Grandmother Water: What Price, Paradise?

Grandmother Water: What Price, Paradise? is a feature-length documentary film that examines critical ethical issues viewed through the eyes of 3,500 residents of a river valley located inside La Amistad International Park, a trans-boundary protected watershed shared by Costa Rica and Panama. The film explores the Naso, a little-known indigenous culture, home to the last kingdom in the western hemisphere. In a region where two-thirds of electricity is generated from hydro-electric projects, dam contracts are big business, and proposals exist to build more – not for the regions’ own needs, but to export electricity to Costa Rica.  Through the Naso’s struggle for their Rio, sociological issues in the debate for development vs. conservation are examined in light of a global population projected to increase from 7 to 10 billion in the coming decades.

No documentary film work has been done on the Tjër Di Naso and their home in  International Park La Amistad. These custodians of the wilderness they protect are virtually unknown even to many of their Costa Rican and Panamanian neighbors. The one formal scientific expedition in the park, UK’s Darwin Initiative, discovered more than 30 species previously unknown to man only six years ago. There has been little local news coverage of the struggle to protect the Naso God, Tjër Di.  

The Naso Kingdom within La Amistad International Park is a place whose ecological significance made it the world’s first international biosphere reserve and an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Even this recognition may not save them.  Failure to recognize the Naso and their connection to Tjër Di (the Naso god “Grandmother Water”) is likely to result in cultural genocide. Their lives – cultural and spiritual – depend on the Rio Teribe.

This story focuses on a familiar struggle between contemporary society and indigenous cultures that survive without energy-intensive “modern conveniences”.  It will also examine the concept of ‘clean energy. Present-day conquistadors fly the flags of corporations and their conquests involve economic growth and development. Can the dominant society’s insatiable thirst for more continue developing every last corner of our natural environment for resources, and in the process, destroy the few surviving examples of how people live in harmony with nature?  What price, paradise?

The main characters are past and present kings, one living in exile after betraying his people, tribal leaders such as Adolfo Villagra and Edwin Sanchez, and the Presidents of Costa Rica and Panama and key ministers in their administrations. The film will compare and contrast the ideas of these characters through a script with the following structure:

Prelude: International Context

Scenes showing the demolition of five dams in the USA in 2011-12 will be spliced along with the cost of the dams, the cost of the failed fish ladders, the cost of the demolitions, and the total cost, pan to the explosions: the biggest dam demolition in U.S. history on the Elwa in Olympic National Park, where the Army Corps of Engineers’ goal is fighting to right past wrongs in order to prevent the extinction of salmon; Pacific Power’s 38-meter tall Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in southwest Washington State; On the east coast, a dam on Maine’s Penobscot River, a stronghold for Atlantic salmon, and Simkins Dam on Maryland’s Patapsco River, and many more are targeted for destruction.

Scenes showing recent (all during 2011) protests of dams and mines in: Puno, Peru, on Lake Titicaca; at Belo Monte in Brazil where an indigenous Kaiapo leader just delivered a petition against hydroelectric projects signed by a half million Brazilians; in Chile where international activists encouraged President Piñera to respect the will of his people and reject the $7 billion 5-dam project in Patagonia which included a 2,300-km-long transmission line and the world’s longest clear cut through national parks and protected areas.

The environmental group, American Rivers, has named 2011 ‘The Year of River Restoration’, yet dams, mines, logging and other unwanted developments are occurring in indigenous peoples’ territories worldwide. Why? So that consumer cultures can have more? How much is enough? With time there are fewer unspoiled places, and fewer people living sustainably. It is time for a discussion about how modern societies might live in harmony with their neighbors who are content to live with less stuff, less power, less fuel, less chaos. How much is too much? Where is the balance?

“One of the interesting issues and real conflicts here is the problem that hydro-electric is clean energy and increasingly favored by those trying to get us off of non-renewable fuels. Everything has its impacts and unfortunately this one lands squarely and unfairly on the Tjër Di Naso. Even more significant might be the underlying business model and what the alternatives are. Big question: How necessary is the envisioned production to the future of the region, and how many dam sites of this quality are there elsewhere?”

