15, Number 17
in this section:
Toribio Jiménez (left) and Toribio Aguila Meño, as the march arrived at Santa Clara
Snapshots of the Indigenous and Campesino March
photos and story by Jorge Ventocilla
Ventocilla had the opportunity to participate for three days, on two
different occasions, in this 20-day March that recently arrived in
Panama’s capital city. He spoke with the participants and
photos and notes. The most vivid mark left by the march was, in his
words, “A lesson in dignity and hope, taught by indigenous
and campesinos.” He shares the following reflections.
Toribio Jiménez was born in 1954. For many years he has been one of the elected leaders of the Ngäbe, the largest of Panama’s seven indigenous groups. He’s the head of the township of Alto de Jesus. Don Toribio is a veteran. He participated in the march in 1986, again in 1996 and now in this march.
“The first time we set off from Sitio Prado in March, 1986,” he told me. “The military government passed legislation that divided the Ngobe General Congress. We approved a plan to hold the Congress in Sitio Prado but the government organized another General Congress in Buenos Aires at the same time. After the meeting in Sitio Prado, we left for the city. I wasn't going to stay at home! And we did it: the law that they made to divide us was voted down. The second march  began in Cerro Colorado in mid-October and was to demand the creation of the comarca [a legally recognized indigenous territory]. We achieved this too, although we didn’t get everything we wanted. Some communities were left out--most of the communities of Calobevora. That’s why that fellow is carrying the sign that says “¡Santa Fe, Presente!” We achieved that as well: Law 10 creating the Ngobe-Bugle Comarca was approved after the third debate in 1997.”
Now they march toward a distant city that seems to be deaf: it can’t hear things that happen far away. You have to get close and scream out in order to be heard. “I’m doing this as a volunteer spokesperson,” he tells me. “The community leaders who are here are the ones who defend the interests of the comarca. The rest stayed at home.”
“Would you participate in another march, Don Toribio?” I asked.
“If it’s in the next 10 years, yes. If it’s after than, I’m not sure,” he answered, smiling.
Marchers come into Rio Hato
This is the second march for Ceferino Montezuma, another Ngäbe leader. He marched in 1996. Yesterday, he felt chilled and then passed out. Today he feels better and is still marching. People who get sick or who end up with insufferable blisters on their feet are assigned to take care of luggage that has been sent ahead to the next stopping-off point, or to help cook.
Today, at noon, I was listening to Samuel Pedrol, the tireless host of a sort of alternative radio station within the march. As we ate lunch he was reading the news through his megaphone, repeating recordings of interviews with the leaders, sending messages from well-wishers --- real or imaginary --- to the delegations as they walk by… all with a refined sense of humor that invigorates and animates the walkers.
I couldn’t believe it when the same Samuel that was at it all day with his jokes on the “radio broadcasts,” came limping out after they bandaged a huge open sore on the sole of his foot. “Hey, this is pure machismo!” he says, tongue-in-cheek, as he passes in front of us hopping on one foot.
Bernardo Jiménez, of the Chiriqui Independent Banana Union
The police have been hanging around and I can tell that they want to know something. Finally they come up to me and ask who is in charge of this march. Naively I mention a name and send them up ahead to find this person. Ceferino comes up to me and bawls me out: “You don’t have to give names. ‘We are all in charge here’ is what you should have said!” Caballero, I have learned these two lessons.
A woman and her family near Anton share cold water and enthusiasm with the marchers
Martín Rodríguez, president of the Rey Quibien Association from Cocle del Norte, found out about the march and came down to join us in Penonome. The Canadian mining company Petaquilla Gold has been poisoning their water and polluting their land and they can’t take it anymore. King Quibién, Martín explains, was a chief who defended the Ngäbes long ago. At night I see Martín writing in a notebook. And others do the same, both men and women. How I would like to know what they are writing at the end of each day!
