My Grandmother’s River is a multi-faceted project designed to meet several immediate and future economic and cultural needs of the Naso people of Panama. Working directly with the eleven Naso communities and organizations throughout the world the project manager’s goals are to empower this small indigenous group and to educate the international community about the culture and language of this little-known community.
“Teribe” is a Spanish mispronunciation of the Naso words Tjer and Di–Tjer meaning grandmother; the woman from whom all Naso come. She is the guiding spirit of the people. Di is the source of life, which the grandmother gave her children as their inheritance. Di then, is water in the Naso language. The water from the ancestral river, for generations has been an integral part of Naso life. Piraguas or motorized dugout canoes and balsa wood rafts are the primary mode of transport. Fish from the river are a dietary staple. Travelling down the “Teribe”–as it is known to most of the world, one can see children playing and bathing while their mothers wash the family clothing. The Grandmother gave her children a remarkable and irreplaceable gift–one that they treasure. Sadly, it is increasingly being damaged by outsiders who do not see its true value.
The current lack of financial resources is a pressing issue. A stronger economy will help to meet the health and welfare needs of the community and the execution of the goals in this project will assist the Naso in creating revenue streams outside of the market in the neighboring community of Changuinola. Human Rights advocacy training will empower community members to continue with efforts to reach economic and political autonomy while providing opportunities to younger generations to stay or return to the community and educate others about their culture and environment.
This empowerment is vital not only to the Naso but to the world community. King Valentín and his people are charged with the critical task of preserving the natural world around them and their efforts have been successful. Safeguarding ecosystems that are home to 180 endemic plant species, including several that are globally threatened, known only to the Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí provinces is a mission the community takes seriously. This small area is also home to an estimated 4% of all terrestrial species with 30% of those species being endemic to the region. (United Nations Environment Program, 2006) Preservation of these natural treasures is clearly not just to benefit a small group of people, but by extension protecting the rights of people who protect this valuable biodiversity must be of concern to the world community.
The attention of the global community is key in addressing the encroachment of the hydroelectric and cattle companies but within Panama and neighboring communities the attention is just as vital. It is believed by the Naso communities that frequent electric interruption in the nearest city, Changuinola, is intentional and used as a device for creating tension between city dwellers and the Naso by increasing the perception that energy needs should be met through the hydroelectric company.
The Naso continue their 30-plus year battle for a comarca (reservation) where at least some of their land and water rights would ostensibly be protected. The fight for autonomy became even more urgent on March 30, 2009 when the people of San San Druy were given just ten minutes to gather their possessions and flee before a group of police officers, in compliance with Ganaderas Bocas, S. A., brutally evicted residents…according to local residents…Eliseo Vargas, member of the Naso Foundation…[said], hundreds of people are facing complete devastation, with no houses (they have been completely bulldozed), no food security (their fields have been destroyed), and no personal belongings. Additionally, an ancestral cemetery was completely wiped out…Ganaderas Bocas holds that most of the Naso population disagrees with the minority that disrespects their property rights, after it was demonstrated that the indigenous community did not have a real need for the extra lands. (Asvat, 2009) During this eviction, described as a “terrorist attack” by Eliseo Vargas the only road linking the village and Guabito was inaccessible. Families were unable to get their children to a clinic after the physical and emotional devastation of being tear gas and smoke bombed.
The community of San San Druy has since rebuilt but should the Naso lose the battle for their reservation, Ganadera Bocas will simply take the land and the people will be forced to break up extended families and relocate either within other Naso villages or in the nearby cities of Guabito and Changuinola. Very few Naso speakers live in the cities and children would then receive no education in the language.
Time is running out for the Naso. Without assistance from the international community the Naso people and their way of life will cease to exist. Without the Naso to protect the rivers, the powerful international company Hidroeléctrico Medellín will move forward with the Bonjik Dam and other hydroelectric projects that experts in the field report would create a lake that would displace thousands of other indigenous peoples and cause irreversible environmental damage. The concerns of the international community must reach the Panamanian government so that the decades old call for a Comarca Tjër-Di can end and the Naso can experience the autonomy that they knew centuries before this modern economy and “progress” brought about their near extinction.