Life and Land First: Peasants are also Panamanians

Life and Land First: Peasants are also Panamanians

By Colectivo Marcha / Pastoral Social-Cáritas Panamá

An alternative introduction to understand the problem caused by the misnamed "Western Basin" of the Panama Canal. To understand the situation that threatens the lives of the peasants, we must know the economic model that dominates the life of our country.


To understand the situation that threatens the lives of the peasants, we must know the economic model that dominates the life of our country.

Panama is a country that historically, due to its privileged geographical position, has oriented its economy towards the service sector, especially towards international services. The Camino de Cruces, the Transatlantic Railroad, the Colon Free Zone, the Banking Center and the Panama Canal, demonstrate this.

This economic model, at the service of the international transit of goods and capital, however, has not made great contributions to the integral development of the nation. Nor has it contributed to the sustained development of the different sectors of the national economy. Proof of this are the levels of inequality, exploitation and impoverishment that exist in the country. Poverty reaches, in Panama, almost half of the population, mainly in rural areas where the indigenous and peasant sectors are located. However, at present, despite the fact that the economic model has shown an inability to solve the problems that the country has, the rulers intend to directly and indirectly affect a region that has historically been occupied, developed and protected by the peasants, who are precisely part of the country's impoverished population. Isn't this a contradiction, a paradox ?! A geographic space is developed and then, through a component of an ACP Master Plan, flood it.

2. LAW 44 OF AUGUST 31, 1999

Why does Law 44 affect the brothers and sisters of the Coordinadora Campesina Contra los Embalses? Since when and how did it appear in national life? What does it contain and what are its implications?

On August 31, 1999, Law 44 was approved. This Law, which establishes the limits of the Hydrographic Basin of the Panama Canal, was an idea that was born from the Board of Directors of the Panama Canal, who requested approval (and succeeded ) of the Cabinet Council, the Legislative Assembly and the President of the previous Republic, Ernesto Pérez Balladares on the last day of his mandate. As on no other occasion, all the political parties in the country agreed to approve Law 44. In said process, there was no debate with the population that would be affected, much less with Panamanian society and its organizations.

The Law contains only two articles. They are two far-reaching regulations, which delimit a vast territory where there are, indisputably, areas with water resources, of which the Panama Canal Authority intends to take advantage of. But it is a law that is integrated into a broader legal device, reinforcing the system of constitutional norms integrated into the Constitutional Title on "The Panama Canal", the Organic Law of the Panama Canal Authority, and other diverse legal provisions and actions police officers who, like the draft criminal regime for those who commit crimes against the Canal proposed by Minister Spadafora, guarantee, in turn, the regime of exception.

The central point is that Law 44 "annexes" to the Canal a territory never imagined, a geographical area where an extensive peasant population lives and works, which has been surprised by the studies and projects that, among others, seek to create three artificial lakes , damming the Indio, Caño Sucio and Coclé del Norte rivers, located in the provinces of Panama, Coclé and Colón.

Before August 31, 1999, a hydrographic basin (the Eastern basin) was known, which benefited the Panama Canal, surrounding the Chagres River Basin. It has an area of ​​approximately 339,649 hectares. Now, with Law 44, another immense portion of land and water is added, creating (a technically erroneous question) the "new basin" or "Western Basin of the Panama Canal", whose extension is 213,112 hectares. In total, the Panama Canal Authority claims as property, under its jurisdiction, the sum of 552,761 hectares, which is equivalent to 7 percent of the national territory. Within the "western basin", where more than 500 communities live and work.

Law 44, together with the constitutional provisions (Constitutional Title), grants the ACP more administrative and legal capacity over the lands it encloses, than those granted to the Indigenous Comarcas, thus creating an exception regime, which complements the regime of legal, labor and administrative exception that already exists on the Canal. As Monsignor Carlos María Ariz, cmf, bishop of Colón-Kuna Yala and president of Pastoral Social-Cáritas de Panamá points out: "There is a law that grants the authority of the Panama Canal some land to modernize the canal, but there is no law, nor any document that guarantees the peasants the reward they deserve for losing their land and this has created a desolation among this population that no longer trusts anyone. "


Because the ACP carries out other strategies that are part of the same plan.

The ACP Master Plan, which makes Law 44 of 1999 viable, includes the expansion of the Canal Basin, the construction of dams and reservoirs; construction of the third set of locks (1200 feet long, 150 feet wide, and 60 feet deep); the construction of two bridges over the Canal facilities, one in the Pacific and the other in the Atlantic. The set of components of the ACP Master Plan will have an approximate cost, according to data from the year 2000, of more than six billion dollars. This Master Plan contains the ACP guidelines to complete the expansion of the Gaillard or Culebra Cut and build a third set of locks. With the expansion of the Culebra Cut, 12.6 kilometers long and 152 meters wide (which it currently has), 192 meters wide on the straights and 222 meters on the curves, "it must be guaranteed", we do not know if guaranteed, the passage of boats in both directions 24 hours a day. The cost of the expansion was about 200 million dollars. The objective of the same was to expand the transit of ships and the capacity of the Canal to meet the demand of international transport and cargo companies in the 21st century, in no case to expand the benefits of the entire population of the country. However, it is known that at night the Culebra Cut works in only one direction. Is it justified, then, so many millions for only 12 hours a day to enable both directions of the road in Culebra Cut?

