and I don’t see why you did it.” He didn’t say anything, he left the car and moved back slowly and I went over to him. “I’d like you to tell me how you’re going to answer for this.” I said to him, “What’s your name?” “Álvaro Tejeira.” The Tejeira are a powerful family in Penonomé.

I remembered that in Petaquilla at that time Dr Marcel Salamín was working. Many years ago he was allied, for a short time, with General Torrijos after the Torrijos-Carter Accords. I used to be an advisor to General Torrijos. And this Salamín was a professor of rhetoric. But at that time, Salamín, who had been ambassador in Venezuela, was a member of the Security Council. He had been nominated to it a little while before. I said to him, “Listen, do you know Marcel Salamín?” He told me “No.” “You don’t know Marcel Salamín?” “No, I don’t know him.” “Look, you do know him. Stop this foolishness. I’m going to give you my Peace and Justice Service card and tell Marcel Salamín that I’ll give him two days to call me, to answer for this and to pay me the damages. Tell him that I’m Julio Yao, and look at my face, I’m public enemy number 1 in Petaquilla.”

After we got to Penonomé I was reflecting on the night and what a strange accident it was. My son and the others said to me, “Dad, that was no accident; it was an attack.” I think it was because there was no explanation for what he did. He made two manoeuvres. Fortunately, the photos we took show their tyres and our tyres clearly – technically, they demonstrate that.

That was one incident. The other was worse – it was afterwards. The other was on 19th March 2008. I was in a 4 x 4 Jimmy Suzuki, a 2008 jeep. There were three of us: a journalist and the President of the Campesino Coordinator. We left a meeting at night from a community called Loma Blanca which is almost inside the [Petaquilla] project.

Obviously when we have meetings in the communities, they can pass by to see which cars are there – all their cars are white, and ours are all sorts of colours. I was driving and when we got half way along the road a white pick-up truck came up behind me with large lights, and then it came up beside me. As I was suspecting that it could be an attack, I tried to prevent it by putting some distance between us, I was shifting. Then it came up beside me again. To drive in these mountains at 120 – 140 km per hour is very dangerous. Well, I was speeding for a good while and he didn’t catch me. But we got to an area called Loma de Volteaver which is a very big hill that we go down. I’ve never had problems on that road because I’ve done it hundreds of times, but that night I’d gone the whole distance when a moment came when I was going downhill and saw that he had stopped, strangely, as if he was watching. I had the double traction on and I was in third gear. So the car was driving well. But the road was full of a fine dust, because it was summer, and at one curve the road was totally black because it had been sprayed with a hosepipe which made it like a bog. Well there was no way of controlling the car because the mud was very fine and the car did various turns and left the road. It ended up lying in a gully facing upwards and in the opposite direction. Everything was too quick. The gully prevented the car going further down towards a precipice. The car was a write-off along the right-hand side. It cost me something like $3,000 because the insurance company didn’t want to acknowledge the damage. Fortunately, nothing serious happened to us. In that part of Volteaver there were various machines from the mine and there was a man who was looking after the machinery. I couldn’t see the wet part, I didn’t see it till we got into the bend. Obviously I failed to control the car because the mud was so extensive. Anyway, finally, some passing cars tried to help us.

On another occasion we had a meeting in Coclecito, in the church, with indigenous people and campesinos. They had walked for a day to get to Coclecito. There was one lady who was listening. Our meetings are always open. One of the residents tells me: “There’s a lady who is a friend of the mine and doesn’t like what you are saying.” I said to him, “Very simple, tell her to come in and to sit and listen and then tell us what is her concern.” She didn’t want to come in, but her daughter works for the mine and that lady lives alongside and behind the church, opposite the offices of Teck Cominco and Inmet Mining. When the meeting ended we went to the car and one of the campesinos on the committee came running to us: “they told me to stop you and that you shouldn’t go. Don’t go professor. Don’t go because it’s very dangerous if you go right now.” “But why?” “Because I saw what just happened. The lady, that same one who was here, when she was going to her house we went with her because we were going in the same direction, and she asked my son, who works in the mine. She said to him. “Listen, that Doctor Yao, which car did he come in? Where is his car? What colour is it and how many people did he come with? Is it double traction?” The boy told her because she was asking. The miners are waiting on the road.”

I have two testimonies, one from this man who gave me the name of the woman. He told me that this had happened and that the miners were waiting for me on the road. So he told me not to leave and that I should stay and sleep there. I told them I was going because I had to get to Panamá and that I would go very carefully. They were shocked. The boy’s wife, the boy and his father came here and made declarations which we recorded.

