Divided kingdom in Panama

June 19, 2008



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Story Transcript

VOICEOVER: This is the rain forest kingdom of the Naso people, an indigenous tribe deep in the jungles of Panama. They’ve lived here for millennia, farming, fishing, hunting. The river is the life blood of this way of life. It waters their crops and animals, it’s the closest thing there is to a highway, and it’s a place to play. But now the River Bonyic’s become something else—a dilemma. Panama’s government wants to extend a hydroelectric project and harness this river’s energy. Already machines and new roads are slicing into Naso territory. The tribe is confronted with a stark choice: it can welcome the project as a chance to bring the benefits of the modern world—roads, schools, clinics—right into the heart of the kingdom, or they can try to fight the project as a threat to their culture and natural environment. A canoe ride upriver leads to Seiyik, the Naso capital, and an abandoned, decaying palace. This used to be where the king lived and ruled. But now it’s empty and silent. A bitter and at times violent power struggle has divided the Naso people. A young, modernizing monarch, Tito Sentana, backs the project. The traditionalists accused him of selling out the tribe and forced him to flee from here four years ago. Tito still has his crown of parrot feathers and a ceremonial spear, but he’s a king in exile. He’s built a new settlement downriver with a few hundred loyalists who believe he’s right to welcome the hydro project. They say the fears of environmental and cultural damage are exaggerated, and that this project is a golden opportunity to educate their children.

TITO SENTANA (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): If you ask me why as indigenous people do we have to engage with the modern world–Well if we didn’t I wouldn’t be wearing this shirt or have this mobile phone. I’d be living as if it was 2,000 years ago. This is a different world. We are now modern Nasos. That doesn’t mean abandoning our culture. It means strengthening it by forging ahead with technology and science. That’s why my followers are being educated to be able to adapt to these changes.

VOICEOVER: Many Nasos say the real monarch is now this man, Valentin Sentana. He’s Tito’s uncle and shares his royal blood. Valentin opposes the hydro project and represents the traditional side of the tribe. He is not politically strong enough to occupy the palace, so while the stalemate continues, his home is here, a hut deep in the forest.

VALENTIN SENTANA (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): My name is Valentin Sentana. I am king of the Naso. In the conquistador era we lost a lot of gold. Now our treasure is green: the mountain, the forests, the river. With the arrival of the foreign companies we have lost a lot of territory, we are surrounded. The best land is in the hands of the private companies. The river is what sustains us. This hydroelectric company is going to dam thousands of hectares of water. What’s going to happen to our ancestral lands, our archaeological sites, the land of our ancient kings? They are going to disappear beneath the water. I know of other tribes that are suffering because of projects like this. I don’t want this to happen to my people.

VOICEOVER: For good or for ill, the modern world is coming closer to the Naso. The town of Changuinola is growing fast. There’s an airport, Internet cafés, tourists, and it’s all just 20 minutes from the river. Tito is in exile, but he is convinced that history is flowing his way. He reckons it’s just a matter of time before Valentin, his rival, recedes far into the past.

T. SENTANA: He has a small ceremonial spear, much smaller than this one. It’s tiny.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.