A powerful Panamanian family took over an island in the Pacific Ocean for a megaproject with five-star hotels, an airport and luxury residences. To do so, they devastated the spaces and the life of a community of more than 300 inhabitants in a forgotten paradise of the Las Perlas archipelago. A dubious title deed, repression, judicial persecution and a people broken forever.
One morning in May 2008, the neighbors of a forgotten paradise called Pedro Gonzalez heard something unusual: The doorways where they hung out, the square where they played, the church where they prayed, the land where they sowed, the forests where they hunted and even the sea where they fished had an owner. And it was none of them.
The Eleta Group, owned by one of the richest families in the country, arrived in the island of the most emerald sea with a dubious title deed that indicated that everything – the land on which they built their houses, the shores on which they anchored their boats, the sand on which the children ran – had been theirs since 1971. Now, 37 years later, they were to take possession for the construction of a luxury megaproject.
Pedro Gonzalez is an island in the Las Perlas archipelago, located in the Gulf of Panama and less than an hour from the capital.
Inhabited for thousands of years, the inhabitants were divided into three settlements for much of the twentieth century until the 1940s when, in order for their children to receive an education, they created an association with representatives from each group, hired a teacher, built a school and founded a new community: El Cocal. In 1984, it was declared a corregimiento, with its own representative, corregidor and community council.
Today it is still a land without cars, but it has a square, a health center, and a string of vibrantly colored cement houses which doorways always have someone scaling a fish. There are no doctors, but since the company arrived there are about ten police officers divided into two police stations. Previously, there was only one.
“Life here was good, beautiful, peaceful and happy. Here we walked freely and we could walk, ride, plant, fish. But now it’s a problem,” says Adriano Lasso, a dark-skinned and sinewy 65-year-old man from Pedro Gonzalez who gets nervous when he has to give interviews, but is capable of facing a moving backhoe to defend the land he lives on.
It is 9 a.m. on a December day of 2020, the sun is a soft light and Adriano walks with that gait only shown by men with a life of coming and going along these trails to sow: Shoulders relaxed, arms close to the body, eyes on either side. We go to Don Bernardo, the public beach where he grew up and which fell within the limits of the company’s property.
“I grew up in Don Bernardo because my grandmother and great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother lived there,” he says. When we got out of school on Friday afternoons, we all went down this same road.
Don Bernardo is a common reference for the people from Pedro Gonzalez. As that weekend routine or the center of celebrations or an indication of the location of farms that they worked, it appears again and again as an omnipresent symbol of love and dispossession. To get there, you have to take the main street of the village, then the old main road for an hour, cross the fields and go through a fence behind which you see the shiny sand and the sea.
Doing so would not be complicated if the old main road did not now belong to the company and if, guarding the entrance to their private property, they had not built a guard post of the naval air force that we are about to reach. There are two officers in camouflaged uniforms under a canopy supported by poles. One of them greets Adriano, asks him what he is doing, he answers that we are going to the beach to take some pictures and we will come back quickly. The guard says of course, sure, go quietly. And we go quietly, but after a few meters a 4×4 advances towards us: It is the security of the company that will not let us continue.
—You can’t go through here. This is private property.
The shout reverberates among the noise of drills and bulldozers working on the edges. We explain the same as to the public official: We are journalists, we go to the beach quickly and come back. There is no case. We then ask which road we can take to get there. He says that there is no way, that it is not possible. Immediately, he issues a warning.
—We are in quarantine and I tell you that you are going to get into trouble.
—With the authorities.
—The authorities authorized us.
—Not anymore. I’m going to talk to them now, so not anymore.
Since 2008, when the company took possession of the island, including the village for tourism and real estate development, things have been like this in the forgotten paradise of happy life. If the inhabitants protested because surveyors continued to measure their farms, law enforcement agents run them off. If they asked for explanations because their crops were being destroyed, the naval air force fired pellets and surrounded the village so that no one could move around. If they complained because one of the neighbors received a shock from a fence that the company had electrified, they were sent to the most dreadful jails in the country.