But also another campesino who is a member of the Petaquilla Committee, called Jeremías Pérez, he called us to a meeting and took us aside from the meeting to tell us something very confidential. I asked him what happened. Fortunately with me was a journalist, and I told him: “Record this, whatever it may be.” The campesino told me: “Look professor, there was a meeting of the bosses at the mine with a group of campesinos who worked there. They told them that in that meeting they were going to speak about something very confidential and that nothing of what they would talk about there should be spoken about outside, and that if anyone did talk about it they would be fired and their loans would not be made any longer.” There was a cousin of his at that meeting who told him that the boss who was speaking told the campesinos that the mine was failing and that Professor Julio Yao was to blame. And if they wanted to keep their work, the meeting was to discuss the best way of assassinating Professor Yao.

So we made a formal declaration, which we still haven’t presented, but I have the recording.

Perhaps it’s the woman’s testimony who said they were going to kill me on the road and the campesino’s testimony that a special meeting was called about a way to kill me.

What happens is that the campesinos, bit by bit, I helped them to get over their fear, because they’re very afraid of the mine. For example, on one occasion we were meeting in a church and it was really hot. So they said, “Professor, we’re going to go by the church door because it’s a bit cooler there.” I went behind them, and they said, “Professor, look behind you.” So I looked. There were three cars from the mine and, like, there were five persons filming us whilst we were inside. They take reprisals against the workers. I got angry, so much so that I said to them, “This is going to stop.” I got up and went, with nothing to hand, I ran down the stairs and confronted them. The campesinos and indigenous came behind me to see what was happening. I said to them, “What are you doing here? You have no right to be filming or spying because it violates our constitutional rights.” They were there with people from ANAM. I asked them, “Are you collaborating?” Yes they were collaborating. Then the people who’d come up started making a big racket. I have told them that I don’t like violence, but they pressed very strongly and there were more of us, and they left running, jumped in their cars and set off quickly. In the nervousness of the situation one of the cars didn’t start, so we grabbed onto it. I held onto it and said, “Who are you? What are your names?” Then we let them go. That helped the campesinos to get rid of a bit of their fear because they saw that I’d done that without anything. (I had a machete elsewhere.) So the miners didn’t like me, but they respect me a lot.

Those are the three or four things that have happened. They really have serious problems with me for one simple reason. For them it would be very easy if we were given to violence, but if we were given to violence we would lose. The people do want to do that, yes they want to use violent means, they want to burn tractors and houses. But we cannot do that because it doesn’t bring results.

Who is it that supports us, the communities? The University of Panamá. I’ve got here a paper of the University of Panamá in which the General University Council, made up of employees, teaching staff, and administrative staff, is 100 per cent in favour of us and against the mine. They have formed an important team of scientists and technicians who are studying the issue of Petaquilla from all angles: the social, the pollution, health, technology, everything.

Also, the Ombudsman supports us, 100 per cent.

But, what have we achieved? We’ve carried out a very intelligent struggle/campaign. We’ve tried to avoid violence. One violent situation which we had was the fault of various elements from SUNTRACS (Unique National Union of Workers in the Construction and Similar Industries) who gate-crashed our encampment. For more than two weeks we closed the access road to the Petaquilla project. They wanted violence, they wanted to burn the ranchos, the houses and everything down. We said that we couldn’t do that. They were the ones who burned the ranchos. They were the ones who set fire to and destroyed nine indigenous ranchos and everything in them. Some of these characters fled, but others stayed put. We’ve started proceedings against the mine for these things, but the process has been too slow and nothing has happened. I have the names of the persons involved. That happened on two occasions, between 2006 and 2007.

On the 22nd April 2007, the Day of the Earth which was a Saturday, by pure chance, all the campesino and indigenous communities had a big assembly and invited me to be there. They were supported by claretian missionaries. [Note: this sounds like they must be missionaries who are keen on their red wine! I’ve never heard of misioneros claretianos.] The claretian missionaries have been there for many decades, supporting the poor. Well there was one missionary, a Spanish woman called Ito Manred [transcriber uncertain about name] who advised them and accompanied them. There were about 400 people from three indigenous groups that had a resolution where they request an interpretive action. The campesinos had interpretive resolutions. We discussed throughout the day, until the afternoon. And finally one of them said to me: “If everybody wants interpretive actions, we’ll organise ourselves and form a committee to close the Petaquilla mine; and they did it, they got themselves organised and also created a directory in which each community had two representatives. It’s growing because those who participate are not just from the affected area but also from adjoining areas. We have a campesina coordinator who is …???… and it’s a big organisation and stretches even down to Kuna Yala on the other side of the Canal. There are thousands of communities, not just three groups.

Martin Mowforth (MM): In your testimony about the threats that you have received, do you want us to change the names of the people mentioned?

