The Other Side of the Mountain

We had come to free a mountain. Amidst the mundane morning activities of lighting cooking fires and putting water on for coffee and rice, an anxious energy hummed through our small camp on a peak in western Panama. While some of my Ngöbe companions prepared breakfast, others sized up our objective: a handful of small, white buildings clustered on a nearby hill known as Cerro Chorcha. Eyeing the buildings, Ngöbe activist Mario Palacios [all Ngöbe names have been changed to for safety reasons] summed up the reason behind our trek up the cordillera. “These mountains are sacred,” he said. According to Mario, his Ngöbe ancestors entombed evil spirits in these mountains so that they could not disturb the villages on the slopes below. To make sure the spirits remained imprisoned, the hills have been off-limits to farming, hunting, and logging for generations, in effect creating an ecological preserve that protects the natural resources on which the Ngöbe depend. Thus, for the people on the hill—about three dozen Ngöbe students and activists—the cluster of buildings represented an ominous threat: the forward post of an open-pit copper mine that would destroy Cerro Chorcha, unleashing the spirits imprisoned in it and upsetting the natural balance of this fragile mountain ecosystem. These activists had climbed there both in protest and in affirmation. Their slogan, “¡No a la mina, sí a la vida!”—“No to the mine, yes to life”—condemned the impending copper mine while validating the traditions that have sustained the Ngöbe for centuries.

Our meager arsenal of protesters’ tactics included both the traditional and the technological. The previous night, a community leader and practitioner of the traditional Ngöbe faith called Mama Tata prepared cacao from ground beans in a pot over our campfire and prayed for the mining company’s departure. This morning another activist standing on a high hill in the dense tropical forest used a cell phone to call the region’s largest radio station to read a press release about our pilgrimage.

That juxtaposition is emblematic of the larger issues the Ngöbe face. They must discover a way to provide for the basic needs of a people in economic crisis while also preserving their natural resources and their culture. Panama faces a similar test in that it must create jobs and care for its poorest communities while protecting its status as one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. The country’s rich mineral veins offer the hope of economic growth to a government looking to diversify its revenue streams beyond the Panama Canal, but such growth comes with a high environmental and social cost, a cost paid by the country’s Indigenous Peoples. And that is why we were standing on the knobby green backbone of the isthmus, warily examining the mining camp buildings on the neighboring hillside.

We finished breakfast and hiked the few miles to the mining camp. Everyone was anxious about whether we would encounter security guards and how they might react to us. Just before climbing over the crest of the hill into the camp, the activists set down their machetes and walking staffs to ensure that their peaceful intentions could not be misinterpreted. The group took a deep breath and plunged over the hill, chanting “¡No a la mina, sí a la vida!”

When I had emerged from customs at Panama City’s sleek, modern airport a week earlier, my primary hosts, Fabiola Mendoza and Joe Fitzgerald were waiting to greet me. Long-time Ngöbe activist Fabiola was a sturdy woman with long, graying hair, pink Crocs, and a flowing blue nagua, the traditional dress of Ngöbe women. Father Joe Fitzgerald, a Catholic priest who assists Fabiola’s group, spoke English and Spanish with a rapid-fire, Philly cadence. (He later told me that he played drums in a Celtic rock band in his native Philadelphia before becoming a priest.) They led me to Joe’s battered truck, and we began our journey west to Fabiola’s home near the town of Soloy in the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca (an administrative region governed by the area’s Indigenous inhabitants). Our five-hour ride along the Pan-American Highway gave us time to discuss Fabiola’s activist work and recent developments in Panamanian politics.

The Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca is one of five in the country and was established in 1997. The comarca spans much of western Panama, sprawling from sparsely populated, roadless areas along the Caribbean coast, south across the forested peaks of the central cordillera, and down to the towns and villages along the Pan-American Highway on the Pacific side of the isthmus. The Ngöbe, Panama’s largest Indigenous group, share this territory with the Buglé, a much smaller tribe with common linguistic and cultural roots. Fabiola told me that she has been an activist since she was a teenager, when she participated in the organizing efforts that culminated in the comarca’s creation. While the creation of the comarca was a victory, legal recognition has done little to address the financial, health, and environmental problems facing the Ngöbe and Panama’s other Indigenous groups. For instance, even though the Ngöbe supposedly govern the comarca, the Panamanian state, through the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, administers the development rights for the territory’s mineral resources. The National Environmental Authority is supposed to vet proposed projects, but the winner of the recent presidential election, a millionaire businessman named Ricardo Martinelli, had just appointed an international business consultant to head the environmental agency. Joe and Fabiola worried that the pro-development agenda of the incoming Martinelli administration would weaken the country’s environmental protections. 

