The Autonomous Archipelago of Kuna Yala
This interview was conducted with a representative of the Kuna people at the Third People's Global Action (PGA) conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Who are the Kuna?
We are indigenous people living on the Panamanian-Colombian border. A minimal percentage live in Colombia; the greater percentage live in Panama, about 70,000 in total. We have a territory - not land - but territory, physically demarcated, and administered by us, by the Kuna. To explain, we obtained it in 1925, with a struggle. Our people struggled to obtain the territory, and now we have it. There are approximately 360 islands, more or less 50 are inhabited by us. The rest are empty, though some are used for swimming by the people who own them. Some are shared among the families. Our islands are near the Panama Canal and the border, and are officially called the Archipelago de San Blas, but we changed the name to the Kuna Yala Territory. No foreigner, nobody who isn't a Kuna, can own any of the islands.
CAP: A colonist and an Indian opening the rainforest for the Pan-American Highway.
The fight which took place in 1925, who was it against?
It was against the Colonial Police of that era. The Colonial Police said that it was necessary to evangelise the 'savage Indians', literally, just like that. So they started to send out the military forces and the Catholic Church. From then on, after they began to repress the Kuna people by trying to make them wear foreign clothes and forget their customs and their language, our grandfathers were incited to rebel, and rose up in arms against the Colonial Police of that time.
What is your system of government, and how does that relate to the state government?
This is interesting. There is the leader, the Saila Dammad. He has the maximum authority. Of the 50 islands that are inhabited by the Kuna, each has its own authority, its Saila, and each one carries out its role, has its internal rules and regulations, and is autonomous and independent of the other islands. The populations of the islands range from 100 up to 5,000 inhabitants. Every six months there is a meeting of all these communities in the Kuna General Congress. Here, all types of indigenous Kuna people come together. People who have different ideologies and modes of organisation. As long as they are Kuna, they have to meet. There's no distinction, no discrimination. They discuss and debate the national problems of the Kuna, and the leader of all of them is the Saila Dammad. That is not to say that the Saila Dammad has to intervene in the problems of each island: each one is autonomous. The Congress decides what position it has to adopt before the Panamanian government and regarding the transnational companies.
Do all the people from all the islands come to these meetings?
No, each island has to send four delegates. It doesn't matter whether it is a small island or a large one - they all have the same rights. Anyone can come who wishes to observe or participate or speak, such as young people, or smaller organisations or groups. They cannot make decisions, but they can contribute.
If the Panamanian government wants to carry out any kind of project within the region, it has to consult the Congress. It has to be subordinate to the Congress, which has to make the decision - it has the last word. There have been some instances - once a Canadian mining company signed an agreement with the Panamanian government. The contract said that the mining company could explore and exploit in all Panamanian territory, including on indigenous land. The company, knowing that it had permission from the Panamanian state, arrived in our territory to carry out their explorations and the Congress said, "Even though you have a paper signed by the government, we cannot authorise this: you do not have the right to exploit our territory." So the company did not carry out its project. The same thing happened over four years ago when the government wanted to install a naval base in our territory, using the pretext that drug traffickers were there. But the Kuna people said "No, we don't want the naval base", so it wasn't allowed to be built.
Two years ago the Congress negotiated with a transnational company, without the intervention of the government. It was understood that the government had to accept the autonomy of our people. But this is being threatened. There is a lot of pressure. There are a lot of attempts to buy off the consciences of our leaders. There's a lot of that - so this presents a threat. We need to strengthen the autonomy that we already have.
The system you have explained to us - is it a traditional system, or one you have developed more recently?
I would say that we have been evolving, in response to our reality, and introducing some things which are necessary in the long term. I don't think it is much like it was before.
What are some of the problems of or dangers to this system that are currently faced by the Kuna?
We are fighting for the approval of Law 169 - this is the instrument we will be able to use in the Western tribunals. For example, in this law, it is posited that the owners of materials which are found underground are the indigenous people. But the government says that it belongs to the Panamanian state, so that they have the right to negotiate with any company that comes here and say that they can exploit it. We say, "No, what is underground belongs to the indigenous people and we can decide what happens to it." To say it in fewer words: self-determination for our people.
Another major problem has to do with Plan Colombia - as we are on the border with Colombia we are directly affected by it. For centuries and centuries we have been co-existing with our brothers - peasants, black people, we have not fought with them. Today, it is no longer possible to live peacefully. One cannot go into the country, one cannot do what before one would do on a daily basis.
The border between Panama and Colombia is very rich in biodiversity. I believe that after the Amazon, the area along the border where the Kuna live is where the transnational companies most want to exploit. The danger is that if they are going to exploit this land, the ones who are going to be affected will be us.
Furthermore, there is the Pan-American Highway, which begins in Alaska and supposedly ends in Tierra del Fuego, but in Panama and Colombia this highway doesn't exist. It is not finished, and now they want to finish it. If they do, many transnational companies are going to enter this area, and it will be much easier for the companies to destroy the land and the trees.