Reynaldo Gonzalez (right), with Ngobe and Bugle youth, two of whom were later arrested in Plaza Catedral
Reynaldo González is 21 years old. He’s one of a few Naso who have studied at a university. He’s a nurse technician at the University of Panama. For a year he’s been involved in his peoples’ struggle. “We have forests and we take care of them. Without natural resources our culture is lost.” His father Reynaldo is a healer, as is his grandfather. He has the option to study medicine in the United States but he insists that his true vocation is biology. He is going to talk to the people who are offering him student aid about whether he can redirect it. He talks about his girlfriend with the same enthusiasm. She is Naso like he is, and also active in the struggle.
Before I go back to the city I hand him my copy of “Temas de Nuestra América”, with Benedetti’s poems. I point out “Te quiero” (….in the street, arm in arm, we are much more than two…), for him to read to his girlfriend. His eyes come alive. And when he saw the Earth banner that I was carrying, he said, “The message is clear!”
We were walking between Santiago and Divisa when I saw that they called him over to tell him something. I don’t know why, but it gave me bad vibes. The next day, arriving at the transport Terminal in Panama City, I spotted a headline that said that the Naso protesters in the Plaza Catedral had been forced to disperse by the riot police.
The Nasos were there for two moons and all of their days with the last government, and then they came back to stay until the current government forced them out. They had gone back and forth for months but no one would take them seriously. They were insisting upon their rights to ancestral lands taken over by a cattleman.
The riot police had initially evicted them from land that’s now in the hands of a cattleman in Bocas del Toro. At that point they threw people out of their houses early in the morning --- the people unarmed, and the riot police, armed as they are in the movies --- but this was real. They destroyed the school that the people themselves had built and their meetinghouse. They fired off tear gas canisters. A bulldozer driver opened up a hole and deposited what was left of their homes and belongings: clothing, kids school notebooks, a copy of the dictionary of their language that they had been working on putting together for decades. The bulldozer driver covered the hole so that no one could recover anything. The Naso are calling for their legally recognized territory. That is to say: they want a place in this society.
Larisa Duarte, campesina leader from Rio Cobre, and Genaro Smith, a leader from the Ngobe-Bugle Comarca
Larisa Duarte belongs to a campesino group from Rio Cobre, Veraguas. With this name --- of course! --- their land has befallen the terrible curse of being located near an exploitative, profitable project. “La campesina” Larisa’s indigenous companions on the march call her. She bubbles over with happiness and never stops shouting and encouraging the others. One day she left the march and went to the city to join the hunger strike with three of the Nasos who were kicked out of the Cathedral Plaza. I went to visit her when I returned to the city and found her there, sitting with the other three in front of the street where, perhaps the president’s car would go by, and he would see them. After 72 hours of hunger strike, Larisa’s eyes did not look like the same as they had when she was on the march. She was exhausted, and had a headache. She didn’t say anything about this, but I could tell.
But they did not move from that spot. Blas Quintero told me an hour later when the march arrived that Larisa’s father has written “The courageous don’t give up, they fight,” at the entrance to the patio of her house in Rio Cobre.
In some indigenous communities (not Santa Clara) outsiders covet collectively owned beach front land
The Committee to Close the Petaquilla Mine; The Reyo Quibien Association, Campesino Coordination for Life; Agricultural Producers Association of La Pintada; Coordinator of the Citizens of Colon for the Right to Life, Earth and Dignity; Committee in Defense of Colon; National Coordinator for the Defense of Lands and Waters; Chiriqui Environmentalists; MED Peace and Justice, etc… Seventeen communities affected by mining and hydroelectric projects while I was able to be in the march: Who knows how many other causes were represented over the 20 days of the march?
President Martinelli: Don’t miss this opportunity to meet and learn from these Panamanians who love their land like few others and who have walked for so many days so that the government will listen to them. Their dignified and respectful manner would be among the best that you experience in an appointment with leaders here in Panama or elsewhere --- I can assure you.
