Panama: Police brutality signals impending storm over Barro Blanco hydroelectric project
“Last year, on the day that Jeronimo Rodriguez and Mauricio Méndez were killed, I was one of the injured.”
Luis Jimenez, a young Ngabe man who lives on the banks of the Tabasará river in western Panama, rolls up his trouser leg to reveal the scars of several old wounds. The ugly lacerations on his right calf have left him in pain and unable to walk to properly.
“I can’t work, I can’t walk, and I have my family to support and everything…”
Two years ago, Luis had accompanied this journalist on a research trip into the rugged hills and valleys of the Tabasará watershed, investigating the impacts of the controversial Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam. Today, he struggles to walk across the meeting hall.
Disturbingly, Luis is just one of many individuals who have suffered at the hands of the Panamanian police, who now freely assault protesters with rubber bullets, batons, tear gas, and shot-guns. He was crippled for daring to stand up for his rights, and for daring to defend the natural resources which his community has enjoyed for generations.
Based in an annex of the semi-autonomous Comarca Ngabe-Buglé, the Movimiento 10 de Abril (M10) is the front-line in a resistance movement that has successfully fought off hydroelectric development on the Tabasará river for more than 13 years.
Today, a Honduran-owned company, Generadora del Istmo (Genisa), is months away from completing the 28.85 megawatt dam that will destroy several indigenous communities and take food from the mouths of Panama’s most marginalized peoples. M10 are continuing to mount resistance, and as tensions escalate, fears of violent police reprisals are becoming reality.
Last Tuesday 19 March, riot squads attacked a protest camp at Vigui, close to the dam site in Veraguas province. Witnesses reported a sudden swarm of some 150 armed police, who descended on the 30-strong vigil before dusk. The police dispersed the protesters with bird-shot, tear gas, and rubber bullets, aggressively pursuing them as they fled into the hills of the Comarca.
The attack comes after confrontations the previous week, when three protesters were arrested, incarcerated, and allegedly beaten in police custody.
Protests over a range of civil, labour, and human rights issues have been gathering pace across Panama in recent months. Worryingly, police reactions to the unrest appear to be becoming ever more harsh and uncompromising. Panama’s security forces have long enjoyed the privilege of impunity and now seem to be running out of control.
Last year, tensions between the Ngabe-Buglé peoples and the Panamanian government reached a notorious and bloody climax. Three unarmed protesters, who had been peacefully expressing grievances over the Martinelli’s administration’s mining and energy policies, were shot and killed by police on the Panamerican Highway. The killings sparked national outrage and scenes of civil disturbance.
Following several days of conflict, peace agreements were finally negotiated between the government, the Cacica (Chief) of the Comarca, and Genisa. The so-called San Lorenzo accord included a series of steps aimed at resolving the long-standing conflict over Barro Blanco.
The first step included a UN field study, which reported its findings earlier this year. Their study proved conclusively that the project is set to inundate indigenous lands protected as part of the Comarca Ngabe-Buglé, directly impacting at least three communities and indirectly impacting scores more.
According to their measurements, the dam will create a 258 hectare reservoir, permanently flooding the communities’ most productive farmlands, numerous homes, a specialized Ngabere language school, a church, a cemetery, and several archaeological sites. It will also kill off the river’s diadromous fish and shrimp species, which form a staple of local diets.
None of these impacts have been included in Genisa’s environmental impact assessment, and none of the affected communities have provided their free, informed, and prior consent to the project. As such, Barro Blanco is an unlawful development.
The second part of the San Lorenzo accord demands the intervention of an independent expert to investigate the damages in more detail. Yesterday, Wednesday 20 March, the Panamanian government dismissed calls to suspend construction whilst the expert convenes, breaking the spirit of San Lorenzo. The project is currently 40% complete and without a halt to works it will cut off the river in a matter of weeks.
As the government and Genisa play for time, protesters are again preparing to take to the streets. Bloodshed can be avoided, but only if the police are brought to discipline, and only if Genisa, the government, and Barro Blanco’s markedly silent financial backers – the German Investment Corporation (DEG), the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO), and the Central American Development Bank – choose to respect the law.
Your solidarity and vigilance are requested at this difficult time.
‘No to the Dam’ – bus-stop graffiti on the Panamerican highway (Photo Richard Arghiris)
Press release to the country, Monday 18th March 2013, Comarca Ngäbe Bugle, M10
M10, in defense of water resources and the environment of the Ngäbe-Bugle Comarca
The April 10th Movement in Defense of the Tabasará River makes known to the country the decision about the situation of the communities affected by the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project. The government is violating Article 127 of the Constitution and the legislation of collective lands and the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca. In view of the expansion of the expert survey and the arbitrary advance and imposition of the Barro Blanco project on the part of the government; violating the spirit of the agreement of 15 March 2012 and the obtained [UN] field report, which is sufficient to immediately cancel the said project, we advise the following:
1. With respect to the damages caused by the Barro Blanco project, GENISA and the government argued that no communities would be affected, there would be no resettlements or damages caused to cultural heritage sites, cemeteries, and sacred sites. This ultimately led to the creation of a technical committee to review and evaluate the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as a matter of urgency and seriousness, recognising the responsibility of the company consultants in gathering the information for the EIA (Agreement signed on March 15, 2012).
2. As such, we demand the immediate cancellation of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project.
3. We also request the repeal of Bill 504 and the suspension of the hydroelectric projects in the Comarca and the annexed and campesino areas. For example, Chan 2, Tabasara 2, San Pablo, Rio Cobre, Vigui Strait, Rio Fonseca, Chorcha Rio, Rio San Felix Rey River and other projects intended for the country.
4. The affected communities hold the Dutch government and partner banks (FMO, DEG and BCIE) responsible for the social and environmental impacts, the impacts to Indigenous peoples' rights, and the repression that the people are suffering from the Panamanian government.
5. We ask for support from solidarity organizations from different parts of the nation to join in our struggle and to organize nationwide.
From the community of Cerro Venado, Community of Bakama at 11 hours a day March 17, 2013
April 10th Movement, Congress and Organizations
"Without struggle there is no victory"
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