Marcial Arias is an Indigenous Kuna leader from Panama and currently works in London at the Technical Secretariat of the International Alliance of Indigenous-Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests, pursuing Indigenous Peoples’ interests at the United Nations and in other international fora. Indigenous people make up about 15% of Panama’s population of nearly three million. There are seven Indigenous nations in Panama. The most numerous are the Nobles, near the border with Costa Rica, then the Kuna, who live close to the Colombian frontier on the Atlantic Coast. The Embera and the Waunan also live close to the Colombian border in the province of Darien. Marcial spoke to a Campaign meeting in July.
The war being fought in Colombia directly affects us. The impact of the conflict was most clearly felt about five years ago, perhaps above all because of the presence of paramilitaries in the border area. There had already been deaths among Embera families mobilised by the Panamanian government supposedly to avoid their involvement in the Colombian conflict. Darien is well known as an area of virgin tropical forest and one which has been used for cocaine production. There are Colombians who say that Darien is a department of Colombia, because everything that goes on in Colombia – problems of drug trafficking or war – is felt in Darien.
The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are concerned about the fact that Darien is the one area where the Panamerican Highway has not yet been constructed – but this project is something which would be of benefit to large companies, not to the people living in the area.
There’s also the question of Plan Colombia, with which Panama is involved. In 1989 the US practically destroyed the Panamanian armed forces, which had been used by Noriega. It is clear that this happened because Noriega was not following the US line, because now they are arming what is supposedly the police force, especially in frontier areas with Colombia. There was more or less open terrorism on the part of some armed groups, though it was not known whether they were guerrillas, paramilitaries or the army itself. But this is what they have tried to use to convince Panamanian public opinion of the need to strengthen the armed forces.
For years there was a guerrilla presence and they did not do anything to us. They just came and went and did not bother us. But now after all these years they are killing us. There was a ten-year-old child killed, and families have been kidnapped. It is the same for the Kuna on the Colombian side of the border, around the Gulf of Uraba.
The US has many interests in our area. For five years it has been showing interest in constructing a naval base in our territory and seeking a bilateral agreement with the Panamanian government to construct such a base, supposedly to combat drug trafficking. Kuna communities have rejected this proposal. We said that if the problem is with the border, why not construct a naval base there rather than in our territory? We were very annoyed when the authorities justified the plan by saying that it would be more vulnerable to attack by the guerrillas if it were on the border. We said, “You’re treating us like a human shield, so it’s us who will be attacked.”
Every time the situation in Colombia deteriorates, if affects us too.