Now they are no longer repressed, but if the company says not to use the road they used all over their lives to go to the beach, they cannot do it. They cannot go even though the Constitution says that the beaches, the sea and the lands of common use, such as the old main road, are public spaces and belong to all Panamanians. Even if the authority says yes, they can go, they can do it without going into the sea because there is a quarantine; the guard will arrive and there will be no case: He will shout no, he will argue that it is private property, he will say that this is the way the laws are here. And then the authority will say the same thing: That the law of the company rules here.
Las Perlas is an archipelago of 250 islands and islets and 4,500 inhabitants in the Panamanian Pacific.
This is so called because, when the Spaniards arrived in 1814, besides seeing indigenous people, their crops and canoes, they saw the largest and finest pearls they had ever seen. “Larger than a broad bean, and sometimes larger than an olive, and such that Cleopatra could have coveted them,” wrote the chronicler Pedro Martir de Angleria at the beginning of the 16th century. Quick in its reactions, the Spanish Crown ordered to take out all the possible pearls and send them immediately to the Old World. To fulfill the order, conquerors subjected the local inhabitants to such impossible days of diving that they could not stand it, so they brought black slaves from Africa. That pure greed forever imposed a denomination – Las Perlas -, the demography – an Afro-descendant population – and the extractivist impulse.
When the Colonization ended and the country joined the Gran Colombia, the pearl business passed to private entrepreneurs, mostly English and North Americans, and some locals, who added one more product: Shells or pearl oyster. From 1903, when the United States took Panama to build the Canal, there were almost no pearls left, so the local elite extracted lobsters and shells, until they were exhausted. Set aside by Yankee businessmen, the island found refuge in new lucrative activities: Land grabbing, political action and tourism.
It was the 1950s, instead of climate change or participatory governance, organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations were talking about modernization and the endless possibilities of tourism for the growth of poor countries. In Panama, after a coup in 1968, a commander named Omar Torrijos promised to recover the Panama Canal for Panamanians, generate jobs and jump-start the economy. Tourism then began to be seen as an engine of development: More investment and jobs would come, better schools and hospitals, luxury restaurants and hotel chains. They drew up plans that facilitated this and, over the years, would make the country enter the world rankings.
At that time, a politician and businessman named Gabriel Lewis Galindo understood the potential of Las Perlas. He had met by accident one of its islands, Contadora, and in a flash he turned it into an oasis of millionaires dotted with sumptuous residences. A close friend and key ambassador of Torrijos to the United States, Lewis Galindo managed to get the government to sell it to him and, later, facilitate the opening of the archipelago’s first luxury hotel. Lewis Galindo’s houses were a bunker for the international diplomacy in the recovery of the Canal and a shelter for the Shah of Iran. The island was the corner where the governments of Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama promoted Central American peace with the Contadora Group in the 1980s.
From that point on, the avalanche.
Dozens of tourist-residential projects came to the islands of El Rey, Chapera, Saboga, Viveros, with names like Pearl of the Pacific Resort and Spa, La Perla Resort and Marina or Saboga Island Paradise Resort. With more or less words, they promoted an uninhabited paradise with attributes such as remoteness, solitude and pristine nature, without ever mentioning the local populations. Only between December 2006 and April 2008 – and even after the archipelago was declared a special marine-coastal management zone by law in 2007 – the National Environmental Authority approved environmental impact assessments for eight projects and the Ministry of Commerce and Industries gave the go-ahead to four concessions for underwater sand extraction.
The archipelago is remarkable for its biodiversity and is unique for containing the seven species of mangrove recorded in the country and a richness of corals higher than in the typical coral reefs of the Panamanian Pacific. The voracity put them at risk and pushed the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, one of the most prestigious scientific research centers in Latin America, and the Environmental Advocacy Center, to ask the Government for a truce for the shameless overexploitation of the ecosystems.
