Overview of the March Volcan Town Meeting

Overview- March Volcan TOWN MEETING

The Volcan Town Meeting was held Wednesday, March 14. We wish to summarize the Meeting for those who could not attend. We thank all the Panamanian speakers at this Meeting that provided us with all the information for this review.

One of our scheduled speakers, the Anam, was not able to attend due to Government concerns about potential road closures as there was news of threatened unrest. Though we covered a good bit of ground about the issues surrounding the Indian unrest, several more questions developed in the course of information sharing. We first started the Meeting with some statistics about the Ngobe Indians in which we reported the following:

> 95% of the Ngobe live in poverty, while 86% live in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is described as being unable to provide enough food sustenance amounting to 2280 calories a day.

> Illiteracy is high among the Ngobe and is equivalent to the country of Rwanda. The Human Development Index composed by the UN states that the Ngobe is on par with Haiti.

> Many children that go to school only attend grades 1-5. Twenty percent of the Ngobe cannot speak Spanish. More cannot read or write Spanish. This makes employment opportunities more difficult for them to find.

> Culturally, the Ngobe are suspicious of outsiders and prefer to be left alone from outside influences.

> Infrastructure, electricity and sanitation are practically non-existent. For sanitation, rivers, streams and natural water bodies are used for bathing, washing clothing, food gathering, drinking water and for personal waste usage. It is a cultural practice to defecate in the same water that is used for drinking water downstream by other Ngobe villagers.

With such serious social issues and problems such as these plus the high incidence of alcoholism, spousal and family abuse, and repressed rights of Ngobe women, it appears that concerns about hydro-electric and mining concessions may not be balanced. Indeed, if the Ngobe can negotiate land, which the Comarca is larger than many other provinces in Panama, for royalties and fees, such income would greatly alleviate these social crises and perhaps provide an income for every Ngobe man and woman. The Cacique has stated that the Ngobe People are “dying.” In light of these current statistics, she has a valid point and the Ngobe need to take positive and responsible steps to alleviate human suffering, disease, squalor and ignorance among them.

Town Meeting speakers also shared the experience of an 80-year old gentleman from Boquete who was trapped in the road closure in San Felix. He was sequestered for four days and nights in which the only water provided was by the International Red Cross which was once each day. He was forced to sleep in this car, take care of his personal hygiene and functions in the most primitive way possible, and had to buy a small cup of rice containing a measured fifteen beans from the Ngobe each day. For this cup of rice mixture, he was forced to pay them nearly $5. When he complained, he was told to pay or starve. Finally, when the blockade was forcibly lifted, he was told by National Police to drive as fast as possible to avoid rocks and projectiles thrown at the auto vehicles exiting the area. Although he traveled at a 100 KPH, he suffered a broken windshield, multiple rock dents and cracked windows in leaving the area. When this gentleman arrived home, the next day he put his house up for sale intending to leave Panama for good after this harrowing experience at his age. To add further injury, his auto insurance company refused to pay for damages citing a riot clause in his policy.

Our speakers, both prominent Panamanian businessmen in the area presented useful and practical information. They stated that it was unlawful to block roads and major transportation routes. They said that millions of dollars of products, such as produce, were lost. In Volcan, the unrest turned into an ugly and unacceptable display of violence and anarchy in which the police station and public buildings and property were set fire, gutted and destroyed.

They shared that the present Cacique in talks with the National Government was elected by a narrow plebiscite and may not be official legal representation in the talks. There seems to be a substantial disconnect with the many Indian leaders as to who is running things or what the issues really are as it was reported that only one group out of seven Indian factions were making demands. These demands, such as no hydro-electric facilities anywhere in the country of Panama, appear to be the same agenda as radical environmentalists, who are influencing some of the Ngobe. This is not a rational or good faith bargaining point as the Ngobe have agreed to some already in the past but wish to cancel those agreements. The National Government cannot be expected to comply with such a demand from 5% of the population. Panama needs cheap, reliable and reasonably clean hydro-electric sources for the burgeoning needs of the country along with new demands for electricity created by enlarging the Panama Canal. The new Canal will need over 1000 electric motors of 28.000 HP (horse power) to control new locks, valves and pumps. Our speakers presented an excellent slide presentation in which current and proposed hydro-electric facilities were shown. One hydro-electric was shown which utilizes only seven hectares of water yet the whole operation is in dispute.

Our speakers believe that the Ngobe would like to advance to live in the 21st Century with electrical conveniences and not remain settled in a near Stone Age standard of living. Such a modern example as the nation of Mongolia was noted. Mineral wealth has transformed this country of livestock herders into a developing economic nation with its rich deposits of copper, gold, silver and other commodities. They also believe and hope in time that with improved education that Ngobe leaders will emerge that have a vision for the prosperity and survival of their People. The ideal is for those who wish to, is to be able to integrate into modern society and cultural norms in which beneficial value to the Ngobe can be derived such as combating extreme poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy.

The Volcan Town Meeting is a group of Ex-Pats who meet each month to discuss issues that will improve their lives and cultural awareness in their new communities in Panama. We share news and current events to keep our constituency informed in making decisions in improving their situations. We invite you to share and participate in making Volcan and surrounding areas a better place to live. For further information, contact us at: volcanmeeting@yahoo.com

One thought on “Overview of the March Volcan Town Meeting

  1. It is unfortunate that no representatives from the indigenous communities were there to present their set of facts and points of view, along with historical background as they see it, to place the so-called unrest in a clearer perspective.

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