Rio Teribe: Update from the Last Kingdom in the Americas

Our favorite river tribe is preparing to petition for legal rights to its ancestral territory. The Naso are the only indigenous tribe in Panama without autonomy. Six other tribes on the isthmus have been granted “Comarca” status that provides for self-governance. The Naso are the smallest tribe in Panama. Their 11 communities are located where the Rio Teribe flows from International Park La Amistad, an UNESCO World Heritage site shared by Costa Rica & Panama.

View up the Rio Teribe from the EcoLodge at Wekso

View up the Rio Teribe from the EcoLodge at Wekso

Naso territory has historically been apart from mainstream Latino culture. They’ve enjoyed dozens of peaceful generations, even after Spanish conquistadors arrived in Bocas del Toro 500 years ago. In recent decades, however, encroachment has become a problem. Last year a multi-national hydroelectric consortium installed a bridge and the first road into their territory, from El Silencio to the Naso community of Bonjic. Now dynamite is blasting a 2-mile tunnel where the once pristine river, the Rio Bonjic, flows into the Rio Teribe. The face of the consortium is EPM based in Medellin, Colombia.

These new conquistadors have created grave concerns for the Naso’s democratic monarchy. All candidates to lead the kingdom come from the Santana family. King Tito Santana was deposed after authorizing the Bonjic project against the wishes of a supermajority of his people. Tito lived in exile after King Valentin was elected to replace him. Panama’s National Assembly refused to recognize the new king while the controversial hydroelectric project advanced. The government finally recognized the subsequent election that led to the coronation of King Reynaldo Alexis Santana in 2012.

King Reynaldo Alexis Santana with Big River Foundation Chairman Stephen Kaczor

King Reynaldo Alexis Santana with Big River Foundation Chairman Stephen Kaczor

Rey Alexis stated in a recent interview that his top objectives remain the Naso Comarca and the cancellation of two additional hydroelectric projects planned for his people’s ancestral territory. It may be too late to save the Rio Bonjic, but the hydroelectric consortium covets the Naso Watershed and now has a proverbial “foot in the door”. This threat to the Rio Teribe, along with ever accelerating logging and cattle grazing by squatters has the issue of autonomy burning in the hearts and minds of this sustainable river society. They do not want outsiders bringing roads, bridges, heavy equipment, cars, damns, dynamite, tunnels, and high voltage transmission cables into their territory.

The Naso live off-the-grid and use the river as a highway, making bamboo rafts to take organic produce from community farms downriver to market.  They want to maintain the river’s health because it is central to their culture, and navigation requires flow sufficient for water taxis with outboard motors that return them upriver to their communities. They are fighting against initiatives that would kill their river teaming with life and lead to cultural genocide.  Territorial autonomous rule must be obtained to protect their way of life. They are fighting for their mythical goddess Tjer Di, “Grandmother Water”, whose water flows in their river nurturing Pachamama, “Mother Earth”, who nurtures all life.

ODESEN leaders Edwin Sanchez & Adolfo Villagra with recent tour group at Naso Ecolodge Wekso

ODESEN leaders Edwin Sanchez & Adolfo Villagra with recent tour group at Naso Ecolodge Wekso

Tribal leader Adolfo Villagra recently returned from a visit to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington D.C.  He learned that Panama’s National Assembly filed a written response to his tribe’s petition stating that the issue of a Naso Comarca was in first debate, the initial legislative step required for the Naso to receive the level of autonomy granted to every other indigenous tribe in Panama. Sr. Villagra has been unable to find evidence that this is true. He and many in the tribe are frustrated by the fact that no legal action has commenced on the Naso Comarca initiative. A Naso Assembly meeting is set for March 30 when leaders in the community expect a written petition will be signed by the King for immediate presentation to Panama’s National Assembly for the next legislative cycle.

Several attorneys and environmental nonprofit organizations such as the Big River Foundation are assisting the Naso. An award-winning documentary film crew is set to begin production in May to share the plight of this river society as it battles corporations seeking to fly the flags of profit and environmental degradation in their pristine watershed. We’ll post the trailer here as soon as it is available. In the meantime, we’re looking for help raising funds for this important documentary about the myth of “clean energy” that kills rivers, the veins of the earth, and river cultures.  The Naso enjoy broad support in Panama, Costa Rica, and with the United Nations. We must, however, turn this consensus into action.

