Hundreds of kilometers from the urban center of Panama, Indigenous Ngäbe and Buglé communities live in some of the world’s last intact tropical forests, a place they have called home for generations. This past year, with development projects threatening their ancestral lands and the COVID-19 pandemic limiting their ability to attend in-person meetings, Indigenous leaders recognized that protecting their communities’ rights required them to find new ways to participate in an increasingly virtual world.
The Movement for the Defense of the Territories and Ecosystems of Bocas del Toro (MODETEAB) has been actively organizing to stop a proposed electrical transmission line (Line IV) along Panama’s Atlantic coast; its construction threatens the rights of Indigenous communities and could destroy the country’s biodiverse tropical forests. As a critical part of their fight against Line IV, CIEL is supporting MODETEAB to engage with international bodies at the United Nations and the World Bank to highlight the threat the project poses and to demand that Indigenous Peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent be respected before it goes forward.
In order to communicate with these bodies in the early stages of the pandemic, MODETEAB leaders had to choose between relying on unstable cellular phone data that often cut out during key conversations or making long trips to the city just to access the internet. It was clear that this would not be a sustainable solution, so CIEL aided MODETEAB in obtaining equipment and improving their connectivity.
Now, the communities’ spokesperson is equipped with a computer and reliable internet, and he can safely and effectively participate in key events, meet with international officials, present on webinars, and attend human rights trainings. To ensure these interventions made a difference in real participation, CIEL worked closely with the community to coordinate logistics, craft clear and strategic messages, and ensure that our partners using the technology were well-versed in each virtual platform.
In Panama, we were able to help our partners overcome the challenges during this fragile time and even expand participation during the pandemic. However, many communities around the world have not been as fortunate. Despite the illusion of greater access in the virtual context, we have seen true public participation contract, with civil society being edged out of engagement in international fora for a variety of reasons, from time zone differences and unreliable internet access, to bottlenecks in communication caused by heavy video conference platforms.
To help break down these barriers, CIEL developed a checklist of guiding questions to enhance public participation in international negotiating and meeting spaces in a COVID-19 world. This publication shares best practices and lessons learned from our partners’ experiences throughout the pandemic, and it will help meeting organizers and civil society advocates improve policies for future virtual or hybrid gatherings.
In addition to creating new obstacles for engaging in international fora, the pandemic has also exacerbated existing challenges for communities facing the impacts of development projects. Reprisals against environmental defenders have dramatically increased; fast-tracked funding under the guise of COVID-19 relief has allowed institutions to cut corners in public consultation processes; and violence has worsened in countries with already fragile political situations. Despite these challenges, our partners continue to speak out in defense of their families, their communities, and their rights. And CIEL will work in solidarity with them to protect public participation and ensure environmental democracy everywhere we can.
A Victory for Indigenous Peoples at Panama’s Supreme Court
For generations, Panama’s Indigenous Naso people, like Indigenous Peoples around the world, have defended their rights to their ancestral territories. These territories are central to preserving their cultural identities, surrounding environment, and spiritual relationship with the lands that they have inhabited for millennia. Late last year, the Naso people achieved a key victory when Panama’s highest court sided with them in a ruling to uphold their communal right to their ancestral land. The ruling emphasized the critical role of Indigenous Peoples in protecting biodiversity, natural resources, and the climate. And it is part of a growing chorus of similar cases aimed at upholding Indigenous Peoples’ rights around the world. This precedent will carry significant weight for the Indigenous communities CIEL is accompanying around the world as they defend their rights and the environment.