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Peace put to test in Panama

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MB churches and MCC work to resolve conflict between indigenous people and loggers

(June 22 – MWC update – read below)

Indigenous people in eastern Panama are watching in alarm and frustration as huge tracts of the tropical forest in which they live are cut down by illegal loggers. The seriousness of the situation became clear in March of this year, when two people died and three others were injured in violent confrontations between indigenous communities and loggers.

Many of the community leaders working to find a nonviolent, just resolution to this conflict are members of the local Mennonite Brethren churches, the predominant churches in the area.

“Loggers are invading the forests to take the natural resources that exist on the collective lands of the Wounaan, lands that the indigenous people have lived on for centuries without causing damage to the environment,” says MB Mission worker, Einer Zuluaga.

Cocobolo trees are a type of highly-valued rosewood, found on the ancestral lands of the Wounaan. Community members have counted more than 1,000 of these endangered trees cut this year.

The conflict started in 2010 when loggers began cutting down trees in the forests the indigenous communities inhabit. Since then, the communities have appealed to the Panamanian government to stop the logging, without satisfactory results. The conflict escalated in January 2012, when physical injury and material damages occurred in a skirmish at the site where trees were being felled.

Despite government promises to remove loggers from Wounaan territory, tree cutting continued. On Mar. 30, 2012, an armed conflict between indigenous leaders and loggers resulted in the death of local leader Aquilo Opúa and logger Ezequiel Batista.

While Panama’s constitution officially recognizes the rights of indigenous communities, the majority of the indigenous population in eastern Panama do not have legally recognized control over their land, despite lobbying since 2004.

“We are a cat fighting a tiger,” says Obdulio Isarama, a key community leader, comparing the small Wounaan communities of about 6,500 people to the Panamanian government and the logging industry. “We are frustrated with the government because we are always in meetings but never achieve progress.”

“Several indigenous lawyers and technical experts have united to present our case to Panamanian authorities so that the natural resources are used for the benefit of the indigenous communities, rather than the national or multinational corporations,” says Alina Itucama, a community spokesperson and member of the MB church. “We are also working to support the widow of the leader who was killed and left behind six children.”

A website created by church members to publicize their cause reveals their intent: “We seek a peaceful resolution to the injustices that oppress our fellow countrymen in Panama. We desire accountability and transparency in remote areas from both the government as well as the people in hopes of developing a prosperous community.”

MB Mission is working with the church leaders to develop a strategy to protect community leaders and advocate for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict.

Mennonite Central Committee sent Ricardo Esquiva, a Colombian Mennonite human rights lawyer and expert in conflict resolution to help the Wounaan communities develop their nonviolent strategy to conflict transformation. In response to Esquiva’s meetings with community and church leaders, MCC is exploring additional ways to accompany and support the communities.

Mennonite Brethren churches in eastern Panama were started by missionaries from North America in the 1950s. Today, the United Evangelical Church of Mennonite Brethren of Panama is comprised of two indigenous groups, the Wounaan and the Embera. There are approximately 750 members in 13 congregations.

Einer and Girlesa Zuluanga, MB Mission workers from Colombia, have been serving the MB churches in Panama since 2003.

The churches ask for international prayer and support as they discern how to work for justice and peace as Christ’s disciples in this difficult situation. MB Mission is accepting donations to support the church leaders whose lives are at risk as well as the costs of legal representation for the community’s case.


Adrienne Wiebe, Latin America policy analyst, Mennonite Central Committee; Jamie Munday, social development coordinator, MB Mission

June 22 – Mennonite World Conference news update:

From left: Tiliano Tovar, a leader of the community in Puerto Lara; Elibardo Membache, leader of the Collective Land in Embera; Cardenio Membora, Cacique del Pueblo, leader of the Wounaan people; Aladino Bipuru, a leader of the community in Puerto Lara.

The following email, sent to Mennonite World Conference on June 5, 2012, provides an update, with a note of celebration and thanks.

“Today is an historical day in Panama. For the first time, the Wounaan received an official certificate for their collective lands in two territories (Puerto Lara and Caña Blanca). All this is the result of years of hard work, sacrifice, patience, frustration and even death.”

“Thanks to God, the right they were claiming for years is a reality today. The government, represented by its local minister, directors and authorities, witnessed this celebration of legitimately granting land to the Wounaan.”

Adrienne Wiebe is a policy analyst for Mennonite Central Committee, Latin America.
Jamie Munday is social development coordinator for MB Mission.

For more information, see http://injusticiaenpanama.org (Spanish) and http://injusticeinpanama.wordpress.com

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