The Master Plan also includes the construction of a third set of locks that will serve to expand the transit and circulation of Panamax and Post-Panamax vessels, with beams of 30.5 meters and more. In other words, the transit of Panamax vessels through the Canal will increase proportionally from 27 percent, equivalent to some 3,600 ships in 1995, to 33 percent by 2010. This strategy implies greater control over territories, rivers, lakes and forests. that are able to supply fresh water to the Canal. According to the Panama Canal Authority, the expansion of the basin is necessary because, otherwise, within 10 years the water that is currently used to supply the precious liquid to the population and for the operation of the Canal, will not be enough to meet future needs. But it seems a contradiction to affirm this, because 55 million gallons of fresh water are thrown into the sea in each lock: if the Canal operates at its maximum capacity, that is, if 44 lockages are registered, about 2 thousand 420 million gallons will be required. of fresh water, which at the same time that they are used, are thrown into the sea.


The hydroelectric plants, the lakes and a transfer canal.

The ACP intends to carry out, under Law 44, several projects in the so-called "Western Basin", as part of the expansion of the Canal. These projects include: 1. The construction of two hydroelectric plants (Río Indio and Coclé del Norte); 2. The creation of three lakes or reservoirs in the basins of Coclé del Norte, Caño Sucio, Río Indio; and, 3. A channel for transfer or giant tunnels. With this argument, the ACP tries to claim its absolute responsibility for managing water resources, which implies, according to this perspective, guaranteeing the supply of water to the population and complying with the modernization of the Canal. However, it must be taken into account that only a percentage of the country's population benefits from the purification of water carried out by the ACP, and not for free, as occurs with ships.


Life is affected in all its expressions.

The construction of the dams will progressively reduce the fauna and flora of this region. The loss of flora will also cause the disappearance of areas of great value for food, reproduction and development of a great variety of fauna and, with it, of the country's biodiversity. It is intended to be done when the coming crises are precisely crises to maintain the diversity of the planet, therefore the balance between non-renewable resources and the ways of life of the population. But, it is worth asking, why does the ACP want to recover 75 percent of the Río Indio basin, which, according to its arguments, is devastated, if it then wants to flood the integrated set of several basins. So, in summary, what is the enthusiasm of the Canal Authority to protect primary forests if they will be flooded and will disappear with the reservoirs, if they are built? What is the concern about the expansion of extensive cattle ranching developed by landowners and not by peasants, in the northern region of the provinces of Panama, Colón and Coclé, if the problem is that the residents of five districts and dozens of Corrections? What is more important: the welfare of Panamanian citizens and the ecology or the excessive demand for water from the ACP and the Canal?


Because his life, his history, his future are in danger. Because he has strength in the organization to uphold his dignity and defend life and earth.

For almost two years, the peasant communities that are now within the limits determined by Law 44, have felt the need to confront this threat caused by the ACP. This fact was what made the peasant communities unite and mobilize in the mountains, in the cities of Penonomé and Colón, and in the capital of the country. Always with the intention of denouncing the problems and threats that arise for their human development, in the face of psychological pressure and generalized fear of losing their assets, their real estate, their ways of life, their values, their customs. Throughout history, they transformed inhospitable areas into places for a decent life, a family life, a community life.

These mobilizations, however, have been carried out seeking the support of the Church, professionals, university students, housewives, popular organizations, with the aim of finding within the people human alternatives compatible with ecology, with the a dignified life, with the truth, with the integral and not partial development of the country.

All these peasant initiatives find their expression, since 2000, in the Coordinadora Campesina Contra los Embalses (CCCE), organized into four sectors: Río Indio Centro, Río Indio Lago, Caño Sucio and Coclé del Norte. It is made up of peasants, many of whom come from peasant unions, cooperatives, unions, delegates of the floor, women's groups, peasant settlements, associations of fathers and mothers, students, among others.

But, does the Coordinadora Campesina Contra los Embalses truly represent the residents of the area? In the meetings that the Coordinator holds every three months, a minimum of two hundred people who mobilize with their means generally participate, many of them walking for more than a day, to collectively discuss each of the alternatives and options for struggle. They are massive and public meetings, with total transparency. On the other hand, the ACP, in its calls, failed to bring together more than 100 peasants, as happened in Sonadora (Penonomé), despite the fact that they provided transportation, food and accommodation. The opposite is the case with the Penonomé and Colón Vigils, called by the Coordinadora, where without resources or deceit, more than 200 and 300 peasants participated, respectively. This difference in the participation of the peasants in the calls of the ACP and the Coordinator, has its foundation in the form of work. On the one hand, the ACP adopts an antidemocratic, exclusive methodology, simplifying the actions of the peasants to passive subjects, who only have to listen to the various alternatives and options that ACP technicians have chosen long before; that they only need to report on the progress and setbacks of the projects and studies promoted by the ACP, of trends in international trade. On the other hand, there is a form of democratic work, involving openly, and without censorship, the peasants in discussions, in collective debates, in decisions about their immediate future, with the aim of evaluating, encouraging and expanding each time. plus the participation of these sectors in decision-making bodies appropriate to their lifestyles and ways of acting. These two different methods also cause different calls. Likewise, they will also provoke different forms of action. It is, basically, a debate, a staging of the country that is exclusive and undemocratic by definition, and the country is inclusive and democratic by definition and daily practice, born from the people of the countryside themselves.