Act I:  Meet the Tjër Di (Naso) & the La Amistad biosphere reserve
Act II:  Eco-tourism & future of the international park as a World Heritage Site
Act III:  Hydroelectric Project Exiles a King
Act IV:  Naso file with OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Act V:  Avatar De-animated

“In the end, we conserve only what we love; we love only what we understand; and we understand only what we have been taught.” – Baba Dioum, Founder, International Union for the Conservation of Nature

There are indigenous societies still living sustainably while growing mainstream cultures
participate in unsustainable consumerism. Modern technology can enlighten the former, but over-development is pushing unsustainable practices into every corner of the world with false promises.  The Naso have suggested, “consumer culture is to the earth as mange is to the dog.” Conspicuous consumption is parasitical and the host is suffering.  Indigenous societies living in harmony with nature are under pressure … to accept a contagious disease and, in some cases, a death sentence. “Only when the last tree has died, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”  —Cree proverb

On a thin land bridge between two continents, clean, clear rivers flow to the Caribbean
and the Pacific.  Modern societies continue to covet the natural resources of the indigenous as they have for over 500 years. In Central America, there reside two cultures mostly unknown to the world, societies who make a relatively small footprint on vast tracts of undeveloped rainforest and cloud forest Through the lives of the Tjër Di Naso, the issue of “How much is enough?” is explored.

Worldwide, new battles for natural resources in indigenous territories have begun anew pitting the native way of life with that of new conquistadors flying the flags of corporations. Hanging in the balance: the health of rainforest and cloud forest rivers and watersheds that are among the most pristine in the hemisphere.  This may be a good time, as the global population moves from 7 to 10 billion in the coming decades, for consumer cultures to consider their seemingly endless thirst for more.

Is hydroelectric energy for export, for profit, worth destroying a culture and damaging the ecology of an important international biosphere reserve?  Should an open pit mine be forced on the neighboring Ngöbe-Buglé and their neighbors, against their wishes, poisoning pristine watersheds with toxic chemicals? The benefits, problems, costs and definitions of “progress” are debated in the context of the ongoing struggle between ecological conservation and sustainable living, on the one hand; and, economic development and current patterns of consumption, on the other.  The Ngöbe are mentioned because they, as the largest tribe in Central America, helped the tiny Buglé tribe obtain autonomous territory in 1997 and their successes as recently as 2011 enlighten and instruct the Naso as they follow on the path the Ngöbe and Buglé walked just 15 years ago.

Viewers will meet Adolfo Villagra and Edwin Sanchez, who have been resisting, with road
blocks and violence when necessary, encroachment and exploitation of their territories by corporations. Recent Ngöbe protests led to the death of a baby from tear gas poisoning, and the hospitalization of a government official from sticks and stones, along with many indigenous hospitalized from rubber bullets fired by riot police. Tensions are so deep that they can, have, and will continue to flare out-of-control if long-term resolutions are not found, and the Naso have declared their intentions to follow the Ngöbe example, if necessary, to fight to protect their ancestral lands.

In the case of the Tjër Di Naso tribe, the interests at stake belong to the AES corporation, part of a Colombia-Panama corporate-political consortium with plans to build hydro-electric dams on rivers inside an UNESCO World Heritage Site and international biosphere reserve.  The park limits were clandestinely moved to enable a small dam, now outside the park.  This is the proverbial “foot in the door” with new roads, bridges, and heavy equipment now in view from the indigenous’ once-isolated eco-lodge.  There had never been any roads in Tjër Di territory until now.

In addition to hearing from government and indigenous leaders, this film will introduce the voices of the corporations and their contractors, UNESCO who administers the international park, organic coffee and cacao farmers, and expatriate organizations that partner with the indigenous such as the Big River Foundation and Citizens of Chocolate.  The backdrop is rural tribal communities situated amidst virgin forests, rivers, waterfalls,and wildlife contrasted with the congestion and pollution of neighboring urban areas whose ecology has been thoroughly exploited, such as Panama City, San Jose, and the cities between. Do we as a species sincerely intend to spoil not only our own backyards, but those of our indigenous neighbors as well?  The sociology of extraordinary popular delusions as well as the pathology of “bullies” will considered.

This documentary introduces the Tjër Di Naso, their customs and culture, and their importance to the region and the world. The Tjër Di Naso protect their mythical “Abuela Agua” (Grandmother Water) who nurtures Mother Earth, who nurtures us all.  These people still travel great distances, taking organic produce to market, by river rafts built out of bamboo for each new trip downriver. They reside purposefully apart from mainstream culture, outside of eco-tourism activities, and live sustainably.  For five centuries these cultures have been pushed further and further into the rainforest by settlers, loggers, and banana companies.  It’s imperative to put a human face on those in jeopardy because they have decided they will be pushed no more.  The film will capture the views of indigenous who ask important questions, such as, “Where would we go next?  We would have to move our homes, families, crops, animals and our lives if the river is not navigable.  Who would care for Grandmother Water?”