“The coastal zone is being developed for tourism without even taking into account nesting beaches or coral reefs,” said marine biologist Hector Guzman, author of more than 200 scientific publications on corals, fish, manatees, whales, mangroves, seabirds, sharks and turtles. It is a clear ecocide.
From pearl extraction, through tourism, to the increasingly powerful real estate business, those who managed the fate of the islands have always been urban white men, who never faced -nor face- the projects involving the locals. In short, they do not know how they are: People for whom the forest, the sea and everything else is a space and a means of subsistence, not a business opportunity. The islands always appear as that ‘paradise to be discovered’ from which they extracted -and extract- an economic profit from a distance.
One of them was another friend of Torrijos: Businessman, media founder and politician, Fernando Eleta Almaran. In 1971, after having been Minister of Economy and Chancellor before even being 50 years old, Eleta Almaran bought for 40 thousand dollars an island where five soccer stadiums could fit, with all its inventory: 14 beaches, islets, 46 species of trees and 65 of birds, forests, two lagoons and seven creeks, mangroves, seven kinds of sea turtles and 83 of fish, waterfalls, 12 types of coral and, associated with them, three of sponges and 88 of fish such as sharks, rays and yellowfin tuna, cliffs, 35 localities and 45 archaeological findings, basins, a corregimiento, a public square, a soccer field, paved streets and more than 300 inhabitants with their farms, their crops, their 133 houses and 26 boats included.
It was Pedro Gonzalez.
Powerful people in Panama, the Eletas always occupied key positions in politics, business associations and the media. The eldest of their five children, Mercedes ‘Baty’ Eleta, was president of the Panamanian Association of Business Executives, as well as of several non-profit foundations. Although Forbes magazine chose her as one of the most influential women in Central America in 2018, Baty is best remembered for the phrase she uttered on a TV show in 2020 where she debated water scarcity: “Is water free? Do we have the human right to water? Perfect, go to the river and look for it.”
On April 27, 1973, the Eleta family created Pedro Gonzalez S.A., the company in which name they registered the island and in which two of Baty‘s sons are now included. One of them is Guillermo de Saint Malo.
Guillermo is a 47-year-old businessman with the looks of a soap opera star. He is currently the head of Eleta Group, the family investment fund with interests in telecommunications, energy, real estate projects, agribusiness and horse breeding. First cousin of who was Vice President and foreign minister from 2014 to 2019, Isabel de Saint Malo, he also has political aspirations and family ties to the president during the same period, Juan Carlos Varela. Member of the governing party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), when a few years ago he was measuring the possibilities of running for president himself, Saint Malo defined himself as “just another Panamanian” worried about living in “a rich country with many poor people.”
In 2008, Guillermo partnered with an English investment fund and the forgotten village of happy life wound up in the Pearl Island Limited S.A.’s pocket, to become the tourist-residential megaproject that will occupy the northeastern half of the island. Four years later, to build residences and a hotel, they added one more powerful partner: The former Minister of Economy, businessman and banker Alberto Vallarino, who already managed real estate projects on the Pacific and another one questioned by the impact on a wetland in the Bay of Panama. Later, in 2017, the English fund would sell its share for $29 million to Grivalia Hospitality, a financial services company registered in Luxembourg as a subsidiary of a Greek real estate investment company called Grivalia Properties REIC.
“A truly private destination waiting to be discovered,” was the message with which they began promoting Pearl Island in 2015 on the project’s website.
In May 2008, Guillermo de Saint Malo Eleta landed on the island to tell the inhabitants that from now on it was no longer called Pedro Gonzalez but Pearl Island, and that they, the Eleta family, were the owners.
“Suddenly came that surprise. I mean wow, but how did this happen?” Alejandro Jimenez asks. “No way, this island is mine, this land was worked by my grandparents and you can’t come here like this.”
In the early afternoon of a Monday in December 2020, Alejandro Jimenez sits in the front porch of his house wearing a T-shirt with the Pearl Island logo. A descendant of one of the men who organized the three old settlements in El Cocal and himself a representative of the village in 2008, he remembers the moment of the Eletas’ landing on the island as well as anyone here: Dreadfully.
