This is the seventh time Bernardino Morales Tera is visiting D.C. His two day stay will not be filled with trips to national memorials or monuments. Instead, as part of a delegation, he will be preparing to testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on his community’s experience of displacement and exclusion from Panama’s development plans and projects.
Bernardino is a member from the Ngäbe indigenous community, from the Bocas del Toro region of Panama. Seven years ago, the Ngäbe people brought a petition against their government, the State of Panama, for failing to respect and protect their rights to land, freedom of expression and due process. Without prior consultations, the government had leased their ancestral lands to a private corporation to construct a large hydroelectric project- the Chan 75 Hydropower dam- that would impact the lives and livelihoods of thousands of indigenous people.
“I will never forget the day — May 22, 2011, when the floodwaters from the dam rose and covered my family’s home and my people’s lands. We lost so much when our lands were flooded.”
In 2009, the Commission asked the government of Panama to suspend construction and all other activities until human rights concerns had been adequately addressed. The government ignored this request and the community experienced much violence and intimidation. Faced with heavy police presence and pressure to leave, the community was eventually forced off their lands.
In D.C. today, Bernardino’s task will be threefold- to ensure that the rights of indigenous communities to their ancestral lands and homes are recognized; to secure justice for the families who were illegally resettled and affected by this project and to make sure that in the future, the government of Panama abides by and complies with human rights standards when planning development projects.
Bernardino is optimistic about the hearing. After all, this is not the first time Panama has been brought before the same Commission for failing to respect and affirm the rights of indigenous communities. In a landmark case from 2013, the Commission cited Panama’s failure to “meet its obligation” to the Kuna Indigenous People of Madungandí and Emberá Indigenous People of Bayano who were similarly displaced and intimidated from their ancestral lands and homes. The two communities’ territorial rights were recognized and the Commission recommended that they should be compensated for the land they had previously lost.
Even if a similar outcome is likely for this situation, Bernardino’s work is far from finished. Plans for another dam project, Changuinola II, on the same river were just approved last month. Bernardino says there are three for other such projects in the pipeline. To combat these plans, Bernardino has been advocating for indigenous communities to be recognized as decision makers in the planning and design of development projects in the country. Through timely interventions and participatory processes, he hopes other communities will be spared from the worst excesses of such projects.
This work is, admittedly, not easy. Bernardino has had to travel abroad frequently in the past few months, taking him away from his wife and three month old daughter. However, the stakes for his people, and many others around the world, are incredibly high. Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by development projects that fail to take into account their right to self-determination and cultural survival. Through the efforts of communities like those of the Ngäbe, this will hopefully change in the future.
The hearing at the Inter American Commission for Human Rights will be broadcast live at 3:15 pm EST. Click here to view the live webcast(Ruben Dario Transmission) of the hearing.
Bernardino Morales Tera is a member of the International Accountability Project’s Global Advocacy Team initiative. In IAP’s forthcoming report, Back to Development, A Call for What Development Could Be, Bernardino writes about his community’s experiences and plans for designing development projects that would uphold human rights. Read more about his work here.