The film will tell the story of the Naso’s noble struggle in their own words and by contrasting “before” and “after” images on the Rio Bonjic, a tributary to their sacred river, scenes of children playing in the villages with the sounds of heavy equipment and dynamite, water splashing from a Naso family’s raft contrasted with the reservoir on the Ngobe-Bugle’s Rio Changuinola severely limiting the flow where it joins the Rio Teribe at El Silencio, one river teaming with fish and freshwater shrimp while the other is comparatively lifeless, the Naso portaging the shallows with great difficulty in their longboats alongside the image of the hydroelectric sculpture at La Fortuna with a fist squeezing the river to emit a lightening bolt. To lend a hand, please write to: or donate at our website

Ecotour to Naso communities upriver on the Rio Teribe.

Ecotour to Naso communities upriver on the Rio Teribe.

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2012 in review’s stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for our blog.


Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 1,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 3 years to get that many views.

Our foundation increased its programs and funding significantly last year and we plan for the same this year. For 2013 we’ve created new programs in North America and a start to filming a documentary film in Central America. Stay tuned here for details and updates. Executive Director Eric Ellman & I hope to be better bloggers in 2013, and we invite those involved with our programs to author guest blogs.

Thank you to our many supporters of the vision to create … “Healthy Rivers, Healthy Communities”.  Paddles to the People!

Sincerely Yours,

Stephen Kaczor, Chairman

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Riverside Runs

This gallery contains 5 photos.

My scimitar-shaped landscaping tool has a lethal, vaguely Middle Eastern look to it; I’m pleasantly surprised when Border Patrol doesn’t react as I jog by. Perhaps they ignore me because I’m heading towards the river rather than away from it, … Continue reading

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Celebrate the Rio Grande!

Every October for 18 years, U.S. and Mexican communities throughout the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo watershed celebrate Dia del Rio, a practice begun in Laredo by the Rio Grande International Study Center. In recent years, a professional 33-mile Riofest canoe and kayak race was added by Laredo Hotel and Lodging Association, a concert Rhythms on the Rio was added by Main Street Laredo, and an 8-mile Community Kayak Race was added by the Big River Foundation.

October’s celebration of the Rio Grande continues to grow with each passing year!

Kayak the Rio Grande! Paddle the Rio Bravo!

How better to celebrate a river than by paddling it? How better to get people to protect the environment than by enjoying it?  How better to change the nation’s image of a border region than to see thousands of people from two nations doing all this simultaneously on a narrow stretch of water that historically divides them?

Laredoans are lining up to join the celebration:

  • Dannenbaum Engineering is designing a floating dock for the river to accommodate musical performance, race announcements and an awards ceremony.
  • Frank Architects are donating a conceptual landscaping plan for one of the festival sites.
  • LULAC is organizing a “fry-athlon” featuring bicycling, fishing and cooking.
  • The Laredo Center for the Arts is organizing a city-wide banner contest.
  • IBC is helping out with event signage.
  • Martin High School’s Welding Program is building a kayak trailer for one of the event sponsors.
  • Bernie Chapa of Laredo Ciclo Mania is planning a riveside bike race.
  • The Rio Grande Plaza is hosting a poolside BBQ on race day.
  • Codefront is hosting Mexico’s paddlers.
  • Volunteers are leading nature outings adjacent the Riofest finish line.

Where is your role in this? While many locals and visitors will paddle to the celebration from Father MacNaboe Park, after a Mariachi breakfast, festival organizers invite the community to propose innovative activities you want to incorporate into these celebrations, held the third weekend of October. Recent years’ celebrations have included river-themed art expos and poetry readings, so be creative!

Have an event that leverages environmental themes you’d like to see included?  Something related to composting, recycling, environmental conservation, restoration or simple living? Something with your family, church group, civic organization, professional colleagues or friends?  Join the celebration! Click here for highlights of last year’s festivals.

Planning for 2012’s Dias del Riofest has already begun. Call Eric Ellman at the Big River Foundation, 956-236-4985 or Tricia Cortez at RGISC, 956-718-1063 for details.

