Land Rights Violations among the Indigenous residents of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama.

Land Rights Violations among the Indigenous residents of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama.

Background of the problem:

The islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama have been recognized as tourist attractions since 1991. In 1994, The Republic of Panama executed the Law 8 or the Tourism Law. This law sought to establish procedures for developing and promoting tourism activities in Panama by granting incentives and benefits to persons engaging in tourist activities. These included tax incentives for the construction of tourism and eco-tourism resorts and marinas and exoneration from real estate property taxes on land used for the development of tourist activities.

Subsequently, in 1998, Panama passed the Real Estate Law or Law 54 aimed at protecting foreign investment in Panama. The law grants foreign investors the same rights as national investors and further, gives them the freedom to dispose of the profits obtained in their investments, the freedom to repatriate their capital, dividends, interests and profits produced by their investments.

In 2006, Panama passed the Island Law or Law 2 (popularly known as the Bocas Law since it affects the archipelago most extensively). Law 2 seeks to regulate concessions for tourism investment and the sale of island territory for purposes of tourism development and other provisions. Law 2 provides express procedures for the procurement of concessions over lands to be used for tourism projects. Specifically, it creates an “Express Window” within the Cadastral Office of the Ministry of Economics and Finance which grants a provisional authorization to begin operations, while the developer completes the remaining requirements for permanent concessions. In addition to allowing the direct sale of island territories (which was previously not allowed under Panamanian Land Reforms), the law also provides incentives for the development of vacation and retirement homes on island territories.

Previous to this law, Panama distinguished between two kinds of property: private or titled property and public or state-owned property. Island territories could not be titled. State-owned property could be used for various productive purposes through the granting of concessions or Rights of Possessions (RoP). Because obtaining RoPs for occupied land is both expensive and complicated, only a relatively small proportion of the indigenous people have RoPs. Most people possess what are known as Rights of Occupation (RoO) which is similar to squatter’s rights.

The combined effect of the three laws is that of greater economic impoverishment and loss of land and forced evictions for the economically deprived population in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. The tax incentives given to attract foreign tourism developers result in reduced tax flow into the region. The repatriation of capital, profits and dividends from tourism enterprises to investor’s countries of origin, as allowed by Law 54, results in out-flow of capital from the region and the nation. The only benefits to the local residents are in the form of low-paid wage labour. Wages are fixed as salaries and therefore do not reflect the profits accrued from tourism. At the same time, the “Express Window” created by the Law 2 has taken power over the governance of land rights from the local government and placed it in the hands of the national government. The result is that concessions and sales of land titles are granted to potential tourism developers even though indigenous people already reside in a particular area and have been using the land for agriculture and other subsistence activities for decades. The result is illegal land sales and forced evictions of poor people from the land they have farmed for decades.

It is in this background that the following two stories must be analyzed (collected as part of a research study in August 2006).

Case 1: Bluff Centro and Bikri Arriba are two localities situated on the island of Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Isla Colon is the largest of the islands here and is considered to be the hub of tourism in the region. The narrator of this story, Caesar Benigno Penalosa, is the leader of the Bluff Centro and Bikri Arriba resistance movements which are protesting the loss of land to unplanned development.

Brief history of the Bluff Centro and Bikri Arriba problem:

“In 1984 I (Caesar Benigno Penalosa ) migrated from Rio Cricamola to Bluff Centro with my family. The land was national (communal) as opposed to Patrimonial. So we started working on this land (practicing agriculture). I was 22 years old when I moved here. All my children were born over here.

Since 2003, I started having problems with Mr. Mario Guardia, a rich and powerful Panamanian in Panama City. Somebody had sold our land to Mr. Guardia. We now have a case in the court against Mr. Guardia. In 2004, we found a lawyer who was willing to work with us and help the Bluff Centro people. The land actually belongs to BDA (Banque Desarollo Agro-pecuaria). So it is government land. The government sold it to Carlo Dorado Rosada, a Panamanian, who sold it to Mario Guardia.

The case against the legality of this land sale is now in the district court. So now, my extended family and I have RoP over 20 hectares of our 40 hectare land while Mario Guardia has the title to it. I have never been able to see Mr. Guardia as he is never there in any of our meetings in the court.

Workers of Mario Guardia have been cutting down trees in the forest near our property. There are about 80 hectares of forest land. 6 hectares are in our property. Outside our property Guardia has been cutting trees illegally. There is a spring that originates in the area where the trees are being felled. This spring supplies water to the city of Bocas. Hence it is illegal to cut trees there. I complained to ANAM a couple of days back. The deforestation has been going on since 2 – 3 weeks”.