One hundred and eighty miles west of Panama City, we turned off the Pan-American Highway and drove north into the foothills of the cordillera. Rain streamed out of the clouds and poured through deep red gullies in the eroded pastureland. After about an hour of climbing, we reached the community of Soloy, where Fabiola and many of her fellow activists live. The town, a collection of neighborhoods strung along one of the few paved roads into the comarca, has a medical clinic, a high school, and several elementary schools. The high school has a solar-powered computer lab donated by Microsoft, where hundreds of students and residents flock on the weekdays to check email, play computer games, and charge their cell phones. The people of Soloy also know the feel of the earth in their hands. I began to understand just how tied the Ngöbe are to their farming way of life when I asked Fabiola’s 11-year-old son Pablo what he wanted to do when he grew up. “Work,” he said, smiling shyly. “Work at what?” I asked. “Work!” Working meant working the land.

But working is starting to mean other jobs as well. The easily eroded rainforest soils the Ngöbe have been cultivating sustainably for centuries by letting their plots rest for several decades between plantings now can’t sustain the rapidly growing Ngöbe population. To supplement their small farms, many men find seasonal work on coffee and banana plantations in the highlands of Panama and Costa Rica. Increasing numbers of Ngöbe are also making their way into professional careers in teaching, medicine, and civil service. Despite growing employment opportunities, however, the income disparity between the Ngöbe and non-Ngöbe Panamanians remains stark. According to the 2000 census, the national median household income was $380 per month, but in the comarca, it’s only $60 per month. And although the cost of living in the comarca is far lower than elsewhere in Panama, a nagging gap persists between family income and basic living expenses. Should the Ngöbe lose their land to mining, they would lose their livelihood and the traditions so closely tied to it.

Stories like the one I stepped into on Cerro Chorcha are unfolding on hundreds of other mountainsides throughout Panama. According to a September 2009 document published by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the government has received requests for exploratory mining permits for almost 8,000 square miles of land since 1990. That’s more than 25 percent of the country’s land area. This wave of mining development dates to the late 1960s, when Panama’s populist dictator, General Omar Torrijos, sought foreign investment by peddling his country’s rich mineral resources. Cerro Chorcha was identified during this time, when geologists for a Canadian mining company found traces of copper and gold. Between 1969 and 2006, five different mining companies spent at least $5.3 million to take the measure of one mountain. They found extensive quantities of high-grade copper, silver, and gold, which further tests have shown were vastly underestimated.

In the mid-2000s, a new company entered the picture: Bellhaven Copper and Gold, a Canadian mining firm, and its Panamanian subsidiary, Cuprum Resources, took over exploration of Cerro Chorcha, assisted by Dominion Minerals, an American firm. Together the three companies negotiated payments totaling $287,800 per year with local Ngöbe communities for permission to conduct exploratory drilling. In April 2009, Dominion Minerals purchased Cuprum Resources and the exploration rights to Cerro Chorcha from Bellhaven and is now the sole company responsible for the site. “Dominion understands that it has significant social responsibilities, particularly to the local communities adjacent to Cerro Chorcha,” the company states on its website. “Cuprum [which Dominion purchased in 2009] has a signed an exploration agreement and enjoys a very strong working relationship with the Ngöbe people.”

Just who were these Ngöbe with whom the mining companies claimed to have a strong working relationship? Most residents of Soloy, where my host, Fabiola, and the other activists lived, strongly opposed the mining project. But the community of Quebrada Tula on the Caribbean side of the cordillera had been persuaded to agree to the project by the guarantees of jobs and social programs. I decided to visit Quebrada Tula, to meet the people who said yes to the mine.

My guide and I were the last passengers to disembark from our motorized dugout canoe after a three-hour ride upstream from the Caribbean coast to Quebrada Tula. Victor, my 60-year-old guide, was once a schoolteacher, and exuberantly shouted the names of different plants at me over the roar of the motor and rush of the wind. He traded dirty jokes with a lanky 22-year-old teacher who was returning to his school post after a weekend trip home. After two-and-a-half hours of inaudible plant names and salty humor, we steered into a quiet tributary to release the young teacher into a crowd of waiting schoolchildren. We then turned back into the main channel and continued 30 minutes farther upstream to our destination.

