The Vanishing Islands and Indigenous Rights in Panama | National Union of Public and General Employees

The Vanishing Islands and Indigenous Rights in Panama

Ben Powless, a Mohawk youth and a student at Carleton University, has just returned from Panama and the International Indian Treaty Council. His brief report for NUPGE is included below.

I was recently invited to Panama at the end of August with a group called the International Indian Treaty Council, an organization that works with many Indigenous nations across the world, especially in the Americas.

They were conducting a series of human rights trainings for the Kuna people, whose territory stretches over 365 islands and a vast onshore portion of Northern Panama. They have fought hard to gain sovereignty over their territories, going back to revolutions against the Panamanian and American governments early this century, who at different times tried to reign over their lands and waters.

Now, thanks to climate change, a new threat is emerging, one that the people barely understand, and are least able to respond to. It is estimated that by 2050 many if not all of their islands may be submerged, threatening their very existence as a people, their culture, traditions, and resources, and menacing them with poverty, a loss of freshwater, food sources, medicines, infrastructure, almost everything they have.

We held two trainings, one in the western set of islands, and another in the east, separated by a 14 hour boat ride in pristine waters. It really was one of the most gorgeous places I have been fortunate enough to visit, with one of the only other threats coming from ecotourism groups wanting to capitalize on the almost unspoiled nature and blue waters.

At the trainings, participants were very interactive, with many questions about not just climate change, but how the system of international law worked, and how they could adequately respond. As one measure, they are working to bring a large delegation of especially young people (who arranged the trainings in the first place) to the UN Climate Change negotiations this year in Copenhagen.

The Kuna leadership knew the risks to their people’s existence very well, and were very adamant that something be done to protect their islands and their basic human rights. Many of them already knew that Canada, the United States and New Zealand were alone in opposing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including within the climate talks.

The Kuna made no mistakes about placing the blame on industrialized countries like Canada and the United States for climate change and many other violations of their rights, and will continue their work internationally and continue making connections with allies to respond vigorously – as is their nature – to any threats to their people.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the National Union of Public and General Employees for making my participation in this trip a reality, and strengthening the international Indigenous movement. Nia:wen koah – Thanks be with you.


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