JY: No. What happens is that a lot of people have told me that you can’t legally make a denunciation if I don’t have any proof and the problem is how I can prove those incidents on the road. The other, yes because they are threats, they gave their testimony that they were waiting for me on the road to kill me. I thought that there wasn’t sufficient strength to take it to the legal field. One of my friends who was a minister during the time of General Torrijos, Fernando Manfredo, he’s against the mine and he’s studying for a way to annul the contract. He told me not to do anything until I have solid proof. The truth is that the most solid proof was what the campesino had during the meeting but he didn’t dare to speak – he told it to his cousin and the cousin told me, but I think it’s not the same. They’re very afraid of the miners because the miners there, like the communities, are very dispersed all along the road. They’ve raped girls of 12 to 14 years old, of primary and secondary school age; they’ve made them pregnant and abandoned them.

The other bad feature is that within the mine there’s a type of sexual exploitation of women. People work there for two or three weeks and stay within the mine during that time, [{they leave and they return} – Note: I’ve put this in italics because it directly contradicts the clause that preceded it]. They have different encampments, but the rule is the same, that is to say, the layout of the houses and the installations is the same. They have a house where all the bosses and trusted employees live. The workers live in a barracks some distance away, about 500 metres, very far; and the women live beside where the bosses and engineers, etc., live. These women are exploited, abused, harassed, mistreated; they rape them, some they sell for money or for …???… it’s a disaster. It has brought about family disintegration all over the area of the project which wasn’t known before because the area is a very tranquil one. Now there’s prostitution, drugs, social disintegration. That’s the other aspect of Petaquilla. A woman gave her testimony to all that, but she doesn’t work in the mine, but she’s the mother or mother-in-law of someone who was working in the mine, and she told everything. This is an aspect that I’ve tried to see if women’s organisations would get interested in, but they haven’t been interested because some womens’ organisations are supporters of the government of Martín Torrijos and they don’t want to rock the boat on this issue. Women undergo a very special suffering in mines in Panamá; women are more affected than the men for many reasons.

KM: Are you optimistic about the future despite the problems?

JY: I feel optimistic. My only worry is SUNTRACS because they’re very aggressive and they consider themselves to be an organisation of the left with a union base. They’ve created a thing called FRENADESO which hasn’t resulted in anything, but they are very strong because they get many millions of dollars in quotas because they’re construction workers and that is the most productive sector of Panamá. So they’ve got lots of room for manoeuvre. Our worry is that they are trying to infiltrate the movement to raise it up and turn it into a mass movement. And why do they incite violence? Because they need to gain attention to make it grow into a national organisation. We think that’s an error because the workers cannot lead the campesinos; the campesinos must have their own leadership. There is a kind of worker aristocracy. They are determined to obtain control, they still haven’t achieved it, but they are using some well known ways to get it – on the basis of individual personalities, personal protagonists, that type of thing. We have left in place there a coordination based for the moment on three people who are the most important that are there. One is a delegate of the word (who replaces the priests, officiates at the mass, as if he were a padre) who is called Carmelo; another is a representative of two magistrates who is called Toribio; and the other is a leader of the site most affected by the mine who is the teacher in the place and who is called Ramón Vergara. I told them: “You have to take this on. As always we will continue supporting them; I’ll now take a step back so that you can take one forward. Your own movement must mature now, but we will always accompany you.” Those three are the ones who will take decisions; they know that this is a threat. They are the ones who will lead and who will broaden things out.

I’m very optimistic because it’s very difficult to say no to the Ombudsman, it’s very difficult to tell him …???… that the Ombudsman is wrong, it’s impossible to say to the University of Panamá that it is wrong. So the action of the communities is not like it could have been, but we would have had the support to call [public] attention. We have not had to call [public] attention – our reasoning has enabled us to go higher up. Now what we want is to draw the fight to the attention of public opinion and to bring it to the institutional level, to demonstrate that there is a serious contradiction within the government with regard to the mine, for a very simple reason. Because the central government does not understand what sustainable development is and is not interested in understanding it, and possibly President Martinelli does not give any attention to the environmental claims of the communities.

We have tried to get a meeting with Martinelli’s government when it was still Martín’s [Torrijos]. In the end, the Vice-Minister of Commerce and Industry received us. He’s called Ricardo Quijano. That man is a really backward person.

JY: We’ve had two provincial coordination councils. The provincial coordination council is all the authorities of the province who meet to consider the issues facing the province and already we’ve had two councils where it has been impossible to talk about Petaquilla. First because the quorum was broken and second because they cancelled it …???… and they moved it perhaps so that we weren’t able to talk about it. The communities have not been able to talk about the Petaquilla issue, but the company is feeling the pressure. Now so that the president and the deputy …???… invited Carmelo. Carmelo is one of the three leaders …???… something we have to say. In effect he says yes, there is an attempt by SUNTRACS to promote violence to see if they can wrest control from us, but it’s very difficult. They are mad, they are real extremists, very dogmatic, very sectarian and very authoritarian. They are people with whom the left has problems. But they have a lot of money.