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Laredo’s Rio Grande Celebrations 2011

Puente Colombia kayak at Laredo’ Int’l Bridge #1

Rivers bring life to deserts and the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo inspire a significant celebration every October.  Adding to the historical “Dia del Rio” celebration this year, RioFest was the second annual bi-national kayaking race on the infamous river with two names.

Champion paddlers from both sides of the Mexican-American border competed for $18,000 in prize money donated by a binational consortium of organizations and individuals  “Los Dos Laredos,” the County of Webb, CODEFRONT,  Rev. Paul Frey, Eddie Martinez, Jr., the Laredo Chamber of Commerce and the Rio Grande Plaza Hotel.  Saturday’s event began at the Solidarity Bridge in Colombia, Nuevo Leon, where CODEFRONT sponsored paddlers from Mexico to challenge the best paddlers from the USA in a 33-mile test of strength and endurance.

The first pro-paddler kayak crossed the finish line in three hours and 41 minutes, a two-person boat,  or “K2” powered by John Baltzell and Mark Addison.  Seven minutes later solo paddler Austin Schwinn, just back from a competition in Spain, was the first K1 paddler to arrive.  Brad Pennington from Buffalo Bayou crossed the finish line in 4 hours and two minutes, together with Jose & Luis Landeros, brothers and former National Team members from Mexico.  The first K4 team was also Mexico, coming in at 4:08.

Local paddlers joined the fun thanks to the Big River Foundation’s 8-mile Community Kayak Race sponsored by Academy Sports + Outdoors. Paddlers from both sides of the border paddled 21 kayaks to the same finish line as the long-course paddlers. This year’s short-course champions were K1 paddlers Velis Bravo and Alejandro Lima from Veracruz, arriving within moments of one another in just under two hours to claim $500 for Mexico’s Cruz Rojo, thanks to donations by event co-sponsors IBC and L&F Distributors (Budweiser). Laredo paddlers David Nuñez Montoya and Guillermo Aguilar placed third, arriving just two hours, six minutes after the race began at Father MacNaboe Park.

Short-course Race Champions Alejandro & Velis from Veracruz, Guillermo & David from Laredo

Family, friends, and visitors united with paddlers at the finish line to celebrate with music, food, drinks, and a festival that brought out “Occupy Laredo”, a branch of protests recently born on Wall Street, a fiesta hosted by Nuevo Laredo, and a riverside concert at El Portal organized by Main Street Laredo.  River lovers were inspired to dance to “Rhythms on the Rio” as Umano Ache, Factura 22 and Banda Revolucion played under the moonlight.

As new friends and old said goodbye at the awards breakfast Sunday, there was talk of a new association joining paddlers from both countries in advance of next year’s fall “Dia del Rio” by adding a spring event, a “Big River Ruckus”.   City of Laredo Council Member Alex Perez provided encouragement saying, “This is the most positive activity happening here.” For more information about paddling the Rio Grande , contact

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Celebrate the Rio Grande, Rio Bravo, Laredo’s RioFest, Rhythms on the Rio!

Paddle the Rio Grande!

Rio Fest’s 2nd annual kayak races  are Saturday, Oct. 15th. Race organizers waived entry fees this year for Mexican paddlers in recognition of the turmoil they travel through to arrive at the safe zone that is the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Los Dos Laredos. Codefront is hosting Mexico’s paddlers in the Pueblito of Colombia at the Colombia Bridge. Professional and recreational paddlers from Mexico, the USA and beyond will launch their boats Saturday morning on the Rio Grande west of Laredo, and from the opposing bank of the Rio Bravo.

Paddle the Rio Grande!

The historic river with two names is home to two races: a 33-mile competition known as Laredos RioFest, pitting competitors in a hard fought race for their share of $30,000 in prize money, and an 8-mile community kayak race sponsored by the Big River Foundation with a $250 prize donated to the winner’s favorite cause. Paddlers in the 8-mile community kayak race arrive at the same finish line prior to the pro paddlers completing the long course, beginning at Father McNaboe Park. Sign-in will be 10am.  Registration is $30 and this includes a kayak/gear and tee-shirt. Register at the Rio Grande Plaza, via email,, or by calling Eric Ellman at 956-209-1879.

