A Visit to the Kiad and Quebrada de Caña Communities of the Ngäbe

Rick Gerharter
Kiad boy holding baby.
Kiad boy holding baby
Photo courtesy of Rick Gerharter

The following is a guest blog by photojournalist Rick Gerharter, who in February went with a delegation organized by Diane Dunn of the Marin Task Force on the Americas to visit thNgäbe-Buglé communities in Panama. The delegation documented their stories and the potential impacts of the Barro Blanco Dam, which if completed, would flood the lands and threaten the livelihoods of over 5,000 indigenous inhabitants. Last Friday, a member of the Ngobe community was murdered and one left seriously injured after a protest against the dam and its human rights violations.   

Our visit to the Kiad and Quebrada de Caña communities of the Ngäbe people started with a bouncy, crowded ride in the back of a small pickup from the regional market town of Tolé to a small grocery along the road. After chatting with the proprietor and family, looking at two crabs caught by one of the young boys and buying some supplies (rice, coffee, sugar, bread, canned tuna), we started our walk down a steep hill to the communities.

By now it was dark so only our flashlights lit the rocky path. After about 30 minutes of walking, we hit the Tabasarå River, flowing gently during the dry season and separating us from the communities on the other side.

The water, which rose to about mid-chest, was cool and very refreshing after the day’s travels. Daytime temperatures had consistently been in the low 90s throughout our stay in Panama. Fortunately a horse was available to carry our bags, most carefully with my camera equipment. The river also marked the boundary for the comarca (indigenous administrative region).

A very short walk led us to Kiad, a Ngäbe community of about a 100 people. All was dark as the only light was from a small camping lantern and various flashlights. It was impossible to see much of the community. We quickly went to bed after a short welcome from the community in their schoolhouse and community center. We slept in a metal-roofed (hotter than a palm roof, but it lasts longer), split bamboo-walled structure, freely open to the outdoors. The bed platforms were also made out of split bamboo. We were provided with a thin mattress and blankets, which were definitely needed, as the night was quite cool.

Ricardo Miranda, an activist in the M10 Movement (April 10 Movement for the Defense of the Tabasarå River) and our main host, told me that the Ngäbe people number about 25,000, making them the largest indigenous group in Panama, with a small community in Costa Rica. Ngäbe live in three regions in Panama. Their opposition to the Barro Blanco Dam has strengthened the unity of these regions. Even though the Ngäbe have three representatives in the National Assembly and their own political party, their autonomy is less respected by the government of Panama than other indigenous groups in the country, for example the Kuna.

Residents of Kiad, a Ngäbe community.
Residents of Kiad, a Ngäbe community
Photo courtesy of Rick Gerharter

Morning started with the sunrise, coffee and bread. It was now possible to see the community which consisted of several houses, each a two-part construction of an open, palm-roofed cooking and seating area connected to a more substantial and enclosed, split bamboo-walled, metal-roofed structure used for sleeping and living. Dirt floors were common throughout. The open school and community center had chairs, tables, a blackboard (split bamboo painted black) and desks. Teaching is done in both Spanish and Ngäbe. I was told that there is 100% literacy in both languages in the community. Ngäbe is a language with its own alphabet of 32 letters. Various other single buildings whose use I never learned completed this settlement.

The houses were broadly situated in a small plain with others a bit up the hill or further along the river. The Tabasarå River was lower, beyond the fence that surrounded the area. Many chickens and pigs ran about freely. A couple of horses were also tied up nearby.

The day started slowly. Several women were working in the kitchen, talking and minding a number of small children. One woman was lying in a hammock with her baby, who was not feeling well. A few men were about, starting the work for the day.

Our guide Ricardo Miranda greeted us and introduced us to others in the community. Then Manolo Miranda asked if we wanted to see the nearby petroglyphs. A short walk along the river and then onto a bed of gravel led to a huge boulder in the river. Several petroglyphs were clearly visible on the top of the boulder. We would pass two more large boulders with petroglyphs later that day.

From there we returned to the community for a more formal welcome and a short presentation from various residents about their struggle against the Barro Blanco Dam. They repeatedly expressed their appreciation that we had come to learn about their situation. They also thanked us for wanting to tell their story to a broader public.

Residents of Kiad.
Residents of Kiad
Photo courtesy of Rick Gerharter

From there, I was introduced to Luiz Mendoza, a resident of Quebrada de Caña. He was to be my guide for the day and for our walk through the valley to Quebrada de Caña. Before leaving, I was served a plate of rice with cooked dried peas and a couple of spoonfuls of tuna. Hot and yummy.

Besides Luiz and myself, several other residents accompanied us on our walk. The women and young girls wore brightly colored, loose-fitting dresses, decorated with bright, patterned borders and broad, colorful waistbands. The men and boys wore comfortable Western dress, generally long pants and t-shirts. Crocs were very popular footwear. Few had either a hat or sunglasses. We started our walk along the river and then moved inland and uphill, working our way down the Valley.

We made several stops at houses we passed along the way. None had electricity or running water or sewer. All were similar in construction. People were engaged in various activities: cooking, cleaning dried beans, picking through rice to clean it, using a waist-high mortar and three-foot pestle to pound grain into flour, splitting reeds to weave large carry bags and thin rope, feeding chickens, minding children, washing clothes, and crushing sugar cane for the juice. Luiz showed me two Campo Santos (gravesites) along the path, each with a small cross fashioned from two tree branches.

