After 50 years of advocacy, the Naso Tjër Di Indigenous people have secured rights to their ancestral Country through a ruling of the Supreme Court of Justice of Panama.

One of the seven Indigenous peoples of Panama, the Naso Tjër Di people secured land through the establishment of semi-autonomous territory—the Naso Tjër Di Comarca.

In June 2019, a petition with 25,615 signatures was presented to the Ombudsman of Panama and called for the Panamanian President to recognise the rights of the Naso Tjër Di peoples to their ancestral Country. That year, Panama’s Ministry of the Environment signed a legal resolution recognising Indigenous land rights within protected areas.

After a legal battle spanning two years, the Supreme Court ruled on November 12 to establish a new autonomous Indigenous province for the Naso Tjër Di people.

The ruling confirms Panama’s constitutional responsibility to respect Indigenous rights to Country and culture.

Previous to this decision, the Naso Tjër Di People were one of two Indigenous groups in Panama with no legal rights to ancestral Country.

The Naso Tjër Di people fought against the development of the Bonyik hydroelectric dam, which began operations in 2014. The dam is nestled on Naso Tjër Di ancestral Country and within the La Amistad International Park (PILA) which is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Despite the fight of the Naso Tjër Di people and PILA’s heritage listing, the dam continues operations and the surrounding land is subject to illegal forest conversion and occupation.

“As Naso people we have lived for centuries in our ancestral lands protecting its forests and rivers,” said King Reynaldo Santana on behalf of the Naso Tjër Di people.

“But we were under threat from hydroelectric dam projects and cattle ranchers. In fact, a dam has destroyed a large part of the fish population in one of the rivers.

“With this Supreme Court ruling, we will be able to continue doing what we know best and what our culture and way of life represents: take care of our mother earth, conserve a majestic forest and protect the country and the planet from the effects of climate change.”

From here, Naso Tjër Di people will negotiate territory with neighbouring Indigenous groups, Ngöbe and Bribri, establish governance, and develop management systems to care for Country.

By Rachael Knowles