Asamblea Nacional intenta aprobar ley que enajena islas y costas para beneficiar magnates

Panama Assembly to authorize land grabs in Bocas del Toro

3 10 2005, by Okke Ornstein

October 4th,

A commission of the Legislative Assembly is holding a
hearing on a land reform law that critics describe as the «Lawyers
Full Employment Act» and that authorizes the government to take
land away from local farmers and foreigners who fail to meet the set
criteria. Foreign retirees and investors alike who have bought so-called
«right of possession» (ROP) land on the various islands in the
Bocas archipelago may easily lose most or even all of their property if
they haven’t built a house on it, are not farming on it or when it
doesn’t qualify as a tourism development project.

Oddly enough, but not surprising given the history of this government,
preservation of the forests on the island does not qualify under this
law as an activity that allows one to hold rights on the land.

There is no doubt that the unclear and often mismanaged situation of
land ownership in the Bocas province needs to be resolved, but with this
law the government is promoting a solution that hurts the poor, small
land owners who may never have registered their otherwise legitimate
claims and will deal a fatal blow to foreign investment in the region.
At the same time, the law benefits the bigger resort developers in Bocas
such as Red Frog Beach by making it easier for them to get a form of
title on tracts of land which in its turn allows their clients to easier
get mortgages on their land and house purchases. It comes as no surprise
that one of the authors of the law, lawyer Juan Pardini of Pardini &
Associados, represents Red Frog Beach.

Susan Guberman-Garcia, a retired lawyer from the US who owns a small
resort in Bocas, explained to Noriegaville what happened as follows:

«In the last few years, more and more retirees and people wanting
to build small ecotourism facilities starting buying up the possessory
rights from locals, at every increasing prices. Most of the locals who
sold land kept part of it, so they are still here, and of course, the
majority of people who live here never sold anything.»

«Now, a few months ago, the new government suddenly decided that
all these transfers were «illegal» because Article 291 of the
Constitution required that before transfers of derechos posesorios could
be legally made, the government had to pass a «development
plan» for the islands, and this was (according to them) never done.
That’s where myself and other Bocas expats got involved. We wrote a
letter to President Torrijos explaining that hundreds of foreign
retirees had settled here, many of us on ROP land, and the government’s
recent statements (mostly from Dr. Colomarco, the director of Catastro)
and actions caused us to fear losing everything we had. We pointed out
that we relied on our lawyers and received government paperwork
affirming our lawful possession (if not ownership) of these properties.
We explained that we are an asset to the community and that the
overwhelming majority of expats were honest, hard working people who
were bringing and spending their life savings here. We said that the
best thing for the economy, for us, and for the local community would be
to allow us to title our properties. In response, we received a letter
from the president’s aide telling us that the director of Catastro, Dr.
Colomarco, had been told to meet with us.»

«When the day came for the meeting, Dr. Colomarco was «out of
the office,» so we met with the number 2 man in Catastro, a
gentleman named Dr. Rodriquez, plus a lawyer from their legal
department. They assured us in no uncertain terms that everyone who
purchased posesory rights would absolutely have their rights protected,
so long as they were not involved in some kind of fraud. They would not
commit to allowing us to title our property as they had not decided yet,
but said that our posessory rights would be «legalized» in
some manner and we should go back to our group and tell everyone that
the rumors about the government confiscating land that had been
transferred by way of ROP were absolutely false. They said that they
were going to embark on a study and that it might take a long time, but
they were going to «modernize» the land laws.»

This was in April of this year, and nothing had been heard by Guberman
and the property owners association from the government since. Until it
became clear that the new law was being introduced last week. That
policy indicates that the Torrijos government is set to whisk this bill
through the assembly in a similar fashion as it has done with the tax
reforms, the social security law, and most recently the university law.
And that is unfortunate because, as Guberman puts it: «This bill
does not comport with the promise that was made to us.»

With the lack of judicial security in Panama already being a serious and
high profile problem, Torrijos is facing serious obstacles should he
sign and try to implement this law, because it effectively unites local
small land owners and farmers with foreign investors and retirees who
are generally well-versed, aware of their rights and not as docile as
Torrijos may be used to. Breaking promises, declaring null and void
earlier land transfers authorized by the Panamanian State and possibly
chasing locals and foreigners off their land will most certainly kill
residential tourism entirely in Bocas, and may very well hurt the big
developers that stand to benefit from the bill.

That Bocas won’t just let this happen is already clear. A bus full of
locals and foreigners will be heading for Panama City Tuesday to attend
the hearing in the Assembly, and more are scheduled to be flying in.
Noriegaville will be reporting on events as they unfold.

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