“Overnight they appeared here, saying that they were the owners, and one was left like that, you see,” says Icelka Mejia, a dark and vigorous 47-year-old woman who, after saying this, opened her eyes with a face full of surprise. “We were living freely and picking rice, vegetables, all our lives here and they saying they are the owners, why didn’t they appear when my great-great-grandmother lived here?,” says Eloisa Santimateo, her voice entangled between the crowing of the roosters.
How can it be? how so? it is the people’s cry.
How can it be if they have been in the village for hundreds of years and no one has ever appeared before? How can it be if their grandmothers, great-grandmothers, great-great-grandmothers were born and raised here and built their homes, their families, their lives here? How can it be if there, next to Don Bernardo, was the oldest of the communities and their grandparents cultivated the farms they inherited without the need of any paper because the word is enough? How can it be so, when it was the organization of the people that outlined the areas of the island, its uses and customs, the names of the beaches, the men who would represent them and the kind ways with nature?
“And now they say no, you don’t know,” says Alejandro. “That the island belonged to a certain Pliset in the year of the ñaupa, that a gringa sold it to a group of the Eletas and it was like pin pan dambo. The thing was already registered, everything was solved and the government did not want to get involved in anything. They leave you like that, I ….mean, it’s a trauma.”
To design the project, the company organized several workshops in Panama City, inviting experts in engineering, architecture and science to give their opinions on the plans in April 2007. The draft was immediately shown to authorities and real estate developers, but it was only shown to the people a year later —on May 17, 2008— to present it in a one-hour public forum attended by 33 people. Alejandro was there as a representative, the position he held at the time.
“You are not arranging your papers and moving so many things and filing and thinking about registering anything because these are things that take up your time when what you are thinking about is your cassava plant,” says Alejandro, without a trace of anger. “And well then, what are you going to do?”
More out of resignation than out of convenience, Alejandro ended up accepting a job in the project to do what he had been doing for ages: Weeding and planting. In a place where half of the people are fishermen and the other half subsistence farmers, where to see the mayor you have to travel at least 45 minutes by boat, where there is no social security office, not a single representative of the Attorney General’s Office or the Ombudsman’s Office, not a single mediation body, where almost nobody was able to raise more than 300 dollars a month, the possibility of fighting —of filing a complaint, hiring lawyers, traveling to the capital for formalities— was a chimera. In addition, the company promised to train them for well-paid jobs and, more importantly, to attend to their requests and let them sow on their farms, dive into the sea of their beaches, walk their paths.
At first, it seemed to keep its promise.
“The objective of the project is the construction and operation of a luxury residential tourism project, developed in harmony with the natural environment and the existing population of that island,” said the Environmental Impact Assessment submitted by Pearl Island to the Ministry of Environment on November 21, 2008. To do so, they hired local people to do the same as Alejandro —weeding, cleaning— and NGOs to organize games for the children, English classes to welcome the tourists that would arrive and even set up a small house for these activities. They also consulted with renowned scientists such as Smithsonian biologist Hector Guzman, and even listened to him on some things: They set aside the construction of a golf course because of the damage it would cause.
Meanwhile, they advanced with the dredging and the construction of the only buildings that can be seen now —apartments, residences—. Then came the worst thing, according to some locals: They built an airstrip upon the village’s water source and fenced off the land where they were planting. The project was not even halfway through, when many neighbors realized that the jobs were few and bad, that the damages were many and that their land was being expropriated.
“It was a territorial dispossession,” says Adriano Lasso, the dark and sinewy 65-year-old from Pedro Gonzalez. I may not have studied as much as they did, but I understand my rights.
At the beginning, the dispossession was carried out with soft kindness in order to avoid conflicts. After a short time, when a large part of the people understood that the sound of drums quieted the noise of the backhoes advancing on the land that the company promised to respect, the abuses began.
