Panama: Indigenous Land Sold to Developers

Beachfront community in the Kusapín district of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé: Photo:Cañaveral

Large tracts of pristine coastal land in the remote Kusapín district of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé in western Panama have been sold to foreign developers.  An area of biological diversity with verdant forests, white sand beaches, and mangroves, Kusapín is located on the Caribbean coast – in 2004, its wetlands, an important nesting site for turtles, became a national reserve.  Indigenous Ngäbe families have lived on the land for generations, growing crops and fishing out at sea.  But now 2100 hectares of land have been sold to developers, including Costa Rican businessman and politician, Antonio Álvarez Desanti.

In 1997, after a long struggle, a comarca was awarded to the Ngäbe and the Buglé (a cultural similar but linguistically separate group numbering about 3000). Some 150’000 of the country’s 200’000 Ngäbe live in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé which encompasses 6968 squares kilometres of land, with three regions and seven districts.  Land within the Comarca is collective and protected by a law that deems it “unalienable.” But this law has not stopped comarcal land from being sold.


Acres of pristine beach have been bought by development companies. Photograph:

According to an investigative article in one of Panama’s national newspapers, La Prensa, the land was originally acquired through a process of “prescripción adquisitiva de dominio.”  This process allows occupants to apply for titles for privately held land if it has been occupied for a certain amount of time and the original owner agrees to the titling or their whereabouts is unknown. In Kusapín, the land was bought for just 3 cents per meter by three lawyers, Evisilda Martinez, her husband Francisco Antonio Castillo and Nisla Janeth Ortega. The land, which consists of eleven fincas, was then titled and sold for millions to eight different companies.  According to La Prensa, there were anomalies in the land sales with one issue being that the “prescripción adquisitiva de dominio” process, which should normally take years, took just a few months.

Four of the eleven fincas were sold to Desanti, president of Desarrollo Ecoturístico Cañaveral, for millions although the exact amount was undisclosed. Desarrollo Ecoturístico Cañaveral is investing some 40 million dollars into the 685 acres of beachfront land for a tourism project which will include hotels, condos, and houses and is currently seeking hotel chains and investors.  According to its website, “Cañaveral seeks to create a unique natural and cultural destination with a complete awareness of the fragility of our planet’s ecosystems and with the solemn purpose to preserve the cultural diversity of its surrounding communities.”

Map showing where Desarrollo Ecoturístico Cañaveral’s tourism project is to be built. Map: Cañaveral

Desanti told a Costa Rican newspaper, Dario Extra, that “the whole community consultation process is properly documented by the district authorities.”  But local Ngäbe resident Samuel Tugri told La Prensa that the community were outraged and felt deceived.  “They said they would make a program to help people, but they really wanted our signatures to sell [the land]. They lied to us and now we have realized this,” he said. Community members also reported that unlike those who had so quickly acquired land titles, they had been attempting to obtain titles for years without success.

La Prensa journalist Prieto-Barreiro Ereida claimed that Desanti could be taken to court. Speaking to Diario Extra, Desanti said that he bought the land in “good faith” and was unaware of any lawsuit against him. On July 27, a regional Ngäbe meeting will held in the Kusapín district of the Comarca to discuss the development project and by August 23, a decision will be taken as to whether the project will accepted or rejected by the local Ngäbe communities.



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