RioFest features several boat divisions to accommodate racers of all levels and ages. First-time competitors, repeat recreational paddlers and serious racers will enjoy the challenge and camaraderie on the river. The finish line is at Los Dos Laredos Park near Bridge #1 where exhibitors, food, drinks, music and special events will bring the community together to celebrate on both banks of the river. There  will be a farmer’s market, kids fun run, an attempt to break the bubble blowing record coordinated by Rotary. Rhythms On the Rio is a free concert with live music 7pm to midnight, sponsored by Laredo Main Street and Budweiser, featuring Factura 22Banda Revolution, and Umano Ache.

The shared goals of the Laredo Hotel and Motel Association, Laredos RioFest Organizational Committee, the Big River Foundation, the twin cities of Los Dos Laredos, and the Texas Canoe and Kayak Racing Association is to promote kayak-canoe racing and awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo through fair competition between international athletes over a marked course.  Hurricane Alex caused the professional race to be cancelled last year.  Big River’s Executive Director Eric Ellman is excited to see new Nuevo Laredo Mayor Benjamin Galvan preparing a site for the celebration at the finish line, “putting the ‘dos’ in Laredos”, he added.

This year the City of Laredo proclaimed October “Month of the Rio” with dozens of river-themed events all month long, which began with Dia del Rio. Help us celebrate our river this Saturday… life in this desert would not exist without it!

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Central America’s Last Kingdom has a New King

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.

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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.

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Riverbend Park – Lost in Plain View – by Eric Ellman

Forty feet above a tree-fringed lake near Laredo Community College, birds cart-wheeling behind him, fish leaping from the water below, Pro 8 News anchor Tim Gutierrez looks into the camera and muses “this is something that 98% of Laredoans know nothing about.”

Tim’s surprised tone reveals he’s one more person who never dreamed there were three small lakes, miles of shady trails and 200 acres of park land at the geographic center of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.

Riverbend Park Plan

Hemmed by the campus to the north, Kansas City Southern on the east, and a dogleg left turn of the river on the southwest, the long-proposed but little noticed project area is the city’s largest swath of undeveloped land.  Together with equivalent green space in Mexico, a stone’s throw across the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, it represents a potential international peace park, suggests Lamar Bruni Vergara Environmental Science Center Director Tom Miller.

Great cities have great parks.   New York has Central Park.  San Francisco has Golden Gate.  Houston has Memorial.  Texas already has a Big Bend Park — with a sister park in Mexico — so perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to imagine Laredo’s own version, Riverbend Park, a natural oasis of Hackberry, Mesquite and Montezuma Bald Cypress, to alter the social chemistry of one of the world’s most conflict-prone borders.

Riverbend Park Location

In the midst of all that Mexico is experiencing.  Considering Laredo’s need for positive press.  Factoring in the city’s need for green space, nature sites where families can relax in nature, or fish or hike…. what’s it worth to have an urban oasis smack dab in the two cities’s centers?

TAMIU President Ray Kerk has understood the vision since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first proposed it as a joint project with the City of Laredo over a decade ago.

“It’s another Laredo project that never seemed to aterrizar.” A doctor of linguistics, he uses the Spanish term for landing a plane, explaining it also applies to classic city proposals like Rio Vega, downtown redevelopment and a weir that never seem to touchdown.

On a fast track to construction with fully realized designs and a $4MM budget,“Everything came to a screaming halt after 9/11,” says Tom Miller, who was Laredo Community College’s liaison on the project before it got sidetracked.

Without funds to dredge the lakes, restore flow, replace invasive Salt Cedar with majestic Cypress … and everything else that millions of government funds would pay for … the project languished.

But the opportunity never went away. What was special about Riverbend Park from the start — it’s extensive vegetation, lakes left behind by a defunct sand and gravel operation, fauna that calls the place home — is still there, as close as ever to downtown, a place where no one expected it.  Open for the public to enjoy.

Lone Palm Lake

That few do, that the place remains a secret to all but those who worked on it, is hardly a surprise.  It’s on the river after all.  The terrible scary river that everyone has an opinion about but which few verify.  A pair of confusing signs greet those who follow their curiosity.

“Public Access” invites the first one (Enter Here!).  “No Unauthorized Vehicles” gives you pause (All Ye Who Dare!)

