Reinaldo Alexis Santana will become the youngest king ever to rule the Tjër Di Naso at his coronation this month; he is 30 years old. Adolfo Villagra, Edwin Sanchez, my son and I were invited to meet the new ruler this weekend, and promised to help engage international media in this fast moving story, in advance of his coronation on September 25th. For those finding this source for the first time, this story is the subject of the documentary film, Tjër Di: What Price Paradise? Filming is scheduled to begin in January.
Prior to last week’s election, the Naso throne had been disputed for seven years since King Tito Santana was exiled after permitting construction of a controversial hydro-electric project, against the wishes of a supermajority of his people. The present construction is only the first of three projects proposed by an international consortium which continues its exploitation of Naso resources despite the dispute, which includes an abuse case filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The Tjër Di Naso territory is near the border of Panama and Costa Rica, partially within International Park La Amistad, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. This kingdom contains 11 communities connected by rivers and trails. Travel is by boat or raft, which is how 1,697 Naso arrived to vote on August 28th. The rivers are essential to the Naso way of life. Additional dams, if built as proposed, could mean cultural genocide for the Naso, according to recent testimony on the situation. Decreased flows on the Rio Teribe would mean the main arterial for this culture would no longer be navigable. The Rio Teribe is the goddess whose name in Tjër Di translates to Grandmother Water, she who nurtures Mother Earth, providing for all life in the kingdom. Corporations attacking goddesses is only the beginning of the controversy.
Panama’s National Assembly had refused to recognize the elder leader who replaced Tito, King Valetin Santana, because he opposed the dam according to his people’s wishes. While Valentin is Tito’s uncle, he did not share his nephew’s willingness to host controversial hydro-electric dams in his people’s ancestral territory. The new king is Valetin’s nephew; he shared with us his support for conservation during our interview yesterday, but reserved a decision on the pending projects after further study and his coronation.
Panama already generates two thirds of its electricity from hydro-electric projects. This project intends to export electricity to Costa Rica for profit at the expense of some of Panama’s most pristine riparian ecosystems. ODESEN is the Organization for the Development of Sustainable Eco-tourism for the Naso. ODESEN leaders were the only ones to observe the clandestine moving of the park boundaries for La Amistad and were not consulted in environmental impact surveys preceding the Rio Bonjic project.
Mexico’s billionaire Carlos Slim is currently financing the construction of transmission lines from Panama through Central America to Mexico City, putting the region’s rivers at considerable risk with more than 50 new dam proposals pending in the highlands of Panama’s Talamanca Mountains alone. The fact that many of these projects are proposed within or adjacent to the La Amistad biosphere reserve is cause for alarm. Without its rivers, this rainforest and its amazing species diversity will be endangered, along with the way of life for indigenous river cultures such as the Naso and BriBri. Meanwhile, in the USA and EU, dams are being destroyed to save habitat and species.
King Tito authorized the first of three dams in La Amistad in 2005. The projects are proposed by an international consortium led by EPM, a development agency of Colombia’s Antioquia department and Medellin-based multi-utility, in order to generate electricity for export. Tito officially received only the pledge of infrastructure projects in exchange for a 50-year lease. Tito did not even negotiate a pledge of electricity from the hydro-electric project for his people, who live off the grid, although he ensured the demand for electricity for flat screens at new beach resorts planned for Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast will be supplied, at the expense of Panama’s rain forest.
As the $60 million Rio Bonjic dam nears completion, the Tjër Di Naso continue to resist development that will kill their rivers and end their way of life. Recent road blocks prevented dam workers access to the project, leading the national government to finally recognize the right of the Naso to depose King Tito, as they did in 2005. Valetin is quite elderly and has been unsuccessful in ending the conflict created by Tito and the prior administration. While everyone loves clean energy, rivers are even more essential to life, and the balance between development and conservation is often difficult to strike. Some Naso have pledged to prevent the connection of transmission lines between the project and the electrical grid established last year between La Fortuna and Costa Rica, if an acceptable resolution is not found.
In this democratic kingdom, elections allow people choices; however, all candidates are from the hereditary monarchy, the Santana family. In the recent Naso election, ballots listed three members of the ruling family. Reinaldo Alexis Santana won 130 votes more than our old friend, the second-place Maestro Ricardo Santana. The people of this democratic kingdom selected the candidate from the political party Cambio Democratico, which has historically resisted exploitation of natural resources in the province, rather than either of the other two candidates which belong to the same political party as the past two rulers.
As was the case in the election, international observers will be present at the coronation, as well as members of Panama’s government. Panama’s President Martinelli also belongs to Cambio Democratico. It was the Torrijos administgration which perpetrated this violation of the Naso’s ancestral territory and it is hoped that the new administration will help the new king find a peaceful and fair resolution. President Martinelli recently repealed a law passed by the National Assembly, thereby respecting indigenous rights in the case of the Ngöbe-Buglé’s resistance of open-pit mining in their territory, which 2011’s Ley 8 would have enabled.
The first question in the hearts of community members is the same question on the minds of executives at EPM. How will the new king resolve this struggle? Nightly the Naso listen to the sound of dynamite exploding on their river, the Rio Bonjic, and struggle to explain to their children the age-old story whose worst villain has always been the one who poisons the well. Recent visitors to the kingdom’s eco-lodge encountered tractors working in the river, harvesting materials for the first roads and bridges in the reserve, development which the majority of Naso have publically and forcefully rejected.
The second issue facing the young Reinaldo Alexis involves something every other indigenous tribe in Panama enjoys. The Naso are the only tribe on the isthmus without a ‘Comarca’, a Spanish word for autonomous territory. Naso community leaders believe a Comarca is the minimum compensation they should receive for this intrusion into their territory, which autonomy will allow them to prevent any further exploitation of their ancestral lands, which autonomy will allow them to preserve the integrity of their sustainable ecology and halt the march of “consumer culture” into their kingdom which epitomizes “sustainable living”.
This weekend’s interview with the king began as tribal artist Victor Sanchez placed a large wooden sculpture of an elephant in the middle of the room, which was filled with Tjër Di speaking members including women and children of all ages. The issue nobody discussed that evening was, however, advocated by the custom-made shirt worn by the young king-in-waiting. It read, simple: “Tjër Di Naso Comarca”. Reinaldo Alexis, we wish you well in your people’s noble struggle. I am reminded of another young leader, Ghandi, who counseled, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” Like you, Alexis, Ghandi encountered the occasional elephant in the middle of the room.