Protests by Ngöbe-Buglé community members against large-scale mining and hydroelectric projects on their native lands were met Feb. 5 by repressive measures by security forces, local rights groups said. Two people were killed in the demonstrations, and scores of other protesters were injured.
On Feb. 4, members of the community had said they would resume talks with the government only if the United Nations would send an observer.
Tensions between Panama’s indigenous groups and President Ricardo Martinelli’s government have grown since the administration began in 2009 over a contentious legislation that would make it easier for foreign companies to explore and drill for metals. Some of the largest copper-gold projects are on or near indigenous territories, known as “comarcas.” The protesters agreed to sit down to talks with the government on Feb. 7.
Indigenous protesters had blocked roads in the Chiriqui province, while other demonstrators marched in the capital. Protesters were met with tear gas and other repressive measures by police.
The National Journalism Council, a professionals’ group, said the government was violating freedom of expression by suspending telephone and Internet service in the conflict zones.
Thirty-five national and international human rights groups signed an open letter about the protest, and said the Ngöbe Buglé were demanding that a clause in the Mining Law keeping their lands free of mining and hydroelectric projects be left in legislation, after it was eliminated by lawmakers.
In a statement, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or IACHR, urged the government to guarantee “the physical integrity and security of leaders and members of the Ngöbe Buglé indigenous peoples, who protest against legislation related to the execution of investment projects in their territories.”
“As the organs of the Inter-American Human Rights System have reiterated, States must guarantee that indigenous peoples are consulted on all matters that may affect them, taking into account that this consultation must be aimed at reaching agreement with regard to the administrative or legislative actions that have an impact upon their rights”, said the IACHR.
The protesters agreed to sit down to talks with the government on Feb. 7.