No surprise then that visitation is limited to El Cuatro neighborhood kids who fish there, and the Laredo Community College interns who harvest fresh water shrimp to feed the exhibits at Tom Miller’s Environmental Science Center.  Otherwise this oasis is forgotten.

But just like Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish town that magically appears and disappears every hundred years, Riverbend Park seems to be re-materializing in the public mind.

Asked by Pro 8 News’s Tim Gutierrez why it’s never taken off, Tom says such things need a promoter. “We’ve got two biologists on the City Council now,” says Tom Miller, referring to newly elected Members Charlie San Miguel and Alex Perez.  “Maybe it’s time to try again.

District 3 Council Member Perez, a life-long resident of Laredo, visited the site recently.  Drawing on all the experience and appreciation for nature that his Masters Degree in Environmental Science conveys, he had this assessment. “Wow!”

Riazul Mia, the City’s Director of Environmental Services, has been the continuous presence in keeping the park plan alive, directing clean-ups, moving ahead when money and city resources allowed.  As far as he’s concerned, the park’s resource value is ready to be tapped by volunteer and in-house resources.

“It’s City land.  You can use it.  You want to fish?  Fish.  It’s pristine water.  You want a bike trail?  Build it.”

Martin High Teacher Homer Tijerina and Associates on Middle Lake

The Big River Foundation is proudly answering this call, building on the parks potential for experiential education programs and coordinating new initiatives such as habitat restoration.

Eric Ellman is Executive Director of the Big River Foundation, a 501-c-3 dedicated to reconnecting people with their rivers.  Anyone interested in trail-building, clean-up or other activities at Riverbend Park are invited to call him at 956.209.1879.

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Watershed Watch Expeditions

Expeditions this month scout sites for our recently announced Watershed Expedition School, along with our amazing indigenous partners at ODESEN, the Organization for the Development of Sustainable Ecotourism for the Naso, the last Kingdom in the Americas. After much exploration, we agree that Palenque is the place.

Palenque is a sacred river valley where the spirits of rainforest river ancestors live among almond trees, abandoned banana and cacao plantations, a river teaming with yummy fish (Boca Chica) and colorful tropical fish that seem, at first, to be out-of-place in a river.  But this international biosphere reserve (La Amistad) is one of the most biologically diverse places left on earth; so there are no real surprises…

Rio Teribe Watershed School Swimming Hole

… except for the multiple hues of blue water that seem more like the Caribbean than a river … except for the canyon-like rock formations that seem better suited to a desert than this rain-forested paradise … except for the fact that we drink water straight from the river and feel great four days later … except that the only scientific expedition to this territory recently revealed more than 30 species not previously known to man … except for the fact that this territory is still ruled by a king.

Freshwater Crab on Sublime Riverside Beach

The old ones are not forgotten in this mystical place. The Naso are known inside La Amistad International Park as Tjer Di, and Palenque is known by the names of its abandoned pueblos, Sheg and Klouua, and the tributary Skinyic. The Tjer Di make annual pilgrimages to these pueblos to visit their ancestors, who moved downriver 50 years ago for a better education in the schools of the main pueblos, Sieyik and Sieykin.  Not everyone moved downriver, Palenque’s beaches and islands are guarded by giant iguana. We are honored to be invited to help the Naso share this mystical place with students and teachers from all over the world.

Raphael fishes with a snorkel mask and underwater slingshot.

Palenque is the staging point where the foundations students departing from Costa Rica hike to meet their kayaks, camping inside La Amistad’s one million acres of tropical biosphere reserve. From here students, teachers, and indigenous guides paddle toward a Caribbean island, home to two tropical research stations, pausing for outdoor scientific inquiry, ecological and environmental education.  Where the river meets the sea, they are met by the catamaran “Biosphere I” to sail to Bocas del Drago for their final courses regarding how the health of rivers effect the watershed and the sea, and for a graduation ceremony.

The lodging standard approaches perfection.

This amazing educational adventure will be the focus of monthly updates.  For now, the focus of this photo travel log is the journey from Palenque.

Your guides were river men from birth.

We camp inside an UNESCO World Heritage Site is 14 kilometers from the border of Costa Rica, in Panama, where students and teachers hiking into La Amistad from Costa Rica will meet their indigenous Naso guides, share meals, continue their coursework, and depart for the kayaking segment of the three-pronged program: mountains, river valley, to the sea. The dymanics of turbulence are thoroughly explored.

