Rio Teribe Interviews

This month in Central America we are subtitling interviews to produce a short news video in advance of filming the documentary ‘Grandmother Water’ in September. We are working to help the Naso give voice to their struggle, to introduce viewers to their goddess, Grandmother Water, “Tjër Di” in their language. We were surprised to learn that our first translator summarized the interviews. While we’re working on a full translation for the video, here are Mimi’s summaries to update our fellow supporters.

Naso students and families commuting on their Rio Teribe

Naso students and families commuting on their Rio Teribe


Steve: We are here at Wekso, the Naso Eco lodge, with Edwin Sanchez, an ODESEN leader. (Organization for the Development of Sustainable Eco-tourism for the Naso) Sr. Sanchez, please share with us your experience with ODESEN…

Edwin: I have been working 12 years for the development of eco-tourism. When I started working at Wekso, I was very young, shy and didn’t speak Spanish very well, but I learned from our visitors. This organization has been very beneficial for our community because it has generated many jobs for our people.  It has also given us opportunities to better ourselves.  Visitors have also donated many things for our community.

Steve: I understand that lately, along with ODESEN, you’ve done some work for the hydroelectric consortium. How did that experience compare with ODESEN?

Edwin:  The government has been trying to convince authorities in our community about the benefits. There has been opposition to the building of hydroelectric projects in Naso territory. Complaints have been made with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Jobs are positive, but the project gives temporary jobs, it is not really acceptable because it is not being done the proper way. We see jobs that last for only 45 days; after that the person is laid off.  And we see that there are a lot of external influences in this project, leaving us behind.

In the negative, we can see in the Bonjic community areas with families that live in huts or homes built by the hydroelectric project, but at the same time these people are left with no drinking water or secure electricity. Unfortunately these are the consequences of these projects.  If more of the proposed hydroelectric projects are built it becomes a big threat for Naso people, because it destroys our culture, our river, our way of life.

Steve: If you have just one question you’d like your new king to address, what would it be?

Edwin: I would ask about the changes he was going to make for this community. Rey Alexis convinced us that he was going to help us but we have not seen anything come to fruition, nothing in writing for the Naso Comarca. Promises are not being kept and the company is expanding in our territory. What our ancestors left us is going to be lost. They left us this land for us to care for. We expect our King to give us the support we deserve.

Steve: What can be done to change this situation?

Edwin:  There is no one to go out and fight for us, this is something we have to find for ourselves. We see many of these candidates on television who say they want to support our community, but we no longer believe in them.

How the Fortuna hydroelectric consortium AES left a neighboring river.

How the Fortuna hydroelectric consortium AES left a neighboring river.


Steve: Meet Adolfo Villagra, ODESEN Leader. Sr. Villagra, please share the background of the current Naso struggle…

Adolfo: In 1995 the Panamanian manager of the Bonjic project negotiated with EPM of Colombia to launch the project based on previous studies, but the Naso rejected the project. The former Naso King, Rey Tito Santana won the elections in 1999 and allowed additional studies to be undertaken along with the king who preceded him, Rey Cesar Santana… only to make studies of the Bonjic, Shey, and Teribe rivers.

The people did not authorize Tito to develop the project. However, in 2004, this King signed to develop the first of three proposed hydroelectric projects against the will of his people. He was overthrown and lived in exile as the Naso chose a new king, Rey Valentin. Panama’s government would not recognize Rey Valentin because he respected the will of the people.

In 2011 the government needed to negotiate the placement of transmission lines in Naso territory, and they finally admitted they were not negotiating with the true king chosen by the people, but they refused to recognize Valentin, again because he would not tell them what they wanted to hear. So they asked us to choose a new king.  The people chose Rey Alexis Santana because he had opposed selling our rivers from the beginning.

By the time Alexis Santana and his team were selected by the community, the first project had been performed and it is a disappointment to the community due to many deceptions. The Naso people disagree with hydroelectric. They never agreed with the execution of the project. The former king did not fight for the rights of the region but for his own gain.

Now that the Kings have made business with the Panamanian government, they receive a compensation of $8 million over 20 years. The Naso have no law to negotiate benefits that would be more equitable. King Tito’s government received only $300,000 for the compensation plan for Naso community, in the form of development. But they build a road that goes only to their project on the Rio Bonjic and call it development for the Naso. The road doesn’t even go to the Bonjic community.

From 1997 to 2011, I was President of the NASO board. We worried about the impact caused by hydroelectric projects on our rivers, mountains, animals, people and the economy of the Naso people. Now we know the impact and reject again these destructive projects in our territory.

