Law proves detrimental to Panamanian cultures

Almost all first-year law students cover the basic principles of land possession and land titling as a part of their introductory property courses. As second-year law students, we were excited to expand on these basic principles during our trip to research land disputes in Bocas del Toro, Panama. But nothing in our textbooks prepared us for the challenges we encountered along the way like climbing muddy hillsides with indigenous Panamanians en route to their homelands, balancing on shaky planks over water horribly contaminated by leaking sewage pipes, and learning about violence stemming from the land disputes and allegedly acted out by operatives of the Panamanian government and criminal syndicates. The situation in Bocas del Toro is succinctly illustrated by a local adage regarding natural resources: “Se vende Panama,” which translates to “Panama is for sale.”

The three of us were vividly exposed to these realities during our 10-day trip. Professor Suman, a Panamanian with many years of legal expertise and involvement in Bocas del Toro’s land disputes and development issues, made sure that we quickly became conversant with the issues faced by the indigenous people there. A fundamental problem, Dr. Suman explained, is that many of the indigenous people have never acquired proper legal ties to land that their families have occupied for generations. Instead, their right to possession and use was peacefully, but unofficially, accepted by the community and the government. This passive acknowledgment of land possession changed about 20 years ago, as foreigners gradually became focused on the area’s pristine beaches as ideal for tourism and retirement. As the interest increased, so did the monetary value of the land. The situation was a perfect recipe for chaos, corruption and violence as outsiders attempted to appropriate the land for development or personal use.

After learning the basic facts from Professor Suman, we were ready to travel around the area, speak with people in their homes, gather data, and figure out how we could help. We visited three communities and spoke with their leaders, known as Caciques, about their desperate fight to remain on their native soil. One of the areas we went to was Bluff Centro, a rural community of indigenous people from the Ngöbe tribe a few miles outside the town of Bocas del Toro. Without knowing our exact destination, we traveled down a winding road and were dropped off at a muddy path, surrounded by dense tropical forest. The local people laughed as we tried to navigate the steep, slippery hillside in our sneakers. Even in the face of laughter, we persevered through the knee-high mud, crossing a slick, unstable log bridge over a running stream, which tested our will to finish our mission. We finally made it to a breathtaking bluff, in the midst of vibrant green foliage, with smiling Ngöbe tribesmen, women and children curious about our presence.

The village chief showed us his home, which he had built by hand, using timber from his land and thatch for his roof. He then related the details of the Bluff Centro land dispute, which had recently turned violent. Allegedly, Bluff Centro’s “rightful owner” is Mario Guardia Durfee, an Italian citizen who owns land adjacent to Bluff Centro and whose goal, according to the chief, is to evict the tribe and then develop the land into a vacation property. The dispute has prompted at least one tragedy, according to members of the tribe. A Ngöbe boy who had apparently trespassed onto one of Durfee’s properties was slaughtered with a machete.

We could see the pain in the chief’s eyes as he explained his people’s situation. His anguish awakened us to the reality that our assignment had become more than an academic pursuit. It was suddenly a mission to protect a tribe’s links to their land, their homes, their traditions and their connections to their ancestors.

We returned to Miami different than when we had left. We have a broader view of the role of legal systems and of the problems created when a country’s legal system is drastically inadequate. We have a greater appreciation for the strength and resilience of the Ngöbe people and similar groups facing those kinds of situations. We formed friendships with one another that will last a lifetime. Finally, we found a new mission: To spread the word about the challenges the indigenous people face in Bocas del Toro, to support them as they face displacement, and to ensure that they are not removed from their lands in the way that the native people in the United States were.

Guillermo Alvarez, Brian Heit and Morgan Nati are second-year law students. 

April 25, 2013


Guillermo Alvarez

Brian Heit

Morgan Nati

7 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Law proves detrimental to Panamanian cultures”

  1. Katl says:

    I am in shock to read your fantasy story here. It is a shame that anyone would print this without verification. I am living in Bocas since 14 years and back then if you saw an Indian it was most likely someone who was shopping or selling his goods on Bocas Island, but almost none of them was a resident of the island. Don’t come here for ten days and than go back to your university and print a story that is totally unfounded. If you had done some true research of the subject you claim knowledge of there would not have been a machete story nor could you claim that Indians are the ancient land owners of the island of Bocas or the surrounding islands. Indians have migrated to these islands in recent years and everywhere they defecate they believe they just founded a new Comarca (reservation). Meanwhile they abandon their reservations which is some of the most beautiful land in the country and allows them to live by their own customs, culture, heritage and to a big extent have their own laws. I bought land on Cristobal Island 14 years ago. The land was surveyed and all neighbors were named and placed in the survey. After 13 years with no problems Indians are starting to move onto my property and I know for a fact that they were not there 14 years ago. I guess the nice thing about being or becoming a lawyer is that you don’t have to stick to the truth, you just need to stick to the rules.

  2. sterling says:

    I have been living in Bocas for 9 years and own property in Bluff. I would like to see the people that wrote this article to man up and tell the truth that they made up the content of this article in order to produce something that they could sell to the media. My friend from Bocas who knows that I know Bluff real well and was surprised by the content of the article sent me a copy and this is a copy of my reply to him: “I know Bluff real well and first off to get to the beach there isn’t anywhere where you have to cross a running steam and wade through knee high mud to get to the beach. Secondly there is a guy names Sopher that owns the property around the main indigenous area which isn’t named Bluff Centro and has no organized civilization but only a few indigenous families that have built homes there. In fact there isn’t any sort of leadership or even a chief. I have owned land in Bluff for 8 years and have never heard of anyone getting slaughtered. It is true that Sopher destroyed some endogenous homes that were build on his property that he doesn’t even use and only wants in order to sell to developers. I know several people from the community and have worked with them and have never heard of anyone getting slaughtered or even hit or anything else by Sopher or any other outsider. I think that it is clear that the authors of this article was making things up in order to produce an article that was interesting to the public and published in Miami where it is too far to check the facts. What losers that they can’t even write something interesting without having to put in their own falsifications!!” I agree that Sopher is wrong to evict people from his property which is their homeland but it is also very wrong to make up details and sell them to the general public. These authors think that they are righteous but I feel sorry for them.

  3. Nick Swyter says:

    This is a very real and present issue. The Ngobe-Bugle people actually have a semi-autonomous region close to Bocas, but that region is under threat of being destroyed with the construction of the Barro Blanco dam. The dam has the potential to displace 36,000 tribespeople. Last year they protested on the country’s main highway, and two people were killed in the resulting government response to the protest.

  4. MJ says:

    I live in Bocas and never heard any of this. I just asked a long-time Bluff resident and he has never heard any thing like this or names of anyone in the story. What BS!

  5. Neil says:

    You should have spent more time in the islands.Ngobes are not from the islands ,but the coastal plains,and mountains of mainand Panama.They basically arrived in the islands in the 1920s after a Banana crop failure they squatted on lands left by the owners.Not a thing like the fate of the North American Indians.If you want a cause just check into the way foreign investors are cheated and robbed. The lack of hospitals,schools,libraries etc.Corruption at every level of government.As law students that’s were your investigation should be and let the missionaries save the Ngobe

  6. tony bocas says:

    what if the land claimed by the indians had an owner before they arrived and it’s titled property legally owned by this owner?

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