In December 2009, when some surveyors were measuring their farms, some of the locals demanded explanations. The company’s foreman asked for troops from the military base on a neighboring island: Eight armed men arrived, wearing balaclavas and carrying machine guns, according to La Prensa.
In July 2010, the company determined the boundaries of El Cocal, donated nine and a half hectares to the municipality and set aside five hectares for the islanders interested in farming. Once again, the villagers were shocked: How can the company “donate” public lands? How can they do this if we have much more land? Do they want to lock us in the village? Nobody listened.
Then, chainsaws advanced on Martha Millor and Fidelina Murillo’s banana, mango and avocado crops. They arrived with police from the naval air force. They remember that they ran to stop them by standing in front of the machines. The police came down on them, pointing guns at them, and held them down.
In January 2013, six residents were arrested for working lands located outside of the village’s demarcated boundaries.
In November 2014, when neighbors went to protest at the company’s camp because they had vandalized another local resident’s farm, a column of armed and shielded naval air officers advanced on them and fired pellets. They dragged Adan Toker over the rocks, turned him upside down, beat him with machetes and put him on a boat to take him out of the place. Someone recorded the scene with a cell phone camera and uploaded the video to YouTube: Toker, a 45-year-old fisherman, tries to struggle, four policemen hold him down and spray pepper spray in the face of a woman who tried to help him.
“Here in Panama, the government doesn’t rule. The millionaires rule,” says Adan one afternoon in December 2020. The naval air force itself works for the company.
To preserve the land or resolve conflicts, the company’s policy has always been: Agents of the Naval Air Service, who in theory protect all Panamanians, with helmets, riot shields, stick and shotguns.
For all these reasons, Adriano Lasso, Adan Toker and some thirty others founded a group to defend what they had always considered theirs, by right of possession: The Committee for the Defense of Pedro Gonzalez Island. The worst was yet to come.
“We arrived here in the village and the man was unresponsive,” says Icelka Mejia, the dark-skinned, emphatic woman who accompanied him to the medical center, sitting in the doorway of her house. “Unconscious and unresponsive, so we went back to the island to see the doctor.”
They returned to the neighboring island to the doctor who discharged him a few hours later. But there was no point: Angel still felt bad. He had to be taken to Panama City. It was almost midnight and there was nothing more they could do. Icelka says that the next day they went to ask the company for help, but there was no answer: Nobody replied. They began to protest.
And there, the sequence of terror: The naval air force arrived. There were gunshots, wounded people, more people transferred by boat for medical assistance. One of them, Francisco Sosa, ended up in the capital’s hospital. Angel Lasso suffered the consequences until he died of a heart attack two years later.
After that tragic Thursday and for several months, the island remained surrounded by land and sea with hundreds of police units. The company said that they damaged a tractor, caused material losses of more than 400 thousand dollars and filed a criminal complaint for the justice system to investigate. The Public Prosecutor’s Office heard two protected witnesses and, without summoning the locals to hear their version, issued an arrest warrant for 37 inhabitants of Pedro Gonzalez: More than the number of locals that the company had summoned to present its project in public in May 2008. All of them were members of or had relations with the Committee. From that moment on, every time any of them set foot in Panama City, jail awaited them.
Adriano Lasso was picked up by three detectives from the National Judicial Investigation Directorate at his home, in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Panama City, the day he returned from the island. “There were seven cars waiting for one man. Anyone would say that I was a criminal, a dangerous drug trafficker, and here before God I say: I have never touched anything of theirs. The only thing I say is that they are land thieves,” he says. He spent three months in the worst cellblock of the worst prison in the country, La Joya, without facing trial. By begging, the family managed to scrape together enough money to pay for a lawyer and he was released with a precautionary measure.
“I have never touched anything of theirs. The only thing I say is that they are land thieves”Adriano Lasso, The Committee for the Defense of Pedro Gonzalez Island.