The film will reveal that the Tjër Di Naso maintain a hybrid ‘democratic kingdom’.  Leadership is hereditary but democratic as far as which member of the ruling family reigns.  Democratic ideals recently led to a king being exiled after he betrayed his people. The other king represents his people.  The other, recently deposed, is still recognized by Panama’s National Assembly since he agreed to allow the first (of three) dams in his tribe’s ancestral territory against the wishes of his people. The Tjër Di Naso are presently negotiating with the government as the last tribe to hopefully receive autonomous territory, like every other tribe in Panama before them. The Tjër Di Naso want a negotiation process in which the government recognizes the land rights of aboriginal people at risk, and where Tjër Di Naso communities are consulted before any external economic project is developed on their lands or the rivers they guard.

The process to create an autonomous indigenous Comarca has been established by precedent multiple times. Panama’s government readied the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca while indigenous protestors marched the Pan American Highway toward Panama City in 1997.  They are the largest tribe in Central America; however, the Tjër Di Naso are the smallest. The project team will interview attorneys in Washington DC who recently represented the Tjër Di Naso at hearings by the Organization of America States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Important testimony was given, such as, “Failure to recognize the Tjër Di Naso will probably result in cultural genocide, since their culture,
spiritual life and existence are threatened by foreign investors.”

The project team will invite Presidents Martinelli (Panama) and Chinchilla (Costa Rica) to share their administrations’ stances on hydroelectric projects, and the bi-national biosphere reserve. President Martinelli will be interviewed regarding his recent repeal of Law 8 which would have opened indigenous territory to direct foreign investment for open-pit mining. This action made him a hero to those in the region fighting for ecological and indigenous rights. President Chinchilla will be invited to speak about her country’s success in developing eco-tourism, a model Panama seeks to emulate, and the ongoing struggle between conservation and economic development initiatives in Costa Rica. While Costa Rica rejected hydroelectric dams in La Amistad it seems content to buy/resell electricity from such projects in the Tjër Di Naso’s area of the park, as evidenced by the transmission lines planned to cross the Costa Rica/Panama border. The film will explore the concept of “not in my backyard”.

Organic coffee farmer and project collaborator Jen Long points to insights from Lynn Twist, founder of the Pachamama Alliance.  “The indigenous and the modern world are colliding and they will continue to collide. Both peoples must move forward together if we are to survive; both worlds learn from each other. Our liberation is bound up in the liberation of the indigenous. We must live in a world of you and me … and not a world of you or me.”   

The cinematography of Tjër Di, What Price Paradise? will juxtapose the humanistic and ecological beauty of the residents in La Amistad with their frustration at the drumming … of the march of mainstream culture … banging on the door of their community. The cameras will bring a mystical, avatar-esque wilderness into the hearts and minds of viewers, to focus the examination. The audience will experience the story emotionally as well as visually.

This film will attract a broad audience: those concerned about leaving a planet worth living on to their children, those interested in the balance being “enough” and “too much”, and those who know that the best ideas are not necessarily the newest. Our foundation’s goal is consistent with the goals of the NEH, for educators, students, and international public to have access to any output of the Bridging Cultures through Film program, to include university screenings, affordable DVD’s, easy on-demand distribution, and ultimately television.  Viewers will get the sense that less can be much, much more.  This film is for all ages and will prove useful in academic curricula.

Media/Production Team:

Tony Pagano, filmmaker,

Jeffrey Porter, filmmaker, A World of Conflict and All I Want

Stephen Kaczor, writer/co-collaborator on the project.

Jennifer Long, co-collaborator on the Costa Rica side of the park & Dr. Bruce Lites

Eric Ellman, Big River Foundation’s Executive Director, Laredo, Texas.

Humanities Advisory Council:

Dr. Thoric Cederstrom, Ph.D. in Development Anthropology & Natural Resources Economics, University of Arizona, Advisory Council Chair;

Dr. Allan Burns, Chair, Department of Anthropology, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,
University of Florida;

P. Simran Sethi, Associate Professor, William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Kansas;

Jane Brown, Senior Program Manager II, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Communication Programs;

Dr. McLarney, Programa de Biomonitoreo, Asociación ANAI, Costa Rica;

Alexis Wilfredo Bonilla De Obaldia, Agronomist, Ministerio de Desarrollo Agropecuario,
Panama; and,

Dr. Mark Pagani, Associate Professor, Department of Geology, Yale University
Climate & Energy Institute.

These scholars will guide script revisions and final editing of the film. 

Distribution will begin with theatrical releases, film festivals (the trailer is scheduled to
be previewed in Feb at the premier International Film Festival in Panama), with major distribution efforts through university screenings.


About Stephen Kaczor

Co-Founder, Big River Foundation; Writer, Alternative Emerging Investor; Producer, Grandmother Water; Organic Farmer in Panama
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