Hydro-dam exiles one of Latin America's last kings

SEIYIK, Panama (Reuters) - Tito Santana, one of the last tribal kings in the Americas, has been driven into exile from his lands deep in the Panamanian jungle by a fight over a hydroelectric project that has divided his tiny kingdom.

King Tito, 40, heads the Naso tribe -- one of just a handful of native groups in Latin America that has a royal inheritance system recognized by a civilian government.

But some members of his royal family have turned against Tito after he sanctioned the building of a hydro-electric plant on a pristine river in tribal territory in western Panama, causing a rift among the some 2,500 Naso.

“Many of us are opposed to a king who, for us, is selling our society without any thought for tomorrow,” said Eduardo Santana, a nephew of Tito.

In 2004, Tito agreed to let Panama’s government and Colombian firm Empresas Publicas de Medellin, or EPM, build a $50 million plant to harness the power of the River Bonyic, which flows by the Naso’s wood and palm-thatch huts built on stilts.

The tribe’s general assembly accused Tito of putting his own interests first. It drove him into exile and installed his uncle, Valentin Santana, as the new king.

Police were deployed to the jungle to prevent violence and Tito fled with hundreds of followers to a small settlement near the village of El Silencio where the Naso make a living farming bananas and cocoa and carving tourist trinkets.

“There are people who are against this project, I know this is not positive,” said Tito, who still dons his green parrot-feather crown and carries his ceremonial spear.

The Naso king is recognized by the Panamanian government as the tribe’s maximum authority and its legal representative in discussions with outsiders. The government rejected Tito’s ouster and still recognizes him as rightful monarch, referring to him as “Rey Tito” (King Tito) in official documents.

Tito is now considering a referendum on his rule.

“I am thinking about an election. Let’s have the community decide whether I continue or not. If they want another king, then be my guest,” said Tito, sitting in the shade of his hut.

Many of the 400 residents of the Naso capital Seiyik, which lies three hours by dugout canoe up a shallow river, are furious that the government and EPM are still talking to Tito.

Eduardo Santana, a grandson of Valentin, says Tito no longer deserves to be ruler of the Naso. “For four years he has not been here,” he said, referring to his exile.


Monarchies have had a checkered history in Latin America, where Spanish and Portuguese colonial kings ordered bloody conquests, enslaving natives and sacking their resources.

Since independence swept the region in the 1800s, monarchs have been rare. Emperor Pedro I and his son Pedro II ruled Brazil until 1889 and Emperor Maximilian briefly led Mexico in the 19th century before being executed.

Most non-sovereign monarchies have also ceased to exist, like the succession of indigenous Miskito kings in Nicaragua’s coastal swamps who lost their throne in the late 1800s.

In Bolivia, however, King Julio Pinedo, heir to a centuries-old Congolese tribal monarchy, became the first Afro-Bolivian monarch to be officially recognized, albeit on a regional government level, when he was crowned in 2007 as king of some 30,000 Bolivian descendants of African slaves.

Panama’s Naso monarchy has survived for millennia, and this is the first serious challenge to a king in recent history.

Bulldozers are already clearing jungle to make way for access roads to the hydro-electric project.

The government, facing countrywide power shortages, strongly backs the plant, and the Inter-American Development Bank says it will help develop an impoverished region.

Tito says it will provide jobs and infrastructure, and help Naso farmers to take crops to market. Project backers are also promising university scholarships to Naso students.

But royal rival Valentin and his supporters say the project will destroy the tribe’s traditional way of life and doubt the benefits will make up for the environmental and cultural blow.

In Seiyik, barefoot children run among butterflies and chatter in Naso, one of a group of semi-tonal languages that linguists say were once spoken from Honduras to Colombia, but are now only found in isolated pockets of Central America.

Pointing to the jungle, which teems with birds, reptiles and jaguars, Eduardo Santana says: “We are part of nature and if we do not look after it, who will?”

Editing by Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray