A night with the cacica

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All photos © Okke Ornstein

ON THE evening of the 19th of February of this year, the flashlights slowly died out until we were only able to see each other's silhouettes. There being no electricity in Kiad, inside the Ngobe Buglé comarca on the banks of the Tabasara river, there was little we could do. The car battery that was charged during the day with a solar panel was in use to recharge cellphones. Here and there you saw light from small fires. And there were stars, lots of them.

It didn't really matter. I was exhausted. I had arrived that morning on foot and by horse, made a perilous crossing of the river, and watched in amazement how the cacica, Silvia Carrera, crossed that same cold and fast-running Tabasara without blinking an eye, almost up to her neck in the water. Then we had to walk for what seemed like an eternity to where the Ngobe had made their protest camp, towards the hated Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam building site, because there was a meeting, and then after that we walked back to Kiad where we were now sitting in the school, a rancho with rustic home-made furniture and a real blackboard with Ngobe writing on it.

"You must be a very patient person," I said.

"Why do you think that?" the cacica inquired, looking up from a phone she was tapping away at.

Silvia Carrera listening during a meeting at the Ngobe protest camp near Barro Blanco

Silvia Carrera listening during a meeting at the Ngobe protest camp near Barro Blanco

I had watched her during the meeting that day. The Ngobe people are good at many things, and one of those is talking. They can talk forever, circling around points made earlier, going back to something that somebody else said, repeating their own arguments because they sound good and so on. And Silvia Carrera had just stood there, taking it all in, for hours on end. No pause, no interruptions, nothing.

"I like to listen," she responded when I explained my question. "I don't want to impose what I want. I listen to what the people want and then I try to do that."

This did not mean, I had observed, that she would just do whatever she was told. When she finally spoke that day at the meeting, and on earlier occasions when I saw her, she mostly asked questions. Very practical ones. Yes, she would ask, I understand what you want, but how are you going to do it? Do you think we can mobilize enough people to block the road? Or, she once wondered, why haven't you taken the struggle to the streets while we were in talks headed by the UN to keep the pressure up?

That day, she had asked, "what is your plan?" Small groups had staged protests at the highway and near Barro Blanco, there had been skirmishes with the police which was now heavily patrolling the area. Nothing had been accomplished, and other than a lot of radical talk the organizers did not seem to have a clear vision on how to win the battle of Barro Blanco.


I had also noticed that there were constant accusations. She had supposedly "caved in" to the government. She had, some said, been given money, luxury cars, a nice house.

Yet when I asked her how she would be traveling to Santiago the next day - hoping to catch a ride on my way home in the Ngobe presidential voiture - she answered, "by bus of course, what do you think?"

She had calmly responded to the accusations during the meeting. If any of you think I have done something wrong, please tell me or file a complaint against me, she said.


In fact, I had just learned, there were indeed investigations for corruption in the comarca. But none of them involved Silvia Carrera. Instead, these investigations focused on a small group of people who had taken money from Genisa, the company behind Barro Blanco. The funds were supposedly for development aid in the comarca. However, those who were on the board of the corporation set up to manage the money and their associates were seen building new homes and things like that. Local authorities had issued summons for these individuals to show up and explain themselves, but they had so far failed to appear. Furthermore, president Martinelli had attempted to sidetrack Silvia Carrera, claiming that one of his bought supporters was the real representative of the Ngobe people.

In other words, the cacica had real enemies, consisting of a group of people who instead of defending and preserving the comarca wanted to profit off the selling of it. They seemed to be boldened by the fact that, after years of protest, negotiating and legal maneuvering, it was becoming harder and harder to see how the Barro Blanco dam could still be stopped. Construction was progressing rapidly despite some delays because of a worker's strike.

