A few weeks ago, I went to church and heard a sermon about David´s initial military campaign, how he began with a very small group which ¨understood the times¨ and were capable to lead. It was a weekday. The ¨preacher¨ was a conflict resolution specialist sent from Colombia by The Mennonite Central Committee in hopes to organize a peaceful resistance and ultimately a resolution to the to the invasion and theft of indigenous land and property by Latinos, a problem common to nearly every indigenous community in Eastern Panama, but in this case, specific to Río Platanares, Río Hondo, and Majé where violence began in 2004 and has escalated this year to a frightening level. The indigenous want to be left alone, and the Latinos want the indigenous´ wood, specifically endangered Rosewood, which, although prohibited by law for commercial exploitation, is being removed and smuggled to China by the ton every day. The profits seemingly justify the blind eye and hush money. That sermon, which focused on the fact that a small group can make a big difference and not on anything military, led into a weighty discussion.
The congregation that day was small, 20 leaders and pastors from the affected communities. I sat on the back row with Alquilo Opúa, the elected leader of the community Majé. He seemed focused and pensive, and although he spoke few words, not a syllable was wasted. Following the meeting, Alquilo stated that the meeting had helped him tremendously; it served as an inspiration of patience and hope for a peaceful solution, and he left resolute to restrain the anger and wrath of community members while every possible legal route was explored to make peace. Tireless concerted effort by the communities, pastors, and legal team resulted in peaceful protests, news coverage, and a bag full of promises by authorities to enforce the laws which already exist. There was even an audience with the International Commission on Human Rights in Washington in which Panamanian authorities read their existing laws and vowed to uphold them.
But the logging continued. There is only one entrance to the conflict area, such that one lone policeman could have easily enforced the law as it exists. Everything was attempted: meetings, helicopter visits, more meetings, promises, formal legal accusations, news media, meetings, promises, meetings, and promises. The Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International gives Panama a 3.3 out of 10, ie, they beat Somalia but lose to Ghana, thus, there appeared to be no legal route. Rosewood is just worth too much money for honesty and politics to coincide. The loggers had a closed door meeting in the office of The National Environmental Authority, which should be enforcing the law in conjunction with the police, yet the logging continued.
Alquilo, pastors, and other community leaders could no longer suppress the frustration of the people. It was decided to detain and destroy equipment, harming no one. Three bulldozers, a tractor, and a pickup were captured and set ablaze, sending a clear message and halting work immediately. The men entered an abandoned logging camp and were terrified to find live munitions for assault rifles. On another mountain, at least one bulldozer and work team stubbornly remained. The community was told by officials that all logging had ceased, but they decided it would be prudent to inspect for themselves. They headed back up the mountain, found a tractoring operating, and approached.
Shouting over the grumble of the diesel engine, the men demanded that the driver abandon his equipment and flee so that they could continue with their obvious intentions to burn the equipment. Then, from the nearby forest, a distinctive crack overcame all noise and Alquilo dropped to the ground. The ensuing firefight wounded several Latinos which immediately fled deep into the forest, leaving the tractor operator behind. The men demanded he too leave the scene, but he appeared to reach for something. He was carrying a pistol. He was shot to death. The first shot which initiated the ambush was discharged from a 12 gauge shotgun. The spread covered Alquilo´s upper torso, neck, and face. Although no bones were broken, no shot penetrated his brain, and no organs were damaged, one single ball sliced his jugular vein, and he bled to death.
Prior this year, the community had determined that their cemetery was too far, and Alquilo had led them to choose a new location. He stated in public and private that he would be the first to use the new location, accurately predicting his own death. He was buried there on Sunday. Alquilo Opúa is survived by his widow and six children.
Contrary to being resolved, the situation has escalated. The chiefs of many communities have realized that they share the same battle and are uniting against the loggers and land thieves. Both sides are gathering arms and lawyers and have publicly declared their willingness to shed more blood. An ultimatum has been set by the indigenous communities. Please keep this situation and the affected people in your prayers. Please play that the hearts of the authorities will be swayed towards justice. Please pray that a peaceful solution will be found to resolve this situation once and for all.