A farewell at the Rio Hato Catholic parish church, where the marchers were given food
Santiago is 23 years old and is the head of Charco La Pava. He finishing his high school degree and would like to be a lawyer if he could. “But my parents don’t work,” he told me. I’ll bet that they probably work much more than a lot of politicians work. But we say these things because we learn to. It’s customary. For three years, with the community, he has been asking for respect from a hydroelectric project that has lured others away from this task by offering them a salary. He continues. Toribio Jiménez is 32 years older than he is, and he also is still an activist. The king of the Naso is 40 or so years older than Santiago, and he also continues to speak out.
* * *
I saw two or three participants drop plastic bottles. But I saw others who wash, save and reuse the plates and plastic forks that come with the food people and organizations offer to the marchers along the way. Some of the marchers carry their own small bowls made from coconut or totuma shells to receive their rations and their coffee. And I have heard them repeat slogans hundreds of times that underscore the importance of rivers, forests, nature, the Earth. And even fish in the streams.
As they walk, sometimes they pick up trash that has been tossed there along the wayside; trash that still may be good for something. Toribio Pito is a young Ngäbe, from the community of Buenos Aires. I saw him pick up a piva, one of Panama’s best edible palm fruits, extract the seed, and put it in his pocket. I went over and he confessed: “It's to plant [upon his return], when the moon is low in the sky: that way the palm tree will be shorter and produce more fruit.”
“To walk so far and for so long means that you must really care for your land” said a woman whose name I didn’t catch --- maybe she was the local representative --- as she welcomed us into the Community Center in El Higo, where they offered us chicken soup, crackers and juice.
we returned to the march, I still had her words in my head,
walk so far and for so long means that you must really care for your
* * *
This is not a Boy Scout troop, nor is it a group of people who are bored with their lives. Someone must be staying at home with the kids --- right? --- harvesting crops, feeding the chickens and the other animals. And they had to make sure that there would be food in the house for these many days that they are not there.
And the sun is really hot. Can you imagine that? And when it pours, you can catch cold and then you are screwed. You know? And your legs cramp up and sores form on your feet. Once, someone screamed out of a car window “Get back to work!” The reasons to continue with a journey like this, along the side of the road, must be pretty serious.
If we would pay attention, we would realize that this is actually benefiting many of us. To this end, must be why the marchers shout, 7,000 times along the way: “This struggle isn’t for one group of people, it’s for everyone!”
But we are asleep. The more we sleep, the more they profit from our inaction.
Speechless, we stand there watching as they build huge skyscrapers in our Babylonian capital city, and we think that we are more sophisticated than people living elsewhere in the country!
* * *
At the end of the day there’s a meeting. To talk about the news, work on the points that will be presented, figure out the logistics for tomorrow’s lunch and march. I take these notes as one of the leaders mentions: “Politicians in current government are interested in modifying Law 10 [which created the Ngobe-Bugle Comarca] by changing the property rights system from communal to private and changing the status of the land from comarca to reserve. They would also change the status of the coastline, the area 1,000 meters from the waterline into an area for tourism development. And the authority recognized by the government would change from ‘cacique’ to ‘governor.’ This is not the moment to change Law 10,” emphasizes this person as he takes his leave. This alone should be sufficient reason for a march to the city. But there are more.
* * *
If you are really interested in the reasons for the Indigenous and Campesino March, you’ll be able to find them. For example, at www.caminatapanama.org. But here I’d like to add one more reason, less tactical, but more strategic, for this march: they are awakening affect, solidarity.
By means of this march, indigenous and campesino activists remind us of values that have gone underground, making Panamanian soil tremble, filling it with pride, fertilizing it, giving it vitality. For them, the men and women who are marching, and also for those who have expressed their solidarity in one way or another --- offering a little water, serving lunch for 70 tired people, or with applause, a thumbs-up, the honk of a horn or even an attentive, complicit glance, this march has taught us what we are capable of doing when we respect our own dignity and the dignity of our environment. We take that to heart and join in the march.
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Tankless Water Heaters ---
2009 by Eric Jackson