Romel Toker –47 years old, fisherman – was sent to the same cell a little later, in October 2016. He had traveled to the city by boat to sell snapper at the seafood market. Four plain-clothes guards were waiting for him. He didn’t even manage to deliver the fish to the buyer. “It was very ugly. There were prisoners who bit each other’s body parts, others stabbed each other every day… Very ugly, and one without having done anything. Very ugly,” he says.
And so on.
Edmundo Gonzalez – farmer, woodworker – tried to enter a shopping mall in a satellite city of the capital –La Chorrera– when some policemen asked him for his ID card. He was taken for a month to another scary jail: El Renacer. “It was a very sad thing. The cell got wet, the water got in through the floor,” he says. “There were only three beds there and we were five. We had to sleep on the floor.”
Lisandro Jimenez – 50 years old, alternate representative of the corregimiento – was caught on a trip to get food and gasoline. Naval air units detained him at the port, took him to a station in the center of the capital and kept him in a tiny room for ten days. It was in November 2016, just in time for national holidays. “From my cell I listened to the drums of the parades,” he says.
And so on.
Romel’s 27-year-old son, named after his father, was detained by five guards while working in Pedro Gonzalez. Pepper spray, handcuffs and imprisonment on another island in the archipelago.
The other inhabitants of the village were alarmed. Without trial, without possible defense, they decided to lock themselves in their homes.
“We were under island arrest. And here we are, prisoners in our own house,” says Lisandro Jimenez.
The airport is one of the points on the tour of the island’s ruins, where everything is a vestige of something that was. The main road by which you can get here used to be narrow and covered by the leaves of the trees, now it is wide, graveled and implacably sunny. The airstrip was a hill that drained the water, now it is the flattened line of pavement that Lisandro Jimenez walks on.
“Now, water barely flows through the three creeks,” says Lisandro with red eyes due to fury or tiredness. They are full of mud because of the sediment.
There were other airports on nearby islands of the archipelago, but the company was determined to build this one and spread a sediment like a black and oily lava that swallowed in its path roots, sand, lizards, corals, mangroves, the water used for washing and that fed the three creeks. That work, besides the dredging in another area of the island, affects marine species, coral reefs and, therefore, artisanal fishing: “We are talking about 44 hectares (an area of about 110 soccer fields) of dredging with a volume of 1.4 to 1.8 million cubic meters (414 Olympic swimming pools), which generate a large amount of suspended solid sediments and affect marine species,” said biologist Isaias Ramos from the Environmental Advocacy Center.
That so far: The control tower, the passenger terminal with customs, immigration and local airline offices have yet to be built. When operating, the issue will be the noise and the airplanes that will affect the pelican colony and the nesting of sea birds, according to the Environmental Impact Assessment. It will be forever and it will be growing: The project foresees an increase from 300 to 6100 inhabitants on the island. But Lisandro and his fellow members of the Committee do not talk about that, they talk about what they saw and lived.
“Many lizards died in the Playa Brava lagoon,” he says as he points to a spot where only the bush is visible.
When that happened – or when the sediments covered reefs or the stones on the beaches diminished because the company took them for some work – the members of the Committee filmed, took records and sent notes to the Ministry of Environment, but no one replied. In 2019, the consultant hired by the company told them off: Certain things had to be corrected. Did they do it? It is not known. Consulted by Concolon, the company said that it executed the plans as established in the Environmental Impact Assessment and the resolution that approved it. Did the Ministry of Environment go to inspect the work, as it should? It is not known either. It did not reply to queries from this media when information on the work inspections and a copy of the case file were requested, both by e-mail and by telephone.
“In this country, there is so little public information that you never know,” says Hector Guzman, the Smithsonian specialist who, along with other experts, managed to get Las Perlas declared a protected area in 2007. What Guzman does know is that there are no controls: “In the Las Perlas archipelago there is not a single permanent official from the Ministry of Environment or the Aquatic Resources Authority.” And the promoters also know this.
“In the Las Perlas archipelago there is not a single permanent official from the Ministry of Environment or the Aquatic Resources Authority.”Hector Guzman, the Smithsonian specialist.
