Panama's Balancing Act: Security vs. Land Rights

By Jon Mitchell, | The Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

Panama's Balancing Act: Security vs. Land Rights


Jon Mitchell,, The Christian Science Monitor


At dawn, Lorencita Arias gathers together her cooking pots, plastic sheeting, and machete, and makes off through the sand-covered streets in this town in Darien Province. Then she and her husband set off in small wooden boat through the reef-protected sea on a two-hour trip to their farm in Puerto Escoces, Panama.

This routine is common among many of the Kuna Indian families. But the tribe fears their traditional way of life could be threatened by a planned US-backed naval station near their lands. Rather than protecting them, the Indians think the Navy base could open up their lands to conflict between Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries who frequently cross the border.

The issue has become one of national security versus land rights: Panamanian officials say the base is needed to keep Colombia's drug trade and civil war from spilling over the border. But the Indians are concerned they may get caught in the cross hairs. Officials at the US Agency for International Development say the US will not provide funding for the base unless the Indians give their approval, something that seems highly unlikely. In February, the Kuna General Congress officially rejected Puerto Escoces as a possible site. "If they install the base, the indigenous communities that live nearby Puerto Escoces would be exposed to attacks from guerrillas," the KGC said in a statement. Indians in Sasardi-Mulatupu have vowed open insurrection if the base is constructed in Puerto Escoces. For Mrs. Arias, the issue boils down to land rights: "If the base plan is pushed through, we will fight for our land." But such are their concerns about the area's security that Panamanian officials told journalists that they are proceeding over the Indians' objections. Vandalism and two kidnappings by paramilitaries in the Darien in the past six months has both the Indians and the National Police worried about general security. Like the Kunas, the police shy away from confrontations with guerrillas and paramilitary units. …

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