The National Law Journal
The isolated, subsistence existence of the Naso Teribe of Panama — the last monarchy in the Western Hemisphere — is far removed from the now hectic, high-stakes, life of a big firm bankruptcy lawyer and complex construction litigator. But an expanded pro bono effort at their firm has thrust both lawyers into a strange old world to wage a new-world land-claim battle on an international stage in the face of government resistance and impending energy development.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld hired Steven H. Schulman in 2006 as the firm’s first, full-time pro bono partner, and with that move transformed the firm’s pro bono effort, said firm members. Although the firm continues a strong pro bono tradition of assistance to local groups in need, having a full-time, pro bono coordinator has helped to expand the effort to high-profile international cases.
The firm’s lawyers today are doing work in Bolivia and advising the president of Liberia on educational matters. But it was a call for help from the Montana-based Environmental Defender Law Center, which helps individuals and communities in developing countries who are fighting against harm to their environment, that led bankruptcy lawyer Patrick Ivie, counsel in Los Angeles, and construction associate C. Keanin Loomis in Washington, on an odyssey into the land of the Naso indigenous people and the property rights law and politics of Panama. The roughly 3,500 Naso people live in 11 communities along the Teribe River in a remote, mountainous and pristine jungle region rich in ecological biodiversity.
What the Nasos want and hope the Akin Gump lawyers will get them is a “comarca” — a reservation recognizing the Naso claim to its land. Unlike many countries in Latin America, Panama has not created a legal mechanism by which indigenous groups can obtain title to their land. Instead, the government has passed laws creating comarcas for some groups, but not others. “The government doesn’t want to grant any more comarcas,” said Loomis, who is coordinating litigation strategy, while Ivie coordinates lobbying efforts.
The government justifies its resistance by citing the Naso’s small population and large amount of land sought. But Loomis said the government doesn’t want to “lock in the land” for the Naso because, though remote, it is close to a very popular tourist destination along the coast and it is a prime location for a planned hydroelectric dam. A road would be built through Naso territory, bringing migration and other changes, he said, adding, “The big issue is controlling their land and having political autonomy.”
Loomis and Ivie coordinate a core team of five to six mid-level and senior associates operating on three fronts, said Ivie: lobbying the Panama government; lobbying with the World Bank, which has been pursuing a land titling project in Panama; and litigation. The lawyers have been to Panama twice this year, once on a canoe trip upriver to meet their clients who, they were told, highly value face-to-face relationships. “They have had a lot of international [non-governmental organizations] try to advocate their cause, but they always found interest in their case waned and nothing happened,” said Loomis. “They were skeptical of us in the beginning.”
The team has met with government officials and lobbied the dam construction company, which is already experiencing some violent clashes between the Naso and dam supporters. The lawyers also have joined other groups in a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, on the property rights of indigenous people. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” said Ivie, noting that the team is working to get all parties to agree to a professional mediator’s help. “If we’re able to accomplish that, it will be a huge step.” Loomis added that the team also is prepared to file a formal petition with the Inter-American Commission charging Panama with violation of the Naso’s human rights if necessary.