A woman from the Ngobe village of Nueva Lucha, one of several communities threatened by Canadian mining companies. The Ngobe are an indigenous people. Image by Lynn Burgess. Panama, 2012.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much of a roadblock. A few boulders and a few large branches from some nearby trees serve as a makeshift barricade. Some signs hang on the fence adjacent to the road. “No to open pit mining!” one of them says in Spanish.

About 20 protesters line both sides of the road, talking among themselves and, occasionally, to the drivers of the trucks looking to pass. Each one of these conversations is a negotiation, but more often than not, Carmelo Yanguez nods to the others, then the branches and rocks are moved, and the vehicle drives up the hill.

“Anyone who needs to get by and is not working for the mines can pass,” he explains. “But we won’t let in any contractors or subcontractors who are doing work for the mines.”

It’s a pretty low-key protest; once in a while, Yanguez, one of the organizers, takes the bull horn and calls for the others to repeat the chant known in any language anywhere in the world.

“The people, united, will never be defeated!”

It’s a fitting mantra for this small group. Yanguez, a campesino, or subsistence farmer, is the local leader of the opposition forces to mining in the town of Coclesito. He’s teamed up with Martin Rodriguez, an indigenous Ngobe leader, who has come here from his village of Nueva Lucha, about a day’s trek away.

There’s no phone service here, which makes coordination even more difficult. When the two groups want to get together runners are sent from village to village.

United by their opposition to mining, the campesinos and Ngobe are working together for the first time. The indigenous people of Panama, the Ngobe, have suffered years of discrimination by different governments, as well as by the non-indigenous communities in the country. The mine-affected communities in Colon province are separated by miles of tropical rainforest, with no roads connecting them, only well-known paths for the locals. Rodriguez’s community is a breakaway community from the larger population of Ngobes who live in the Comarca, about three hours west of Coclesito.

Rodriguez, however, draws his inspiration from them. They mobilized in huge numbers, tens of thousands, in the last year to block the Pan-American Highway in opposition to government plans to grant mineral rights under their land to foreign mining interests. The government eventually relented, but in recent weeks has appeared to be backtracking on its promise to protect the Comarca from mining. So they have mobilized again, and this time, threaten to bring the country to a halt by shutting down the same highway into Costa Rica.

Dozens upon dozens of trucks, buses, and cars have been left stranded. Tourists on their way to Costa Rica have set up hammocks under their tour bus to get some relief from the hot, pounding sun. Truckers have opened up their trucks, sharing the food that would otherwise spoil. Chickens are being roasted in nearby homes, thanks to local residents who have opened their doors to the frustrated travelers.

“I understand their concerns,” says Randall Pochet, a tourist from one of several stranded tour buses. “But we just want to get back to Costa Rica. It’s been five days.”

Victoria Valverde is less understanding. “This is not the way to solve the issue,” she fumes. “The government needs to end this and talk to them.”

Further up the highway, toward the roadblocks, riot police are seen mobilizing alongside a phalanx of stopped trucks. They are only a few kilometers from the first barricade where close to a hundred Ngobe are amassed, along with a maze of rocks, tree branches, tree trunks, and burned tires. It’s the grown-up version of Yanguez and Rodriguez’s blockade in Coclesito. They’ve been at this for the last 30 years, since Rio Tinto started mining in their territory in the late 1970s, trying to protect the land they consider to be theirs. It’s been a long learning process, but in the last few years, the Ngobe have finally been able to consolidate their strength and their power as a political force in Panamanian politics.

Feliciano Clara is in charge of this roadblock. He wants people to see what’s going on further west, so he has the logs and boulders moved so journalists can pass. A few kilometers up, and there is no passing the next blockade. At least two hundred Ngobe are lined up behind a real barrier on a bridge. Burning tires spew black smoke and the smell of rubber into the hot air.

“We’re willing to die,” says Eleuterio Mendoza, the spokesman at this spot. “Let them come and take this down. This is our land. We will fight to the death.”

And a day later, they do. The riot police move in, and according to protesters and human rights observers, they do so with deadly force. At least two protesters were killed and dozens are injured. There are reports of rapes by government forces. The Ngobe remain undeterred. Their leaders head to Panama City, after the Martinelli government finally says they’ll negotiate. They occupy the square next to the legislature, setting up tents and a makeshift kitchen serving rice and beans. It looks almost like the Occupy Wall Street movement has shifted its attention to the Panamanian legislators. Tents are erected; food is served; they will stay until their demands are met.

“We do not want mining in any part of Panama,” says Celio Guerra, the chief of the Ngobe Congress. As for what’s happening in Coclesito, he says it will depend on the leadership in that area, whether various alliances will hold. “Whether it can be done…depends on a number of factors that lead up to the formation of alliances.”

Rodriguez nods. He understands the importance of alliances. His partnership with Yanguez is the first step in coalescing the opposition against the mines. Rodriguez has been in Panama City for the last two days, taking part in the larger protest and observing. The fight for the Comarca is in good hands, he believes—it will be his job to replicate their success in his community, where the mining companies have already started their work.

Project

A battle is being waged in the rainforests of Panama – between those who want to keep their way of life, and those who want economic growth. At stake: billions worth of precious metals.

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