Sister Joins in Solidarity with Indigenous People of Panama

by Sister Edia del Lopez,   March 15, 2011


Sister Edia, who ministers with the indigenous Ngobe-Bugle people in Panama, recounts below their difficult but ultimately successful efforts to have the government revoke a law that they feared would lead to exploitation of their land by multinational mining corporations. Environmentalists also expressed concern about creating opportunities for open-pit mining in Panama’s rainy, tropical climate. Sister Edia’s reflection, a compilation of several pieces of correspondence from her, has been translated from her native Spanish.


I accompanied the Ngobe people during five days of continuous protest in late February. One day was especially terrible, with one person killed and many injured and detained during the repression by national police. There was a riot unit of more than 300 police against 1,200 people, all indigenous peoples and a few peasants, and among them, we, the Sisters of Mercy.

The Ngobe people started by taking over the main roads that connect Panama with Central America for five days, and the government tried to ignore the protest. The Minister of Finance and Economy said that they would take no responsibility for the deaths nor anything that has occurred in the clash between the indigenous people and the police. The government has the gall to declare that they had no knowledge of any repression and less of the deaths from this and other protests. It’s amazing.

Yet in response to the continued protests, on March 4th, the government announced that it would revoke the mining law. It also answered the call of the Ngobe-Bugle people to claim their right to make their own decisions as an indigenous people by agreeing to dialogue, with mediation from representatives of the Catholic Church.

Yesterday the coordinator of the high commission in defense of the Ngobe people’s rights and conservation of natural resources was to come to the table with the government and further their proposals that mining exploitation in the indigenous territory be prohibited and that mechanisms for authentic and on-going consultation be put in place. We do not know how the matter will go. For now we are alert.

There has been no real decision-making participation by the people as an earlier agreement had laid out regarding the rights of indigenous peoples. In addition, there is no creative mechanism of dialogue between the three parties involved with the Ngobe-Bugle: the General Congress supported by the government, the Traditional Congress not recognized by the government, and the Coordinator, who maintains leadership right now in the fight against mining in the country.

Our Church Missionary Team will meet as soon as both Congresses end on Thursday and see the way out of this impasse that has befallen our Ngobe brothers and sisters. We don’t see a solution, since you must dialogue and then make a proposal to the leaders of these three groups.

This situation is very worrisome for us who do ministry in the area and we ask for international solidarity in whatever way is possible.

You may read a press release from a Catholic diocesan ministry’s efforts to support the Ngobe people in their recent struggles at

Cultural Survival – an organization that helps indigenous peoples around the world defend their lands, languages and cultures – has prepared an email message to send to President Martinelli to urge greater attention to the concerns of the Ngobe-Bugle people. You can access that at


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