Other things are known.
In more than a century of history, the Government has never had such a strong presence in Pedro Gonzalez as since the arrival of the Eleta Group.
The company delimited the community area according to its own criteria: The National Land Administration Authority rushed to grant 140 property titles to the inhabitants –as they said– with a “free and informed” process. It requested to endorse its land use plan: the national housing authority approved it in 2009. In 2015, when it wanted to “drive the implementation of social programs” on the island, Social Development Minister Alcibiades Vasquez Velasquez signed an agreement with the director of the Eleta Group, Guillermo de Saint Malo Eleta, to guarantee it. Then, it wanted to fulfill the promise of electricity: The electricity authority, the municipality and the concessionaire also rushed. The company wanted to guard its lands, then the border guards and military air and navy forces disembarked, and the mayor hung a poster in the village with the following warning: “The Municipal Mayor’s Office of Balboa will take the police measures legally applicable to any invasion, disturbance or demonstration that damages, impedes or in any way delays the works and construction located in private lands of the Pedro Gonzalez Island, by any person unconnected to the company.”
The Government was and is present but only to protect the interests of the company.
Why did a single company manage to take over an island, take on its beaches and the people constituted to alter their community, legal and natural order forever? Panama, the third most unequal country in the region according to the World Bank, has been like this since the constitution of the republic in 1904: The urban elite sealed a mercantilist project of nationhood, businessmen fill key positions in all governments and the State is skinny, disoriented and scrapped, which seems not to have the slightest idea of its role.
Examples are numerous. When the Ngäbe-Bugle people protested against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on their lands and rivers in the western part of the country in 2012, the government sent the National Border Service to shoot pellets and bullets that injured dozens and killed two. When activists and defenders like Yaritza Espinosa Mora marched through the national territory against the law that sought to eliminate environmental impact assessments for “social interest” works, the public forces, instead of guarding them, stalked them, spied on them and pushed them into hiding to prevent them from being detained.
Instead of safeguarding the environment and the rights of local communities, the Government favored a vision that brought about environmental and human damage; sometimes promoting it directly.
There are several examples of this. During the administration of Martin Torrijos, in 2006, a Deputy Minister of Commerce named Manuel Jose Paredes approved the Cerro Chorcha mining concession for a company owned by him. Then, in 2009, the administration of Ricardo Martinelli granted, with the opposition of an entire village and without the approved environmental impact assessment, a mining license to the Petaquilla Gold company. Its president, businessman and politician Ricardo Fifer, then cut down 55 hectares that were shelter for at least 650 endangered species of flora and fauna. The matter continued with a myriad of environmental damages, court rulings in favor of the company, and complaints against Fifer and Martinelli himself for allegedly manipulating stocks using confidential information.
In the middle of – or below- that, millions of people in the villages devastated by the business of a few.
Aware of this, the Human Rights Network, which brings together dozens of organizations, tried to find an authority for the defense of the villagers of Pedro Gonzalez in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2017. If no one listened to the defenders in Panama, maybe they would listen to an international organization based in Washington and attached to the Organization of American States (OAS).
The Network had previously visited the island and listened to everyone: The inhabitants, the authorities, the public forces, the company. Then, it published a report on the looting in which it suggested that the Government review the legality of the property title, the environmental impact assessment, the land use plan and the agreements between public entities and the company. “The State cannot allow establishing a governance based on the absolute power of the company, ignoring the community social power. Therefore, the terms of any negotiation must find in the institution of expropriation, the mechanism of adequacy, stability, social peace and community justice,” he concluded.
“The State cannot allow establishing a governance based on the absolute power of the company, ignoring the community social power”report on the looting, Red de Derechos Humanos.
For the Eleta Group, the 36-page report is full of “false and slanderous assertions.”