Steve: What is next?

Adolfo: It’s a difficult situation because we could not stop the Rio Bonjic project. They now expect to do more work on Rio Teribe that would end the rights of the Naso population. Today they are announcing another project, on the Rio Shey, another tributary of Teribe. We have been trying to get information about this but the company and the government are keeping it secret. We have not had access to any information about this project, a major project proposed in our territory.

These projects in no way benefit our community. We have no choice but to oppose more development of this type in our community. We have always said: “Over our dead bodies, if we have to shed blood and fight so the Naso people do not lose their river, we will”. We’ll do what it takes to maintain our ancestral territory, rivers and watershed.

We need the authorities to understand that the mission of the Naso community is to maintain the environment, culture, and that which feeds our people. We have been waiting for over 40 years for legal recognition of our human rights and autonomy for our land. The Panamanian government opposes it because economic interests favor the rich in the government. But we will not rest until the Naso community has a Comarca just like the other five indigenous groups in Panama, the Ngobe, Bugle, Embera, Wounaan, Kuna.

Steve: Why would a nation that has admirably recognized the rights of every other indigenous group within its borders deny the Naso the same rights?

Adolfo: We are being discriminated against. At a meeting of the IACHR leadership in Washington DC, the Panamanian government said that the Naso people have too small a population with only 4,000 inhabitants. But the government will not give us our land for political reasons.

Tito Santana made ‌‌a bill creating the Comarca Naso. It failed in the National Assembly by just two votes. Then Tito began working with the hydroelectric  project and the Comarca was forgotten until now. Alexis Santana has been in office for two years, but there is no evidence, nothing in writing, to show that he is honoring the will of our people. As a result our fight has been futile. The Naso people have been refused Comarca status due to interests in the commercial potential of our rivers.

Steve:  It seems odd that this is happening in a Forest Reserve, International Park, a Biosphere Preserve recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. What would you say to those who are supposed to be protecting these resources in your ancestral territory?

Adolfo: The Bonjic & Shey Rivers are at the edge of the international park in a buffer zone called the Palo Seco Forest Reserve. They feed the Rio Teribe, a river born in the park on the Costa Rica border. They are part of the La Amistad watershed. Why are they building hydroelectric projects if this is part of our heritage? We now have dead fish floating downriver from the Rio Bonjic, in a forest preserve. Why aren’t the institutions created for the conservation of the environment doing anything?

Like "clean coal" this is propaganda. Such projects lead to cascading ecosystem failure upriver and downriver. Water that once nourished the cloud forest is now lost to evaporation in this reservoir, as a once-riparian valley experiences desertification.

Like “clean coal” this is propaganda to push through privatization of public resources. Such projects lead to cascading ecosystem failure upriver and downriver. Water that nourished the cloud forest for centuries is now being lost to evaporation in this reservoir, as a once-riparian valley experiences desertification.


Steve: I am here with Rufina Santana, a member of the Naso Monarchy’s ruling family. Sra. Santana, what is the political situation with the project on the Rio Bonjic?

Rufina: For now the river has a good flow and is running smoothly. But as they make roads through (video shows tractors and trucks in the river) this affects us. We get out drinking water from this river. We use it for washing our clothing. People living in Changuinola also drink the water. It is not that we don’t want any development in our community. We want to move forward, we want our children to have an education; however we need to leave our river as God gave it to us, clean and crystalline.

The companies came on our land without consulting us during the reign of Tito Santana, who is my cousin. We have rights, but the government does not take them into account. They overlook our rights. They just don’t care. Many members of the community have taken to the streets and staged strikes (protest photos) yet the government invades our land. We are willing to fight for our rights so long as we are alive. They are no good if we are dead, are they?

Steve: You lead a group called APUD (Agricultural Producers United). How do Naso producers feel about the current struggle?

Rufina: In this group a team of producers form the board of directors but we work independently. We meet with beans, cocoa, oranges. We now have dryers to dry the cocoa, with this a lot of producers are happy – the cocoa dries better and it’s cleaner. Before we had other methods for this, we had to deal with a lot of setbacks. Each producer has its dryer now this benefits our harvest.

Steve: Are they ready for autonomy?

Rufina: This is the struggle always. This is not a struggle for Alexis Santana only. When I was Queen we also fought for this. We marked the trees with some red paint so others would know that this was our territory. We were doing what we could to mark the boundaries of our community. My dad, may he rest in peace, and my grandparents also fought for our rights. Still we have not achieved our independence. Just as other indigenous have their autonomous regions, we want ours. We have our own language, origins, songs, culture. We don’t want to live in collectiveness, we want our Comarca. We’ve asked every administration that comes to power to give us our shrine.