Quebrada Tula was unlike any of the Ngöbe villages I visited on the southern side of the mining area. Visually, the community seemed to hover six feet in the air. Many of the houses in this perpetually rainy region of Panama perch on sturdy stilts, an architectural style that is both grand and practical: it keeps the inhabitants off the soggy ground and provides shelter for their pigs and other domestic animals. The difficulty of travel in this roadless region means that children receive fewer years of formal education and families have fewer public services such as medical centers and potable drinking water.

Victor and I clomped along a narrow cement sidewalk through town until he found the house he was looking for, and we ducked into the patio space under the lofted main floor. Victor’s acquaintance, a village elder named Francisco, invited us to sit down at a makeshift picnic table, and Victor explained why I was there. Soon Francisco, his wife, and other villagers were telling their own version of the story of Cerro Chorcha.

According to Francisco, the community learned of the mining project about three years ago, when a local leader convened a meeting. A company called Cuprum wanted to look for copper and gold on Cerro Chorcha, and they would provide assistance to the community in exchange for permission to conduct the exploratory drilling operation. “They said they would hire our own people to work at the mining site,” said one of Francisco’s neighbors. The community even met with a foreign woman who said she was the chief of a band of Indigenous people from Canada. “She said that her people were going to support us,” said Francisco. He showed me a full-color brochure that mentioned the Lac LaRonge Indian Band and its 50-year history of “sustainable human development.” The Lac LaRonge had been able to develop successfully, the brochure said, thanks to a large-scale mining project on their territory in Saskatchewan. Now the lessons learned by the Lac LaRonge would be applied in the comarca to promote the “sustainable human development” of the Ngöbe people. Development projects would include goat husbandry, cultivation of a tilapia fishery, and nurseries for commercial agricultural products like coffee and cacao. The brochure estimated that the projects would benefit 420 people, thanks to funding from Cuprum Resources.

The social programs promised by Cuprum and the Lac LaRonge chief rolled along successfully for two or three years. Building materials arrived and a medical clinic was built. Goats and tilapia were brought in, plant nurseries sprouted, and residents learned how to grow and market the agricultural products. But then one day, word drifted up the river that fishermen had noticed a number of dead fish, and no one knew what had killed them. Some villagers blamed chemicals from the mining site; others blamed the deaths on excessive soil erosion caused by the drilling. The rumors were never proven, but most people I talked to faulted the mining company. More questions and suspicions arose. Residents began to wonder when the health clinic would open. The building was completed, but no medical equipment or doctors arrived. And finally, about May of 2009, the project personnel from the Canadian sustainable development agency abruptly left. “They didn’t even say goodbye,” said Francisco. “How many people benefited from the development projects?” I asked him. “About 50,” he said. “Were the projects successful?” I asked. He answered thoughtfully, “The projects helped a few families, but not everyone. But they were good for those who participated. I am still working in my nursery.” Francisco’s wife interjected, “The goat husbandry project has almost failed. We’re not going to continue the project because we don’t have time. We need more technical help.” A local government representative summed up the ambivalence many residents seemed to feel toward the mining project: “We said yes because we thought they would help us, but then they left us.”

So what exactly, besides confusion and a sense of abandonment, had Dominion Minerals left behind in the communities north of Cerro Chorcha? The medical center remained empty, the goats faced an uncertain future, and an estimated 50 people benefitted from projects that were supposed to help 420. And residents up and down the river worried that the mysterious fish kill foreshadowed other environmental problems to come. Wanting to know more about the environmental impacts of the proposed drilling at Cerro Chorcha, I headed to the regional offices of the National Environmental Authority.

Panama’s environmental agency oversees affairs in the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca from a crowded office in Sabanitas, about four hours west of Panama City. The building was packed with the usual detritus of a busy office: boxes of files, empty Coca Cola bottles, copy paper, obsolete computer equipment. The air conditioning was on full blast to compensate for the waves of steamy tropical air rolling in the open door. I told a busy secretary that I’d come to see Adalberto Montezuma, the head administrator of the agency’s comarca operations, about the Cerro Chorcha mine.
“The environmental impact study [submitted by Cuprum Resources] speculates that there could be landslides, contamination of many communities’ water sources, and loss of forest cover,” Montezuma told me when I asked about the potential environmental ramifications of an open-pit mine on Cerro Chorcha. “It is in a very fragile site,” he said. Montezuma also called attention to the lack of public participation in the environmental impact assessment process. Local communities were promised jobs and other benefits if they agreed to the project, but they weren’t fully informed about the environmental effects of the mine. “The law requires that the company conduct an information campaign and provide a space for public participation,” he wrote in a letter to his superiors. “But the company hasn’t done this.”