In an interview by Zoom platform last Friday, February 19, the vice president for public affairs and sustainability, Mercedes Morris, said that “For the community to benefit from the development, the shareholders made the wisest decision, but the hardest one, i.e. ‘we are not going to displace people.’” “Most were satisfied with the process,” she added. About those who complain, Morris said that they are a few, that they have “another agenda” and that the Network relied solely on their vision to prepare its report, even though it does include even an interview with the company’s project coordinator in the island. “The only source of information is a group of people who have a particular approach, which does not necessarily reflect the situation of the people. Our formal response was delivered to the Ombudsman’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office,” Morris said.
However, the IACHR listened to the islanders.
The first hearing on the criminalization and judicial harassment of ten Panamanian defenders, including those from the Committee for the Defense of Pedro Gonzalez Island, was on March 17, 2017. In Washington, Adriano Lasso concisely told them, “We have more than 300 years living on the island and we cannot reach our lands because they repress us”.
“We have more than 300 years living on the island and we cannot reach our lands because they repress us”Adriano Lasso, The Committee for the Defense of Pedro Gonzalez Island.
The IACHR then recommended something simple: listening.
It managed to get the Attorney General’s Office to drop the criminal case against the 37 islanders and a series of meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but not much more.
The Eleta Group then said what it stated in the interview with Concolon: That the entire process was carried out within the framework of the law, in accordance with the social environmental management plan approved by the authorities, that the inhabitants have access to the beaches because they are a collective good and, in relation to the complaints of human rights violations, that they submitted all the reports to the courts and the Ombudsman’s Office at the time.
Just four months after the hearing with the IACHR in Washington, in July 2017, the Eleta Group kicked off the construction of the Ritz Carlton Pearl Island Panama in the island. The partners, the family, several priests and President Juan Carlos Varela himself were there, whose administration was precisely being asked by the highest human rights body in the region to review the case.
Towards the end of the event, facing the sea, the shiny sand and under a movie-like sun, Varela said: “More than a story of business, it is a story of love, a story of commitment, a story of faith. And I am sure (that) this is going to be a great success story.”
He did not say a single word about the islanders who had lived there up to that moment and who were in the process of being evicted in order to achieve this business success.
If you skirt the island through the most emerald sea in the world, the view will be of a mountain made of rocks, underwater caves and cedar-like trees leaning over small beaches between rocks or open and wide, rocky or pebble beaches where iguanas bask in the sun.
“Here is a water cave with corvinas, shall we throw the line to see if fishes bite?” says Adriano Lasso, wobbling on the end of the boat, and then he throws a transparent and tight line that will come back in a few minutes with a fish. That’s Mero Point over there.
It is ten o’clock in the morning on a Monday in December, the sun is wildly blinding and we go to Don Bernardo beach by boat, as suggested by the security guard of the Eleta Group. Lincoln drives from the engine and Adriano goes over the names his ancestors gave to the beaches, the caves, any corner, all toponyms linked to nature or some characteristic: The point is called Mero because it is full of grouper fish (Mero in Spanish), the beaches are Brava (rough), Chiquita (small) or Blanca (white), for obvious reasons, and the lagoons are named after species like Lagarto (lizard). Don Bernardo was named after a hermit who lived there and is a legend in El Cocal.
When we arrive, Adriano and Lincoln walk on the corner that for them is an omnipresent symbol of love and dispossession. They advance to the fence that separates them from the fields where they came to spend the weekends when they were children, they say that so-and-so used to live there and so-and-so used to grow crops there. A few meters away, they see the company’s security guard advancing amid the heat of hell. After him, the guard of the public force. This time they don’t throw us out, they just guard us. Here, where there are kilometers of sand, mangroves and nothing to guard.
This corner where they used to swim and build castles, where they learned to fish snappers and, a little further up, to plant, will soon be a sequence of buildings, a hundred cabins with swimming pools and private terraces, 42 villas, six condominiums with 80 rooms and a club. Now, there is nothing but a fence, a watchman and a sign announcing it.
The forgotten island of happy life where the company is the law will soon no longer be called Pedro Gonzalez.
Now, it will be Pearl Island.