A child at the Ngobe protest camp near Barro Blanco

A child at the Ngobe protest camp near Barro Blanco

I love the Ngobe. I've always been treated well on my visits to the comarca by friendly and sharing people. They refuse to do silly dances for tourists or sell products of child labor in Casco Viejo. They are among the few groups in Panama who, when push comes to shove, are willing to take considerable risk and make big sacrifices to win a fight. Even with the police shooting at them, killing several and wounding even more, they would just not give up in a battle to defend their land against mining interests - very unlike so-called "environmentalist groups" in the capital who were at the time having dinner with the board of WalMart. And except for Barro Blanco, they won on every front, not in the least because of the negotiating skills of the woman I was now talking with, the iron lady of the comarca, Silvia Carrera, who stared down the vulgarian Ricardo Martinelli and reduced him to a blabbing pathetic drunk.

In the pitch dark school, we talked some more about Barro Blanco and other things, like a radio station to be started in the comarca, and I gave her an update on the status of legal affairs in the Netherlands, where some of the funding for the dam comes from.


We both went to sleep in the same empty house which apparently serves as guest quarters in Kiad. It had bamboo bunk beds of the kind that I had come to despise after visiting the comarca various times. It was cold and uncomfortable, I hadn't brought a foam mattress or anything as I hadn't planned on staying overnight and there were mosquitoes. It took hours before I fell asleep. The cacica, on the other hand, didn't seem to be bothered by any discomfort at all, ever. When I woke up the next day she was already walking around the village talking with people, organizing food to be brought to the protest camp downriver - while I felt like a walking arthritis basket in desperate need of caffeine, warmth and nicotine.

If you like president Mujica of Uruguay for his modesty, you'll love Carrera: While I was trying to get warm and awake gulping down mugs of coffee, Silvia said goodbye and off she went, wading through the ice cold river on her way to Santiago.

Despite my plans to do so, I haven't been back in the comarca since. At various times I got messages, urging me to come over because "something" was going to happen, but the reality is that there haven't been any game-changing events. Last time I drove past it, a couple of months ago, Barro Blanco looked even bigger and scarier.


Over the last days, news broke that the same clique that had sold its soul to Martinelli when he was still in power, was now trying to overthrow Silvia Carrera. They issued statements that the cacica had been thrown out and that now one Edilberto Sánchez was the leader of the Ngobe people - Sánchez is someone whose attempts to topple Carrera on behalf of mining interests started already years ago.

True to form, Carrera responded calmly, explaining during a press conference that she had not been notified of any measures to oust her. Members of her administration said that the procedures followed by her enemies were illegal and only chosen because a majority of the Ngobe people would reject their scheming.

"These are the same persons who have been obstructing my work for the protection of the natural resources in the comarca and the struggle against Barro Blanco," Carrera said.

She received, according to la Prensa, massive support today, and it looks like the attempt to overthrow her has been soundly defeated. I guess it's time to pay a visit to Ngobe land again, soon.

4 thoughts on “A night with the cacica

  1. Glad to hear that people from the comarca are supporting Silvia, shame on those shitty insults that people are giving her in the comments of the news article though. I don’t know the woman personally but it’s a given that many good voices in defense of the environment get silenced over the cities rush for expansion.
    That also includes some environmentalists in the capital too, there are people who do oppose the project but sadly none of them have any say or are very influential on “authorities” like the ANAM.

    However I wish the government collaborated more with the Ngobe, Panama’s natives are the ones that truly know the intricacies behind the forests that other people from the capital haven’t bothered to explore. I remember the times I went to hike the volcano Baru with friends and family, we would always see some Ngobes walk up and down the roads, when we asked them if they were planning to get to the top they said yes, that they always liked to hike that route in the morning! I was truly amazed by that, for us it would be a feat that would take us 2 days to finish, one day to get to the top and one day to go down but for them it was just routine exercise, that’s how well they are used to their environment.

  2. I, too, am against those dams. What used to be beautiful rivers in Chiriqui are reduced to a trickle of water. And I am against mining which will destroy the environment.

    But instead of blocking the roads and inconveniencing people who can do little or nothing to help their cause, why don’t the Ngobe block the exits of government building so the workers–especially the “higher ups”– can’t go home? I think that would get attention and results a lot more effectively.

  3. Thanks Okke, I’m glad to hear the Ngobe are hanging on in their opposition to that monstrosity. The Tabasara is a hugely undervalued river, otherwise of course the ladrones wouldn’t be able to do this.

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