Panama dam causes massive fish kill, devastates river communities

UN internal investigation reveals failure to follow social, environmental guidelines in Barro Blanco case
 

 Este artículo está disponible en español aquí The Tabasará River, one of the largest in Panama and a lifeline to the indigenous Ngäbe–Buglé people, was drained for maintenance work on the Barro Blanco Hydroelectric Dam in Western Panama last week, leaving thousands upon thousands of the river’s more than 30 varieties of fish and crustaceans to perish in the mud.

Ricardo Miranda, general coordinator of the April 10 Movement representing the affected communities, stood in the mud and debris just upstream of the dam and picked up a two-foot-long catfish, holding it aloft for the camera.

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“I want to take the opportunity to denounce (GENISA), the owner of the Barro Blanco Project,” the young leader declared for a local camerographer, who posted it to YouTube. “I also denounce the FMO Bank of Holland and the DEG Bank of Germany for financing a project like this, which has caused irreversible damage to the environment.”

Initial reports of the fish kill and photos that were sent out last week from the Ngäbe community of Kiad were initially discarded as false, said Miranda in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Panama’s environmental ministry, MiAmbiente, had sent staff to investigate the fish kill on Sunday, May 13. The agency confirmed in a press release that there had indeed been a fish kill, and that the company had advised of the need to lower the water level for maintenance work the week before, which had resulted in the death of the fish.

Miranda, who grew up on the Tabasará River with his family, now lives on the other side of the Ngäbe–Buglé Comarca, but he went to the river as soon as he heard the news. He arrived to find thousands of dying fish baking under the tropical sun. Coyotes feasted on the mounds of fish and one person gathered a few to take away. The river had been virtually emptied, leaving the aquatic population exposed in a vast expanse of mud, according to Miranda, who observed only a few shallow pools of water thick with mud remaining just above the dam.

MiAmbiente promised in the press release issued on Monday that “the surveillance of the site will be maintained in order to guarantee compliance with the regulations that apply to these events and that actions have been taken to ensure the normal development of natural resources in the area.”

MiAmbiente inspectors view the devastation, apparently from the platform of the dam. (Ministry of the Environment)

Five Ngäbe-Buglé communities live along the river and have consistently fought the dam since it was first proposed. When the river was flooded, it destroyed their food forest and the cacao and coffee crops they relied on for their sustenance. Thick clouds of mosquitos, once unknown to the area, became common. Fishing became much more difficult but was still possible. Now with the death of the fish, they are left with no protein source, said Miranda. Additionally the river, which they also rely on for water, is surrounded by 18 hectares of deep mud, and reaching the river to bathe or to cross over to go to the nearest town has become a nearly impossible ordeal.

Residents of the Ngäbe community of Kiad observe the fish dying in the river in front of their homes. Access to the river has become a daily ordeal for the community, who must cross it in order to leave their village. (Photo: Movimiento 10 Abril)

The government has offered to pay the communities to relocate but the community of Kiad in particular has refused – not only on principal but because the adjacent area and the community itself is a sacred site, home to several collections of prehistoric petroglyphs that were the site of ceremonial gatherings where the Ngäbe–Buglé people have traditionally connected with their ancestors.

“Obviously when you see this situation, you feel a very great helplessness because this whole situation is what we warned of,” said a distraught Miranda. “Then when we enter we see an ecological disaster at the mercy of the presence of a company whose only interest is to profit, causing irreversible damage and death, both animals and also to the people — because this is an assault on the food source of the who live here.”

The draining of the river came in the final days of the public comment period for the draft report by the Social and Environmental Compliance Unit (SECU) established to monitor the impacts of UNDP-related activities. The draft report concluded that the United Nations Development Program had violated its own protocols in the dialog process meant to defuse the decade-long conflict surrounding the Barro Blanco Dam. The projects, mainly a series of roundtable discussions held in 2015 and 2016 and a program aimed at supporting reforms within the principal government agency in charge of the Barro Blanco project, were funded at a cost of more than $66 million USD.

The report was a response to the formal complaint filed on Aug. 22, 2017, by the April 10 Movement, which represents the communities affected by the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project on the Tabasará River. A final report will be issued upon receipt and analysis of public commentary.

Residents of the affected community of Kiad, one of three indigenous Ngäbe Buglé communities flooded by the dam, reviewed the report on their mobile phones from the sludge-covered banks of their sacred Tabasará River. Since the floodgates closed more than a year ago and destroyed the community’s agricultural base and many homes, residents have struggled to eke out a living, plagued with mosquitos from the stagnant lake and facing a major ordeal each time they need to leave the community due to the flooding of their roads.

“We have already read the report and in general terms we agree,” said April 10 Movement leader Adelaida Miranda (Weni Bagama, by her Ngäbe name). “The report makes a full analysis on how the process was … it is not only an official report but those people came to the area and did interviews. They saw the situation of the reservoir and then they included that in the report. We agree, of course, this does not solve anything, but at least we agree where the SECU admits that the United Nations did not fulfill its part that it was supposed to have played.”

Ngäbe leader Weni Bagama surveys the damage to her community of Kiad and surrounding areas from the flooding caused by Barro Blanco Dam in February 2017. (Photo: Tracy L. Barnett)

The Findings of the draft report from SECU included the following:

  • The UNDP Panama Country Office did not apply the required environmental and social screening procedures to the projects in question.
  • UNDP did not prepare a stakeholder analysis and stakeholder engagement plan prior to the Roundtable dialogue, as required for UNDP engagements with the Indigenous Peoples – engagements that pose at least moderate (and likely significant) risks for both communities and UNDP.
  • UNDP did not meet requirements for due diligence, transparency, consultation/consent and Indigenous Peoples’ rights after the Roundtable Dialogue was concluded around June 2015. UNDP, for example, did not ensure consistency with the cautions and findings of the UN Special Rapporteur, including cautions that inadequate consultation and consent processes were the source of most issues and problems regarding respect for and protection of indigenous rights, and measures necessary to ensure respect for those rights.

Dr. Donaldo Sousa, president of the Association for Environmental Rights in Panama City, said the draft report appears to validate the lawsuit his association filed in 2016 against all of those implicated in the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project, including the company, government officials and non-governmental officials such as the PNUD – which was the first and only criminal lawsuit against a hydroelectric dam project in Panama to date.

“This report clearly shows that this complaint that we introduced was well founded, and that this project should have been suspended by the public as a precautionary measure for the damage it was likely to cause, and they did not do so. The problem is that it had the support of international organizations as important as the United Nations Development Program, which has been a determining element in this whole matter; but the impunity and corruption that exists in this country has also been decisive, as have been the economic interests that have been placed ahead of the environment, once again destroying the ecosystem and especially impacting in a violent way the communities that live there.”

To Weni Bagama and her family, each day has become an ordeal, but they have no intention of giving up.

“We stand behind our struggle,” said Bagama. “To the United Nations we ask for an apology and we also ask the national authority to cancel that project because right now we are walking around here seeing the disaster that the dam has caused … We continue forward in the struggle, because the fight is not over.”

Leader Weni Bagama (right) was among those arrested during protests of the Barro Blanco Dam. (Photo: Oscar Sogandares)