Hydro plant splits jungle kingdom as tribe feels
damned by new way of life
Power project deal forced Naso king out as people look to preserve ancestral lands and age-old way of life
Link to Video: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/video/2008/jun/16/naso
The ancient Naso kings knew what they were doing when they settled by the banks of the river Bonyic. This fast-flowing water, deep in Panama’s rainforest sustained the tribe for millennia, irrigating crops, transporting canoes, yielding fish and offering creeks in which to bathe and play.
Centuries passed and the mighty Aztec and Mayan empires rose and fell, and the European invaders brought havoc, but somehow the tiny Naso realm survived in its jungle pocket. Today, it is one of the few tribal kingdoms in the Americas with a royal inheritance system recognised by the state.
And now fate has played a trick. The river which was its lifeblood is at the heart of a dilemma which is tearing the tribe apart. The Panama government wants to build a hydroelectric station on its banks, a project which will bring development – and possibly destruction. The prospect of the outside world’s vices and virtues penetrating their jungle has split the 3,500-strong Naso and left them with a dynastic feud, two rival monarchs, an abandoned palace and an uncertain future.
“This is the first time in our history something like this has happened, it’s very sad,” said Ilvia Pietterson, 54, a community leader in Seiyik, a village of palm-thatch huts on stilts, which is the Naso capital.
The discord reflects an anguished debate about Naso identity and the balance between heritage and modernity. It also reflects two men’s ambition to wear a crown of bird feathers – a power struggle between an uncle and nephew redolent of a tropical Shakespearean drama.
It began in 2004, when Tito Santana, the Naso’s young king, agreed a deal between the government and the Colombian company, Empresas Publicas de Medellin, to build a $50m (£25.6m) hydroelectric project, part of a nationwide effort to harness rivers for Panama’s burgeoning energy needs.
The station, relatively small by international standards, was outside tribal territory but a 17-hectare reservoir would be sited about 7 miles from Seiyik, well within traditional hunting grounds. Tito embraced the project. Giant butterflies may flit between mango trees but the kingdom was no idyll. The tribe was isolated and impoverished.
In exchange for accepting “minor” environmental damage, the Naso would receive a school and a clinic, plus $322,000 for scholarships, a water pump and land purchases. According to Tito this would empower the tribe to defend its cultural heritage.
“We are seeing a modern world and we have to engage with it,” the king, 40, told the Guardian. “Our grandparents could not speak Spanish and could not stand up for themselves. My followers are being educated to be able to adapt. That doesn’t mean abandoning our culture, it means defending it by mastering technology and science.”
In appearance Tito embodied old and new: a crown of parrot feathers on his head, LA Gear runners on his feet, a ceremonial spear in one hand, a mobile phone in the other.
But pathos tinged the pride. This 200-strong community of Naso was not in its jungle home, but downriver in a new settlement near the town of Changuinola, a humid bustle of supermarkets, internet cafes and daily flights to Panama City.
King Tito is in exile and his neighbours comprise a rump split from the main tribe. A revolt forced the would-be moderniser to flee the palace in Seiyik four years ago, and with loyalist followers he ended up making a new home in hills outside Changuinola.
The government, keen to see the hydro project go ahead, still recognises him as “Rey Tito” (King Tito). With royal spin the monarch said he retained popular support and had merely “relocated” to this shrivelled semi-urban realm. “I am the one and only true king of the Naso. If there is another one, he is false.” He was referring to Valentin Santana, his uncle and rival. “He has a small ceremonial spear, much smaller than this one. It’s tiny.”
On a canoe-ride to Seiyik the cause of the strife can be glimpsed on the riverbanks: earth-movers are slicing ribbons through the jungle for roads and bridges. Trek up the mountains and you see fleets of heavy vehicles, concrete pipes and prefab housing for engineers. Panama is central America’s economic tiger and it is serious about boosting energy supplies. The Bonyic, a tributary of the River Teribe, is a torrent swollen and muddied by recent rains.
The most imposing building in Seiyik, the palace, was its most empty. A six-room concrete bungalow, it was no Versailles. With peeling paint, insects nested in dank corners, and graffitti-daubed walls, there was a smell of dereliction and decay.
This was Tito’s home and the seat of his rule until the Naso’s hybrid system of hereditary monarchy and elected community leaders broke down in 2004 over the project. A mob, angered by the king’s stance, surrounded the palace and forced him to flee, according to Lorenzo Sanchez, 60, the village teacher. Scenes of rock-throwing and intimidation prompted police intervention. “He had to go, he had no choice.”
Violence ebbed but polarisation endures. Some, such as Avelino Rodriguez, 20, endorse Tito’s view that the hydro project would deliver benefits without major cultural or environmental damage. “In this era we need education and healthcare.” Others, such as Lopita Vargas, 57, believe the king was bribed or fooled into betraying the Naso’s heritage. “Tito is dead for us, he sold us out.”
Opponents of the hydro project back Valentin, Tito’s uncle and former deputy, as the new king. He lacks the consensus needed to occupy the palace so he remains in his home village of Druy, a six-hour canoe and trek away.
During an interview with the Guardian, Valentin, 63, wore a crown of eagle feathers and carried a ceremonial spear but, in contrast to his nephew, he had no mobile phone and spoke little Spanish.
Considered a usurper by some, a champion by others, Valentin said the Naso chose him to defend a way of life. “In the conquistador era we lost a lot of gold. Now our treasure is green. It is the mountains, the forests, the rivers.
“This hydro project is going to dam thousands of hectares of water and restrict our ability to roam, to hunt. For centuries we have lived freely in these lands. Now they are going to deprive us of that right.”
More hydro projects would follow, he warned. “And then what’s going to happen to our ancestral lands, our archaeological sites where our ancient kings were buried? They are going to disappear beneath the water.”