Thursday, March 1, 2012
Cowboys and Indians...
While the world has changed drastically in many ways due to technology and innovation...it seems the human condition has not. We continue to see the injustices of racism and fascism raise its ugly head on an almost daily basis throughout the world, and right here in Panama where I live.
There is a conflict heating up in Panama between the indigenous people, who have lived in Panama since before it was called that, and the modern day inhabitants most of whom became Panamanians during and since the building of the Panama Canal. This is just one more example in the world of where "representative democracy" has not included the original inhabitants of a country primarily because they are poor and of another race.
Over the past two years, the Ngäbe Indians have resorted to blocking the only major highway in Panama connecting the east and west halves of the country. Private companies backed by the government have been executing huge copper and some gold mining projects on their land without their consent. These mining interests are apparently not taking many if any precautions about the environmental damage caused...especially by copper mining which leaves one of the worst environmental imprints of all mining types. This activity is poluting the Ngäbe drinking water, ruining some of their fishing grounds and obviously reducing the amount of land they call their own in the "outback" of Panama. These people have practically NOTHING! Many live in huts with dirt floors and live off the land, producing crops some of which they sell to get by.
They were given their land hundreds of years ago by the conquering Spaniards and others since in order to keep them content and away from the "developing" side of Panama. As is often the case, once some of these "desolate" lands proved to be rich in minerals...the powers that be come in trying to usurp authority and demanding a return of those lands for the "benefit of all". Of course, the claim of national sovereignty and social benefit usually means a majority of the money goes into a FEW pockets...and the Indian natives usually get little or none of the economic benefit.
As a ardent student of History, I as an educated white man have always felt bad and guilty about the treatment of Indians...in my own USA, and pretty much everywhere in the Western Hemisphere. They have been killed, subjugated into slavery, and beaten down for hundreds of years primarily for "white man" causes. It would be nice to think that we modernized, rich, educated Caucasians would wake up to the extreme injustices perpetuated on these Indian races for so long...but most of us are actually quite apathetic, if not supportive of, the continued subjugation of these Indian peoples whose only riches are in their traditions and unique sense of identity apart from the modern world.
I don`t like the inconvenience of blocked highways or the threat of violence in my adopted country anymore than other average Panamanians. Yet, as I honestly consider the issue and wonder what I would do if in their shoes...I really cannot blame them for taking these actions of peaceful demonstrations in taking their case to the whole country. I sat at the front of a highway blockade for almost 7 hours last year and actually talked to some of these people blocking my way. They were not threatening to me. They were not educated or sophisticated in their statements about the cause. But, they were passionate and united in defending their lands and their way of life. To me, that had to be respected.
From a rational standpoint, it is hard to understand why the current government and "powers that be" cannot maintain dialogue and fairly deal with these people. I´m sure it is probably frustrating and exasperating to try and deal with these populations about mining and mineral resources. They don`t care much about money or greed. They don`t really care about how the richer people of their country aspire to their minerals to run their cellphones, computers and other modern technologies. Yet, I have to think that if they were fairly offered real percentages of the wealth from these operations...and were patiently educated by someone with REAL promises of hospitals, schools and infrastructure for THEM...a deal might be able to be made. But, instead you primarily observe the traditional heavy handedness of police and government people with guns and brute force...overrunning the weaker political foe.
All you have to do is study the history of the American Indian to see where this is all going. False promises, empty gestures and eventual subjugation is probably in the cards for all indigenous peoples. Somehow we white people have never been comfortable with people who CHOSE to live in jungles running around half naked. We never understand why these people with hundreds or thousands of years of traditions and beliefs don`t rush to embrace our "Jesus". Yet I am quite sure it is confusing to have foreigners coming at you with Bibles out front and guns held behind. At the core, we just don`t know how to embrace difference in our world...so we crush it out through wars or civil and economic isolation. The ways of violence are much more immediate in perceived results than reason and communication over long periods of relationship building.
Some people reading this may call me a bleeding heart "liberal" or question my commitment to "capitalism" and "progress". I have no disillusions that I am looked at by these people as a "Cowboy" from western civilization. Yet, I have spent considerable time with the Embera Indians of Panama. I have experienced first hand their "clash" with modern society and the gap between traditions in such a small country like Panama of less than 4 Million people. If we can`t get it handled here...it is unlikely anywhere else. Its time for Cowboys to come to their senses and plan in the long term to share space...and rights...with our Indian friends. You can`t kill them ALL.