Thanks in part to Montezuma’s memo, the agency rejected the environmental impact study in March of 2009, halting the exploratory drilling. The rejection apparently catalyzed a series of related events: in April, Bellhaven sold Cuprum and the Cerro Chorcha concession to Dominion Minerals, which then resubmitted a modified environmental impact study to the environmental agency. In May, the project personnel from the social programs in Quebrada Tula left the village, causing residents to wonder about the future of the mining project. Then on June 2, four days before the activists from Soloy and I reached the mountain, Dominion announced on its website, “Preparation is now complete and the drilling equipment is on site to begin the 2009 drilling campaign.” Laden with questions and fears—Had the drilling already begun? Was it too late to save Cerro Chorcha?—the Soloy activists set out for the mountain.

We resolutely approached the mining camp’s main office, ready to confront Dominion Minerals with our banners and our outrage. As we filed onto the weather-beaten deck, we saw that our “enemy” was an uncomfortable-looking Ngöbe man in his late 30s, dressed in the same rubber boots and grubby clothes as the rest of us. He slouched in a folding chair and stared at a spot on the floorboards while the leaders of our group made speeches about the mine and asked him to deliver a written statement against the project to his employer. An older woman leader lectured the employee in Ngöbere, and I recognized the word “unity” repeated several times in Spanish. I couldn’t tell if the man was worried about keeping his job, afraid of the activists, or embarrassed to be the object of such pointed criticism. In spite of his obvious discomfort, he agreed to let us tour the drilling sites and sent his two teenage sons along to show us the way.

The drilling sites disappointed and galvanized us at the same time. In contrast to Dominion’s four-day-old statement that the drilling equipment was on site, all we found were several cleared terraces carved out of the mountainside with a few tubes emerging from the spots where a lightweight drilling rig had extracted long cylinders of rock to verify the presence of copper and gold. Many of the activists, however, were audibly horrified: the absence of tree cover on what should have been forested slopes shocked and disturbed them. They also fretted over the evidence of recent landslides on the newly bare mountainsides. “I thought these landslides were caused by nature,” said one woman, “but now I know the company did it.” I could feel her resolve build with every glance around the denuded hillside. A man interrogated the two sons of the watchman and learned that they were from the Caribbean side of the comarca, though they wouldn’t say where. I wondered if they were from Quebrada Tula. The young men said that each of them earned $20 a day to keep an eye on the project site. The three employees brought home $60 a day, an astounding salary in a region where most households are lucky if they see $60 per month. The activists around me softened in understanding, thinking what this money would mean to their families. The information confirmed what they already knew: this is not a fair fight.

In a sense, the drilling on Cerro Chorcha has already released evil spirits from the depths of the mountain. Discord and dissent have swept down into communities that desperately need to find common ground in order to effectively negotiate the terms of their relationship with the Panamanian state and the mining industry. The activists’ trek to Cerro Chorcha was an attempt to unite around what they thought was the one clear enemy amidst the other, more nebulous threats of poverty, unemployment, and loss of traditional culture. But when they arrived on the mountain, they found a problem more complex than they had guessed, for the faces they were glaring into resembled their own. Cerro Chorcha has become a mirror on the divisions that poverty and desperation create within a group that is trying to define itself and assert its rights in the face of encroaching development.

Epilogue: On December 24, 2009, the Supreme Court of Panama suspended all exploratory mining activities on Cerro Chorcha. The court’s ruling was based on lack of citizen participation, possible environmental damage, and the lack of an approved environmental impact assessment. The Soloy activists are cautiously hopeful. “We may have found some breathing room,” Father Joe wrote in an email. “Of course this is a temporary victory, as the government and companies will not simply forget about the copper there. But I figure we have to celebrate any victory we reach.”

Marian Ahn Thorpe just completed a master’s degree at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She spent the summer of 2009 in the Soloy area, learning about the Ngöbe and the mining project on Cerro Chorcha.

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