This weekend Panama celebrates 192 years of independence from Spanish rule, as do many indigenous cultures who arrived long before the conquistadors from Spain. The Guna, Embera, Wounaan, Bugle & Ngobe cultures thrived independently on the land bridge now called ‘Panama’ for more than 1,000 years before the conquest of the Americas by Europeans. They are independent today due, in part, to Panama’s admirable tradition of respecting the rights of the first Americans by granting autonomous “Comarcas” to those who pioneered settlements in the New World.
As North America gives thanks this weekend to the indigenous who enabled the survival of English settlers, Panama shares its independence with those who enabled the survival of Spanish settlers. In this regard Panama is a beacon for enshrining in Central America the right of indigenous cultures to autonomy in their ancestral territories.
There is only one tragedy in this triumph of justice for the first Americans. One intact culture, the Tjer Di Naso, gained recognition by UNESCO for its stewardship of its ancestral territory, now a World Heritage Site and International Park, ‘La Amistad’, but it has not received “Comarca’ status. This is the last kingdom in the Americas. It is a monarchy in that all kings come from the ruling Santana family, and it is democratic in that leaders who betray the will of the Naso people are exiled. Tomorrow the Naso convene to choose another member of the Santana family to replace Rey Alexis who failed to respect the people’s wishes to petition Panama’s National Assembly for a Naso Comarca.
In testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) national leaders claimed the Naso were too few to deserve the same legal rights as the other indigenous cultures in Panama. This is an impotent argument debunked in subsequent testimony in IACHR proceedings which state that continued failure to respect Naso territory is tantamount to cultural genocide for this tribe of 4,000 people. The real issue is not the Naso population, but the economic potential of the Naso’s ancestral territory, where many rivers comprise one of the few pristine watersheds remaining in our hemisphere. The Naso’s natural resources are coveted by public private consortiums led by foreign corporations working to profit from the voracious appetite of an extractive consumer culture.
The Naso prize sustainability and see foreign developers as new conquistadores. One candidate to ascend to the royal palace is the superintendent of schools for the 12 Naso communities, known affectionately as “Maestro Santana”. He was narrowly defeated by the recently deposed Rey Alexis Santana because Alexis’ party was originally opposed to hydroelectric development, cattle ranching and logging which has resulted is massive clear-cutting in Naso territory. Now the Naso are saying, “no more”. 2014 will determine the future of this beautiful culture, and that future begins in tomorrow’s assembly to choose a new representative to pursue autonomy for his people.