Panamanian MB churches work to resolve land-use conflict


MB Mission working with local leaders to peacefully settle disagreement

By Adrienne Wiebe of Mennonite Central Committee and Jaime Munday of MB Mission

Indigenous people in Eastern Panama are watching in alarm and frustration as illegal loggers are cutting down huge tracts of the tropical forest in which they live. The seriousness of the situation became clear In March of this year, when two people died and three others were injured in violent confrontations between indigenous communities and loggers.

“Loggers are invading the forests to take the natural resources that exist on the collective lands of the Wounaan, lands that the indigenous people have lived on for centuries without causing damage to the environment,” says MB Mission worker Einer Zuluaga. Zuluaga and his wife, Girlesa, are Colombians who have been serving the MB churches in Panama since 2003.

Cocobolo trees are a type of highly valued rosewood, found on the ancestral lands of the Wounaan. Community members have counted over 1,000 of these endangered trees cut this year.

Loggers began cutting down trees in the forests that the indigenous communities inhabit in 2010. Since then, the communities have appealed to the Panamanian government to stop the logging, without satisfactory results.

The conflict escalated in January 2012, when physical injury and material damages occurred in a skirmish at the site where trees were being felled.

Despite government promises to remove loggers from Wounaan territory, tree cutting continued. An armed conflict March 30 between indigenous leaders and loggers resulted in the death of local leader Aquilo Opúa and logger Ezequiel Batista.

While Panama’s constitution officially recognizes the rights of indigenous communities, the majority of the indigenous population in Eastern Panama do not have legally recognized control over their land, despite lobbying since 2004.

“We are a cat fighting a tiger,” says Obdulio Isarama, a key community leader, referring to the small Wounaan communities of about 6,500 people compared to the Panamanian government and the logging industry. “We are frustrated with the government because we are always in meetings but never achieve progress.”

Alina Itucama, a community spokesperson and member of the MB Church, states: “Several indigenous lawyers and technical experts have united to present our case to Panamanian authorities so that the natural resources are used for the benefit of the indigenous communities, rather than the national or multinational corporations. We are also working to support the widow of the leader who was killed and left behind six children.”

A website created by church members to publicize their cause reveals their intent: “We seek a peaceful resolution to the injustices that oppress our fellow countrymen in Panama. We desire accountability and transparency in remote areas from both the government as well as the people in hopes of developing a prosperous community.”

MB Mission is working with the church leaders to develop a strategy to protect community leaders and advocate for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict.

Mennonite Central Committee sent Ricardo Esquiva, a Colombian Mennonite human rights lawyer and expert in conflict resolution, to help the Wounaan communities develop their non-violent strategy to conflict transformation. In response to Esquiva’s meetings with community members and church leaders, MCC is exploring additional ways to accompany and support the communities.

Mennonite Brethren churches in Eastern Panama were started by missionaries from North America in the 1950s. Today the United Evangelical Church of Mennonite Brethren of Panama is comprised of two indigenous groups, the Wounaan and the Embera. There are approximately 750 members in 13 congregations.

MB Mission is accepting donations to support the church leaders whose lives are at risk as well as the costs of legal representation for the community’s case. Please reference project code C0140 Urgent Relief.

Adrienne Wiebe is the Mennonite Central Committee Latin America policy analyst and can be contacted at Jaime Munday is the MB Mission social development coordinator and can be contacted at
For more information:
The Spanish and English website and



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