What are the resources in which the transnational companies are interested? Is there oil?
There is not oil, specifically. There is oil in the Colombian part of the area, but not in our part. There is however, as is well known by the indigenous people, flora and fauna - this biodiversity is now the business of the large pharmaceutical companies: this is what they want to exploit. Not only that, but as they're now saying that the Panama Canal no longer has any use, they want to build another canal along the Panamanian-Colombian border. This is a huge problem.
As the US recently had to return the canal to Panamanian control, do you think that the reason for their intervention in Colombia is to create a new area of military control?
We are clear that the US left the Panama Canal because there was an agreement. We understand that at any moment they want, they could intervene, and re-occupy the land that they abandoned, with many excuses. One excuse is that if the Panama Canal is threatened, they can intervene for the sake of its security. And now, looking at the current international situation, there is a possibility that that could happen.
How and why has Plan Colombia increased tensions among the people?
Firstly, answering for the Kuna specifically, we used to be able to go to Colombia without a passport. Our brothers are there, and we could cross the border, and they were able to do the same. Second, the commercial relations we have had were with the Colombians, especially with the people of Cartagena. Now that they have begun to implement Plan Colombia, there is more military here than before. The area is militarised, one cannot go to visit one's family, and the commercial boats cannot enter our territory. Therefore we cannot buy rice, we cannot buy sugar, we cannot sell our products to them. And as our black brothers and the indigenous population in Colombia are repressed, they are fleeing to our communities. We have lived peacefully on the border for years and years, even since the guerrilla groups were in the area and we have not had any conflict with them. It is not our problem: the problem is theirs. But now, it is no longer the same. The guerrillas are now a threat to the Kuna because the paramilitaries think we help the guerrilla fighters. And also the guerrillas think that we are helping the paramilitaries. For these reasons there is much tension. Before, these tensions didn't exist.
How are the Kuna responding to the militarisation of the area?
Firstly, the Congress has put out two statements condemning the military presence and Plan Colombia. Now, how are we dealing with it? Sometimes, because of our reality, we have to adopt positions or make decisions which are inconvenient to us, but which are necessary. For example, we are trying to educate our young and our grandparents so that they understand the effects of Plan Colombia, and we are suggesting that we have to go out into the country and work harder than before, because we no longer have the products that the Colombian boats would sell to us. Also, we are planning international campaigns against Plan Colombia, and making anti-Plan Colombia tours, because we know very well that through this campaign we can achieve a lot of support and solidarity, and make people realise and understand the effects of Plan Colombia. These are the actions we are currently taking. In the future, there may be others. And this will depend on the changes in our reality. I don't think anyone wants violence, because we want to live in peace, we want to be peaceful as we have been before, co-existing with nature and the land, and this would be threatened.
CAP: A plan and a section of a 'nainu' - a Kuna plot.
Why are you participating in People's Global Action?
Our organisation wishes to struggle and fight together, as fighting is necessary, without distinguishing between different ideologies, colours or nationalities. The practical effects of globalisation affect all oppressed people, and not only the Kuna or the indigenous people are oppressed: blacks, peasants and unions are also oppressed. But we should act with respect for diversity of culture, diversity of opinions and the diversity of all people who live on the planet.
CAP: Kuna artwork of "inebriated individuals at the puberty rites festivities"!
What were your impressions of the protests against the World Bank and IMF in Prague and elsewhere? Are those issues related to the ones we have discussed here?
Look, for us, the struggle didn't begin 10 or 20 years ago. It began over 500 years ago, but with different names: genocide, discrimination, and now with another name - one more name: let it be elegant, more educated, let it sound good... Globalisation does affect us - I think it affects us more and more every day, and now we are seeing that other young people, from other parts of the world, are understanding the struggles of another country. When we toured the US we saw how young people understood. It was the same in Prague - struggling against the World Bank and IMF because they are the ones who attack indigenous populations. We saw that the youth of the US and of the Czech Republic are understanding the struggle, and this is what is important.
What results do you wish to see from the movement you are involved in? What direction should it take? What is the next step?
My dream? My utopia? I think everyone hopes for an organisation which encompasses all the grassroots, without an initial distinction, without discriminating against colour or cultural diversity, because today there exist organisations that although they are all against globalisation, are very divided. They are not co-ordinated. I hope that in the future, all of these organisations will unite on a global level and that PGA can be an instrument for this. But to achieve this I think we have to overcome many things. We, ourselves, have to overcome things. We have to begin to no longer discriminate against anyone for their principles, even if we have differences of opinion. Sometimes we fall into the trap of discussing things which aren't important. We have to struggle together against those who are oppressing us - the transnational companies, the military. We have to bring all of this together - this is the dream one hopes for.