The Naso hope to stop their ancestral river from being squeezed for corporate gain. They see her as their mystical goddess "Grandmother Water", she who nurtures Mother Earth who provides for us all.

The Naso hope to stop their ancestral river from being squeezed for corporate gain. They see her as their mystical goddess “Grandmother Water”, she who nurtures Mother Earth who provides for us all.


Steve:  Sr. Guevarra administers the Naso’s legal documents. Thank you Sr. Guevara for your time. Three questions. Can you update us on the documentation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington DC.

Luis: Thanks for the interview, my name is Luis Guevarra, I am from the Naso territory, which is located within the La Amistad International Park. Most of our inhabitants live in a place called the Palo Seco Forest Reserve. The villages have been fighting for 40 years. Every government that comes along refuses to take seriously the Naso’s rights to their territory.

We presented the facts that occurred from 2004 to 2009 to the IACHR in a petition made by the Naso people. Unfortunately the government is providing false documentation. For this reason the Commission has been unable to decide anything for the Naso. Our own authorities have been manipulated and our demands forgotten.

Steve: Rey Alexis Santana told me in an interview that he was working on the Naso Comarca, that it was his top goal. What does Panama’s National Assembly say about this?

Luis: In November I was with the Commission of Indigenous Affairs in Panama . They said that no authority has ever submitted any petition for the region for the law creating the Naso County 19. I asked what was the political status of the indigenous territory. They said the Naso leadership and King Alexis Santana at no time  talked about the region with them. They said no one has come to inquire about the matter.  According to them there are no developments and, if they handed the territory over to the Naso, we wouldn’t know how to manage it.

Steve:  But the Naso have managed it sustainably for more than 1,000 years, their ancestral territory, and were recognized in the binational application to the United Nations for a World Heritage Site as excellent stewards of the regions’s forest and rivers. What would you say to those suggesting that you don’t know how to manage your territory as they permit the dynamiting of your rivers, the clear cutting your forests, and the bulldozing of your shoreline?

Luis: The hydroelectric project within the Naso community is illegal. They have not consulted with us and they do not have our approval. They are operating illegally. At first the government said that this project was for an expanded population.  However, the government continues to exploit our natural resources for private profit. This is the reason they have no interest in creating a Comarca.  This has divided the Naso people into two camps. There is a minority who are paid by the companies to support the project.  The majority of us will fight for our region.

This story examines the need for development versus the need for conservation of watershed ecology, the priorities of consumer cultures versus the priorities of sustainable cultures.

This story examines the need for development versus the need for conservation of watershed ecology, the priorities of consumer cultures versus the priorities of sustainable cultures.

Thanks to Cinematographer Aaron Lawler for these photos, Director Ed Gish, Philanthropist Jennifer Long for fundraising, and everyone helping produce this video news short.

For more details, or to support this effort with a tax-deductible contribution to the Big River Foundation visit us at Indiegogo. We also have volunteer opportunities in paradise.

“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

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Healthy Rivers, Healthy Communities!