This issue concerns more than 300 people and more than 500 hectares. They got to know that their land had been sold when they got the eviction notice from Mr. Guardia. Since then they have organized a resistance to the illegal sales of land that have been increasing over the last six years. They have been peacefully protesting and demanding their rights over their land. But their fate still hangs in limbo.

Case 2: Carenero is an island close to Isla Colon and houses a number of indigenous and Afro-Caribbean families. Like other parts of the archipelago Carenero is also experiencing its share of property rights wrangles. In this case, land occupied by more than 150 families has been illegally sold to a Remax Real Estate agent called Stephen James Crabtree for the purpose of developing a resort. The said agent has over the last 18 months threatened the residents with eviction and even with violent retribution. He has threatened to set fire to their dwellings and even suggested bodily harm to the leader of the resistance movement (Feliciano Santos). Mr. Santos’s brother-in-law was attacked by armed hooligans in September 2006. On 14th April, 2007, the said Remax agent Mr. Stephen Crabtree forcibly evicted Mr. Santos’s family from their homes on Carenero Island.

Below is a letter addressed by a resident of the Carenero island and leader of the resistance movement written on behalf of the families facing eviction to those who will hear. It is in Spanish. It requests international assistance to resist the loss of their land and for the protection of their rights.

Petition from Feliciano Santos:

“Estimado señor o señora:

Reciba el cordial saludo en nombre del pueblo Ngobe, los primeros pobladores de la Republica de Panama. Mi nombre es Feliciano Santos y actualmente ocupo el cargo de Coordinador de las Comunidades afectadas por Proyectos Turisticos en el Distrito de Bocas del Toro en Panama.

Mi pueblo, y especialmente mi comunidad esta siendo muy afectada por los proyectos de turismo residencial que esta promoviendo el Gobierno de Panama en nuestros territorios. El gobierno esta vendiendo nuestras tierras a empresarios que estan construyendo lujosos complejos residenciales para gente rica de paises como Estados Unidos y de Europa. Para hacer esto nos estan desalojando de manera violenta de nuestras islas. Nosotros viviamos tranquilos de la pesca y la agricultura, pero ahora este gobierno desconoce nuestra propiedad sobre el territorio que ocupamos desde hace cientos de anos para venderlo a empresas extranjeras.

Nosotros estamos siendo desplazados de nuestras tierras, sin haber sido consultados. El gobierno panameno no hace nada para apoyarnos. Debido a que los indicadores economicos aparecen como que Panama ya no tiene mas pobreza, no tenemos ayuda de instituciones internacionales. La verdad es que en Panama hay muchos ricos, pero ellos viven en las ciudades, nosotros seguimos siendo pobres. Ahora mas aun somos mas pobres y nos quieren dejar sin nuestras islas. Nosotros no tendremos a donde ir. Algunos hermanos quieren luchar pero ya nos han amenazado con enviar a la policia y destruir nuestras viviendas si no desalojamos.

Nosotros hemos escuchado que Oxfam esta apoyando a pueblos indígenas en otros paises, y queremos preguntarles si ustedes pueden apoyarnos a nosotros. Si ustedes no piensan trabajar en la zona quiza puedan decirnos como buscamos ayuda.

Muchas gracias por su atención. Por favor, avisennos si estan interesados en visitar el area para que vean con sus propios ojos todo lo que esta pasando

Me despido atentamente

Feliciano Santos

Coordinador de Comunidades Afectadas por Proyectos Turisticos en Bocas del Toro

Both of the above cases are not exceptions. Land tenure security is essential for poverty alleviation. The laws 8 and 54 were enacted with good intentions to alleviate poverty and generate employment opportunities for the people of the Bocas del Toro region. However, the combination of the Laws 8, 54 and 2 and their faulty implementation together with aggressive foreign and national developers intent on profit has resulted in loss of land for the poorer sectors and marginalization and exploitation of these people in their own land.

This petition requests legal assistance in resisting illegal land sales in Bocas del Toro archipelago as well as a review of Panamanian Property Rights laws with a view to speeding up the process of granting Rights of Possession to people who are already residing on island properties and using these lands productively for subsistence and other economic endeavours. The legal process also needs to be made affordable to the common man. We therefore petition “The Commission Legal Empowerment of the Poor” for such assistance.


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