Ngäbe on boulders containing petroglyphs, in the Tabasara River. The boulders will be drowned by the dam.
Ngäbe on boulders containing petroglyphs, in the Tabasara River. The boulders will be drowned by the dam.
Photo courtesy of Rick Gerharter

The day was hot – but not uncomfortably humid – and sunny. Temperatures were in the low 90s. Breezes were infrequent but cooling. So were the two swims we took in the river throughout the day. The landscape is partially wooded pasture land. Some trees were immense with branches covered with bromeliads. We passed some orange trees and ate several just-picked oranges with the peels trimmed off by Luiz with his machete. They were certainly the freshest, if not tastiest oranges I have ever had. 

The hills and slopes were covered with a lot of brush, shrubbery and small trees amidst the grasses. We passed several cultivated fields of beans, yucca and corn. It was the dry season, so the fields were brown, with the unharvested grain still in the field. I was told that the community buys about 25% of their food, producing the rest themselves. Among their crops are rice, beans, guava, yucca, mangos, oranges, bananas and corn. I was also told that the best land for cultivation is in the lower parts of the valley, areas that would be flooded if the Barro Blanco project is completed. The land higher up on the slopes that the community would be forced to cultivate is harder, not as productive and more difficult to farm.

We also passed a concrete school and a concrete structure used as a Christian church. Neither was being used on that day. Many of the Ngäbe in Kiad and Quebrada de Caña are Christians. 

In Quebrada de Caña, I was introduced to Justo Jimenez Mendoza and his family. He was wounded in the community’s blocking of the Pan-American Highway and showed me the scars on the back of his legs. They served me a bowl of rice with a small piece of cooked chicken, plus coffee.

Beans drying outside a home in Quebrada de Caña.
Beans drying outside a home in Quebrada de Caña
Photo courtesy of Rick Gerharter

Quebrada de Caña consisted of several buildings and is home to about 40 people. Justo proudly showed me the local school and church in this settlement. He and his family are worshipers of the Mama Tada religion, which seemed to be a mixture of Catholic and indigenous beliefs. He showed me the small altar with a stand for candles, the flag they had created, and the religious books written in Ngäbe and illustrated by my guide Luiz. A family member read several passages to me in Ngäbe.

It was late afternoon by the time we were back in Kiad, stopping for a refreshing swim on the way. The community was quiet and peaceful. Residents were cooking, cleaning dried beans, feeding chickens, and minding the children, who were playing tag, riding on a plastic kiddie cart and studying in the school.

The children and myself were served a bowl of cooked beans and very coarse corn grits for dinner. It was like a thick stew and very tasty. I ate at one of the school desks and the children ate in various locations. I never did see a group sitting down to eat together.

I spent the rest of the evening walking around the community, taking photos of the site and activities, speaking with community members and soon going to bed with the darkness.

And it was dark. There was a half-moon that cast a little light, but it only became darker during the night as the moon set, allowing the sky full of stars to shine in full force. It was beautiful.

Throughout my short visit, every single person was very friendly and treated me with much appreciation and warmth. All were very comfortable being photographed, neither refusing nor reacting with unnatural poses and gestures. They were eager to explain their plight and engage in conversation about religion, answer all my questions, and welcome me back.

Valley of the Tabasarå River in the Ngäbe comarca.
Valley of the Tabasarå River in the Ngäbe comarca
Photo courtesy of Rick Gerharter

Ricardo Miranda, my main host, was eager to use my camera. So before we left that morning, he took several photographs of me in the community and then of us together. He said that a simple digital camera would be very helpful in their work, as would a simple computer set-up. Many cell phones had been in use during the visit, perhaps the clearest example of how the Ngäbe people have integrated contemporary conveniences into their work and lives. They have a solar-powered recharging station.

Trying to avoid the hottest part of the day, Ricardo, his nephew on horseback and myself started the walk back to the road to Tolé and then Panama City at about 10 o’clock. We crossed the Tabasarå River again, my camera equipment being carried on horseback, and then started the steep climb up the hill to the road. This land is not part of the comarca, and we crossed a couple of fences. At the top of the hill we met the owner of the land we had just crossed. He expressed his strong opposition to the Barro Blanco project and knew that his livelihood would be destroyed by the completion of the project. The regular small truck transportation was not expected and it looked like we would have to walk to Tolé, probably a few miles distant. Fortunately, a government pickup passed and stopped to give us a very fast, very bumpy ride over the rough gravel road to Tolé.

Mother and child at Kiad.
Mother and child at Kiad
Photo courtesy of Rick Gerharter

In Tolé, Ricardo and I stopped briefly at a small Ngäbe center that provided overnight accommodations to community members passing through. We then had a lunch of rice, beans and roasted chicken plus a cold Coca-Cola at a local fonda (cafe). After lunch we took a cab to the main road – the Pan-American Highway – to catch the bus back to Panama City. Ricardo had been a wonderful, attentive host and made sure that I was safely on the bus before he left. 

Even though my visit was too short, I was able to meet many residents of the area, see their day-to-day life and get a sense of the destruction that the completion of the Barro Blanco Dam will have on this community. These communities will be uprooted. They will loose their productive land and the innumerable relations that they have to their land and to each other. I felt deep sadness in knowing that all that I had seen could be underwater within months and that these communities would never be the same if forced to move.

Watch footage and interviews from the trip:

More information: 
Wednesday, March 27, 2013