Confronting the authorities on the Pan-American Highway in Arimae, Darien
Embera communities block the
road to fend off a land invasion
photos by Jos� F. Ponce, story by Jos� F. Ponce and Eric Jackson
Back in the 1970s, before the Pan-American Highway was extended to Yaviza, General Omar Torrijos granted some 77,000 hectares of land to be collectively held by an Embera community in and around the village of Arimae. But then the Pan-American Highway was extended through part of that land --- something that the people considered positive at the time --- and landless farmers from the Interior looked to the area to chop their new farms out of the jungle.
In the 1980s General Manuel Antonio Noriega promised much of the land General Torrijos had granted to the Embera community to newcomers from the Interior (colonos in local parlance) and since Noriega times there have been constant land invasions, some financed by state-owned banks, and truces and agreements that have always been broken. The land struggles have sometimes grown violent, including shooting incidents and the destruction of crops and burning of buildings.
During the Moscoso administration the situation got so severe that a legislator from Mireya's coalition, Hayde� Milan�s de Lay, campaigned for re-election on a platform of ethnic cleansing of the area. "Indigenous to the comarca" was her slogan, based on the argument that the Embera had enough land in the bifurcated Embera-Wounaan Comarca and that the property that members of these indigenous ethnic groups own elsewhere should be confiscated and distributed to "real Panamanians." (The ex-legislator? Courts have since ruled that she's not Panamanian, but Colombian. Her son, however, was born in Panama and was recently elected to the National Assembly.) The ethnic cleansing pitch was so odious that it prompted the Catholic Church to issue one of its rare scoldings of a particular politician.
These days Embera land that General Torrijos granted, now reduced to just over 7,000 hectares, is home to two villages, Arimae and Embera Puru. And a Colombian, one Tom�s Joaqu�n, has filed a claim with the Agrarian Reform Office (Reforma Agraria) for 2,000 hectares in the middle of the Embera land. He argues that it's unused government land, that the Mart�n Torrijos government doesn't recognize collective land ownership outside of the comarcas, and that he should be allowed to develop it as part of the national economy.
The people in Arimae and Embera Puru beg to differ. Yuri Bacorizo, a resident of Embera Puru and son of that community's late founder, the legendary cacique Arcenio Bacorizo, says that the land Joaqu�n claims is partly fallow area that the Embera residents need for the crop rotations that make their agriculture sustainable, and that part of the land that the Colombian is claiming is Arimae's and Embera Puru's park, which is used by the locals for recreation and to teach young people about rainforest resources, and for which there are long-standing plans to develop a more tourist-oriented "Mythological Park" based on the ancient oral traditions of Embera society.
So what do Panamanians do when they have a complaint with the government? Typically, they block the road.
That's what was done on the Pan-American Highway in front of Arimae on May 28. Parts of a broadcasting tower were dragged into the road as a makeshift roadblock, and people swarmed onto the road to demand the Darien governor's presence. Participating in the blockage were Embera men, women and children --- only the frail elderly and mothers caring for infants sat this one out, and even some of them posted themselves in hammocks nearby to cheer the community on. And it wasn't only the Embera, but also some of their non-indigenous friends, out in the road.
So, what to do while waiting for the governor? The women set up a little bingo tournament.
Eventually the governor came, threatened to call in the riot squad --- to which the protesters responded that everyone was prepared to die that day --- and eventually retired to meet behind closed doors with community leaders. Bacorizo said that the only commitment the community received was that the governor would uphold the law.
Arimae and Embera Puru have legal counsel observing the process before Reforma Agraria, and if they find that Joaqu�n's claim is granted one of the responses would be the filing of a lawsuit. But generations of Arimae's and Embera Puru's young men have upheld a tradition of more militant responses than that, and Bacorizo said that the Colombian has threatened to shoot any Embera who intrudes on "his land."
A mango break in the course of a boyhood on the
barricades of the struggle for Embera land rights
Bingo is one bit of extraneous culture that this Embera community has embraced
Can't deal with the current generation of Embera leaders? Their kids will be tougher.
After protesters ascertained that it wasn't a trick, an ambulance was allowed to get by
It's not just hot-headed young men standing behind the barricade
in Casco Viejo, Panama City
2009 by Eric Jackson
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phone: (507) 6-632-6343