The Big River Foundation is the latest recipient of a grant award from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. John’s and Laura’s latest project is the Giving Library. It started when the young billionaire couple began looking for worthy nonprofits to support. John Arnold was a hedge fund manager known on Wall Street as “the king of natural gas”. He and Laura signed the Giving Pledge in 2010 when their foundation had assets of $711 million in order to devote more time to philanthropy. They share an office in Houston Texas.
According to Forbes the Arnold’s “had the time and money to spend on the searches and meetings with executive directors. They soon realized that it not a smart use of anyone’s time. Most philanthropists were only getting exposed to a small handful of nonprofits, while executive directors were being forced to spend an inordinate amount of their time on fund-raising.” They beginning brainstorming a better way to identify worthy organizations and connect them with philanthropists.
Laura Arnold explained, “we saw a need to create more efficiency in the system to have a more organized vision of receiving and processing information on nonprofits.” Her husband added, “We started to do our own research, trying to go to websites to read about nonprofits. We realized we got much more insight by speaking to the founder. If you have significant resources, it’s worth their time to sit down and meet a particular funder but that’s not always practical for the majority of funders or nonprofits.”
Forbes’ Louisa Kroll described the concept behind the Giving Library as a collection of videos of charitable organizations on-line, “to allow them to tell their stories in a deeper way to a much broader audience. For starters, they sent hundreds of letters to nonprofits, some of which they knew (Teach for America, the Innocence Project, and KIPP schools are all groups that the Arnold’s have personally backed that have videos posted), but plenty that they didn’t. There were no filters in terms of substance or geography; the only requirement was that it had to be vetted and confirmed.”
The goal of the Giving Library is to feature 250 charities to help philanthropists learn about the nonprofits. The Big River Foundation (BRF) was selected for inclusion based on its mission … from more than 3,000 applications. The Laredo-based foundation’s mission is to teach communities in The Americas to value the vital role rivers play in the web of life. The foundation presently incubates programs in the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama to foster respect and appreciation for river ecology and conservation, encouraging kayaking, canoeing, and rafting to explore rivers, their tributaries and watersheds. They sponsor programs in partnership with schools, youth groups, local governments, non-governmental organizations, river outfitters, and community advocates. Through experiential education, recreation and advocacy, the foundation mobilizes community support for river-based initiatives throughout the hemisphere.
BRF Executive Director Eric Ellman will get the VIP treatment next month while being flown to the Giving Library’s production studio in Houston, Texas. He will be filmed talking about the amazing work his foundation performs on the Rio Grande in Mexico & the USA and an upcoming documentary about watershed conservation based in Costa Rica & Panama.  This film is being produced by award-winning documentary filmmakers Jeffrey Porter and Tony Pagano in collaboration with Jennifer Long & Stephen Kaczor. The documentary extrapolates the experiences of the indigenous Naso Tribe in the last kingdom in the Americas in their epic struggle against the latest conquistadors, corporations flying the flags of profit in the Naso’s ancestral territory.
Recent bi-national events in the USA and Mexico will be discussed tonight in Texas as Laredo’s City Council considers the renewal of annual funding for the Big River Foundation. The foundation’s city and county funding will be matched by the Meadows Foundation of Dallas, Texas, to support efforts to repair the reputation of the controversial Rio Grande, known in Mexico as the Rio Bravo. This river is one of the largest in the hemisphere. It joins two nations; life in this desert region would be impossible without it.
The Giving Libary video will feature BRF’s  mission on-line for philanthropists world-wide who are seeking worthwhile endeavors to support. Laura & John will unite their foundations’ staff with BRF’s to co-create a video in interviews describing programs for “Healthy Rivers, Healthy Communities”. Eric will share his foundation’s philosophy, a vision shared by Baba Dioum, Founder of International Union for the Conservation of Nature, “In the end, we conserve only what we love; we love only what we understand; and we understand only what we have been taught”.

El Lider’s story in this morning’s paper about the Big River Foundation.

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News from the Rio Teribe

Our Naso friends in the last kingdom in the western hemisphere are having a difficult time with politics. You see, they are also the last indigenous tribe in Panama without autonomous territory, which Panama calls a “Comarca”; they are a river tribe whose ancestral territory includes untold natural resources in an UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a one-million acre international biosphere reserve; and, they are a democratic kingdom. In the Naso monarchy, all rulers must come from ruling Santana family.

It is this last component that is proving difficult. For a background on the king that was exiled for betraying his people to a hydro-electric company, please see previous blogs. Panama’s National Assembly would not recognize the king elected to replace the traitorous king. They could not … the government had given a concession to Medellin-based EPM to dynamite a 2-mile tunnel into a Naso river, against the wishes of a super majority of Naso people. Corporations seeking energy, lumber, and ranch lands continue to covet the Naso territory including International Park La Amistad shared by Costa Rica & Panama. Costa Rica is set to import electricity from the Naso’s Rio Bonjic; the transmission lines already cross the border along Naso territory… and Mexico’s Carlos Slim, richest man in the world, proposes connecting them to the grid for Mexico’s D.F, picking up electricity from 54 dams throughout Central America. The territory of the smallest of tribes is sought after by BIG business, revealing a global problem with a group of corporations franchising everything from seeds to energy to water.


Naso commuters greeting their neighbors

In Jan. 2012, with the Bonjic Project nearing completion, the new King Reynaldo Alexis enjoyed both his coronation and recognition by Panama’s National Assembly (unlike his predecessor). In a recent interview, Rey Alexis shared with me his two primary goals: a Naso Comarca and the termination of plans for any additional hydroelectric projects on the Rio Teribe or its tributaries. These two initiatives enjoy popular support by the Naso people who rely on their river for water, food, and navigation. For the Naso, this river is the mythical goddess Grandmother Water who nurtures Mother Earth, who nurtures us all. One reason Rey Alexis was chosen as the youngest king in Naso history above the elder teacher, Maestro Santana, is that this young prince comes from the only political party that actively opposed the Bonjic hydroelectric project from the beginning; his party actually opposed the concession his rogue family member sold for a pittance.