We must ask ourselves now, why does the Coordinator not attend the ACP calls? Why hasn't the Coordinator attended the last meeting called by the ACP? What the coordinator does not want is to participate in activities that the ACP calls dialogue, but which really are not because it does not take into account the integral development of the country, nor does it use democratic methods of work. However, it is necessary to bear in mind that the expansion of the Basin is a national issue that cannot be addressed and decided only with the only cases affected. In other words, the dialogue is not only between the ACP and the Coordinator, it is with the entire country. Initially, they called meetings with ecclesiastical authorities and social groups to inform about the project, and did not reach out to the communities first. It is relatively true that today they are trying to disseminate information in the area, but two years ago they talked about the issue only with groups from the city, more than anything with the political parties represented in the Legislative Assembly, without informing the residents or farmers.

The ACP does not understand, with its antidemocratic practice, that a true dialogue implies:

First, an exchange of ideas, thought, vision, among equals. The ACP's invitation to "dialogue" is given with the support of Law 44, which places the ACP as the owners of the authority to care for and decide what to do in the area.

Second, talk about what the two parties are interested in talking about. The ACP calls for talks where the issue of Law 44 is untouchable, despite the fact that the coordinator has stated that this is a fundamental issue in the discussion of its problems. The ACP does not include the subject of Law 44 on the agenda, which means that there is no dialogue, but rather a decision is communicated and negotiations are proposed to mitigate the effects of the decision. Why would the ACP have to take care of the region's resources if it is not only for the canal?

Third, share all the information, put all the cards on the table. The ACP is reluctant to provide information to support its arguments. Insist on conclusions from the initial approach. The ACP calls dialogue to events in which decisions they have made are communicated to the peasants of the area and that involve studies and possible reservoirs in the territory where they plant, love, educate themselves, take care of their children, and have made plans to improve conditions current.

Fourth, consistency in what is said. The ACP constantly changes its discourse. First it announces reservoirs, titling, compensation, and at other times it says that the flood will probably not be necessary. If there is no decision on the reservoirs, why were they marked on a map before doing the studies you are doing today; why the third set of locks is called for bids.

However, it is necessary to ask another question: is it true that the peasants living in these areas today need projects such as reservoirs to develop? Not at the beginning. The coordinator has repeatedly indicated that they can overcome current conditions, if they have, at least, the support that the government gives to other sectors and regions of the country, especially in urban areas. Many times they have said: "We know the concept of self-sustainability from experience. We have not depended on anyone to ensure our food, for the education of our children, we contribute in the construction of schools, we preserve the health of the family, with the resources what we have". The economic benefits that the 35,000 people in the area bring to the country are evidenced by comparing how much the government has invested in the area and how much the peasants contribute for survival. Hence the urgent need to repeal Law 44. Because although it is true that Law 44 only sets limits, those limits alter the nature and property regime that the peasantry has historically established over the natural use of land. The land is for those who work it.

In this fight, for Life and Earth, it is not a choice between good and bad, it is not even an ethical problem. What exactly is involved is a question of power. From the Christian faith that we profess, we are obliged to place ourselves on the side of the "weak", of the "nobodies", and these are, the impoverished peasants who today live in the valleys, on the banks and the mountains, that the powerful of The Panama Canal Authority (ACP), want to expel to impose their canal expansion project. We say it clearly: between the powerful potentates of the ACP and the "weak", marginalized, impoverished and excluded peasants, without any doubt, we side with the impoverished peasantry, preferred by Jesus.

Our solidarity with the struggle of the Coordinadora Campesina Contra los Embalses (CCCE). We demand that the public powers, and all the institutions and people involved:

1. That the illegitimate Law 44 of August 31, 1999 be repealed.

2. That the studies carried out by ACP officials on the lands and peasant communities, aimed at supporting the construction of dams and the creation of reservoirs, be suspended.

3. That the other existing alternatives for the modernization of the canal be considered and not only the one promoted by the ACP, which aims to destroy the communities and the ecology of the country.

4. That national laws and international conventions are complied with, especially those relating to compliance and enforcement of human rights, the rights of peoples, the right to live in a healthy environment and respect for ecology.

Panama City, October 16, 2001. (During the III Peasant Vigil for Life and Earth, October 15-19, 2001). Solidarity organizations with the III Peasant Vigil for Life and Earth, against reservoirs.

* Text: Colectivo Marcha / Pastoral Social-Cáritas Panamá Apdo. 1149, Zona 9A, Panamá / Tel. 262-3777 / Fax. 262-3648 Email: [email protected]

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