Supplies and kayaks are delivered to Palenque by Indigenous Naso long boats.

One of the many interesting things students first learn is how cold the nights can be in the tropics. Another is how people live sustainably off the land. Edwin & Adolfo are two of our program’s leaders. Their grandfathers lived in Palenque 100 years ago.  This weekend their team pulled 7 fish from the river for dinner … in mere minutes.  As a testimony to the biodiversity of this place, we find fresh water crabs, an eel, and good-sized freshwater shrimp.  This is a healthy watershed. The species of birds, butterflies, frogs, and other amphibians is stunning.

Naso Leader Edwin Sanchez with freshwater Eel

This week we developed curricula for short and long programs. The short program involves three days hiking into the watershed, three days paddling, three days of more structured programs focused on watershed ecology and environmental issues, and one day sailing out of the watershed to understand how everything that happens upriver affects the marine environment. In all, 10 intensive, educational and fun-filled days focused on watershed ecology and environmental education… in paradise.

View from a watershed school in paradise.

As we break camp at Palenque, we are thrilled at the prospect of 16km of river running through La Amistad. We pass many waterfalls and tributaries. The river is mostly Class II, with nice breaks by Class I resting spots and Class III rapids for adventure.

Young Naso children enjoying their Rio Teribe

As we cross out of La Amistad into the Palo Seco reserve, we come to the site of a proposed dam. We discuss the effects of hydro-electric projects: pros such as as refrigeration and electricity for schools and health clinics; cons such as cascading biological system failure and the possibility that the Naso’s way of life will be exterminated by decreased river flows making the Rio Teribe un-navigable by boat.

The government covets Naso Territory and has its foot in the door for planned exploitation.

Our next overnight point is at the twin pueblos of Sieyik & Sieykin, where we are invited to stay with the Sanchez family. Here we meet the nephew of King Valentin Santana, Maestro Ricardo Santana, and enjoy the hospitality of the Sanchez family.

Edwin Sanchez with children Marjorie and Gerald.

Biologists know, “Nothing alters a river as totally as a dam. A reservoir is the antithesis of a river – the essence of a river is that it flows, the essence of a reservoir is that it is still” (P. McCully). We discuss ecological sustainability and micro-hydro as an alternative to dams for the Naso. We debate the position of the international community’s efforts in the Rio Teribe watershed, the lifeblood of a World Heritage Site¸and the interplay between domestic policy in Panama and local Naso-driven initiatives.

The political, social, economic, and cultural issues of watersheds are complex, almost as complex as the natural, biological, and ecological systems.  Without the latter, however, there could be no one alive to debate the former. We discuss the consequences of human decisions, filthy cities, biosphere reserves, and the dynamics of watershed management; this is a perfect classroom for exploring such issues because they are playing out presently.

Expedition team: Edwin, Karina, Silivino, Raphael & Noel

Our third overnight point is the eco-lodge at Wekso. We revel in the flora, fauna, and wildlife of this watershed school. ODESEN’s leaders are quick to share their cultures’ view of Grandmother River. She breathes life into Mother Earth. They don’t understand how anyone could sell their mother or grandmother.  But there is a dam being built here, which provides for comparison and contrasts with the upriver experience, especially in water quality samples.

Naso Children at Wekso Ecolodge, courtesy of ODESEN

The Naso avoid “consumer culture” to the extent possible in this interconnected world. That it is possible at all is encouraging for those who don’t believe those two words belong together. That these people are so obviously happy, this is a constant reminder to students and teachers alike … less is more.  My own children will testify to the marks made on their souls by the Naso in 2007. No child should be left indoors to miss this lesson. Help us spread the word, and plan to join a Watershed School program with us?

Karina & Marjorie Sanchez assist with a pre-dawn departure to get me to church on time 😉

Finally we reach the Caribbean Sea, but that is another story.  You are invited to follow and participate in our curricula development. The first course is set for July, after a trial run in June. Next month we will detail the rainforest hike into La Amistad, to be undertaken with our Tico friends. Pura Vida!

Our friend, Capitan Edwin Sanchez, Tjer Di

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