Naso commuters greeting heavy equipment preparing materials for a 2-mile tunnel being blasted into a tributary with heavy explosives.

Now tribal leaders and their community members are concerned that a year has passed with no documentation of progress toward their goals. The people are concerned because tribal leader Adolfo Villagra recently returned from the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington DC to report that Panama’s national government responded to an IACHR complaint writing that the Naso Comarca was “in first debate”. First debate begins the process to make a bill a law in Panama. The people are waiting for their representative to issue a notarized letter along with a copy of this documentation to the National Assembly, demanding they make good on their claim to begin the Naso’s legal march toward autonomy.

When Naso neighbors, the Ngöbe-Buglé tribe, made this same demand to a previous administration, Panama did the right thing and returned autonomy over a land area representative of the tribe’s proportion of the national population, almost 10%. So, not only does the precedent exist six times over, there is a very recent precedent in law. This was 1997. There is a Naso Assembly meeting regarding their own Comarca initiative in two weeks. Their goal is to push for written action. President Martinelli knows this, and he could solidify his favorable reputation for indigenous rights by adding Naso autonomy to his legacy, the last Comarca for his nation. This would be a fine follow-up to his recent stance repealing the law that would have turned the Ngöbe Comarca into an open pit copper mine leaching chemicals into Panama’s watersheds and seas, all to benefit a Canadian corporation representing the government of South Korea.

In the meantime, the Naso are concerned for three new reasons. First, the king recently ordered that only village leaders initiate petitions. This makes a nation-wide petition impossible unless all village leaders coordinate, and it prohibits Mr. Villagra’s organization, ODESEN, from initiating such a survey to document the wishes of the people. ODESEN is the Organization for the Development of Sustainable Eco-tourism for the Naso. Second, there has been discussion about the possibility of requiring all visitors to Naso territory be approved by the king in advance. Third is the fact that the young Rey Alexis has been in meetings with rich developer members of the international hydroelectric consortium EPM, along with politicos. These meetings in the absence of formal action toward the Naso Comarca this past year are a major source of concern. The king has held many Naso community meetings, but his people are ready to see formal filings with the government now that he has enjoyed 15 months as their leader.

Poster speaking to the amazing biodiversity of the Naso Kingdom

Poster speaking to the amazing biodiversity of the Naso Kingdom

The Naso hope and trust that their confidence in Rey Alexis is properly placed. With a Comarca comes a more formal leadership structure. Many fear the Santana family has never shared power in the manner of Panama’s six indigenous tribes which govern under the Comarca system, rather than a monarchy. They worry, could the young king’s advisers be suggesting he put the Santana family above the needs of the Naso tribe? The leaders I’ve spoken to are confident that those flying the flags of profit are offering their young king untold riches in exchange for an agreement for future projects in Naso territory. Two of the proposed projects would result in cultural genocide for the Naso way of life, according to IACHR testimony. The Naso are a shining example of sustainable river conservation and forestry management for all the world. Naso children are among the happiest I have ever encountered in this world, a testimony to the their extraordinary river culture.

The Big River Foundation is working to help create an annual “Naso Rio Fest”, a river festival to raise funds for tribal development in a sustainable manner consistent with the Naso way. This year we are working with Joern Ziegler, Jennifer Long, and Eric Ellman to engage students in Germany, Costa Rica, USA and Panama to create sister city/sister school programs with Naso villages such as Bonjic, Sieykin and Sieyik. These programs will involve the students in social media publicity and fundraising for a Naso River Festival, our documentary film about the Naso, La Amistad eco-tourism opportunities such as Watershed Watch Expeditions, a Naso Cultural Center, and UNESCO biological monitoring programs. For eco-tourism insights, take a look at ODESEN’s new website, developed by Lisa Nelson of Visual Adventures.

This is an exciting time for the Naso. Hopes are high that Rey Alexis will become the most legendary leader in Naso history, taking his place alongside other respected leaders from all over the world, including Central American Chief Urraca, admired for his resistance against Spanish conquistadors, honored on Panamanian coins. Rey Alexis will need much help working against corporations, the new conquistadors, to save the Rio Teribe and Grandmother Water, and to prevail in long-standing battles with cattle and lumber corporations. With success, he will gain autonomy for his people – autonomy enjoyed by every other indigenous tribe in Panama. We wish him well. Sincere thanks to all those lending a helping hand.

King Reynaldo Alexis Santana with Big River Foundation Chairman Stephen Kaczor

King Reynaldo Alexis Santana with Big River Foundation Chairman Stephen Kaczor

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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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