Panama's Indigenous Peoples: Paying the price for hydro
Panama, a country the size of Ireland, is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. Snaking between Costa Rica and Colombia the country is a verdant little isthmus with virgin rainforests, cloud and tropical dry forests, and mangroves, as well as 480 rivers. But, with over 80 more hydro projects slated for completion by 2016, 54 of which will be on just four river basins, dam development is compromising these rivers and the Indigenous communities which rely on them.
Touted as 'clean energy,' large dams (defined as being over 15 metres in height) are big business. There are now some 48,000 'large' dams worldwide. According to a 2012 report in Hydro World, dam and hydro markets have seen considerable growth since 2005 and predicts through to 2020 an annual growth between three and eight percent. From India to Brazil to Panama, dam development is seen as an answer to growing energy problems while being propagated as essential for economic growth. Hydro power constitutes approximately 54% of Panama's total energy.
But, dam development has been met globally with fierce opposition from Indigenous and farming communities whose livelihoods depend upon rivers. In 1998, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) was created in response to repeated calls from anti-dam activists and NGOs for an independent review. Established by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the main aims of the WCD were to review the effectiveness of large dams and to develop universal criteria for their design, planning, and construction.
In November 2000, the WCD published the most comprehensive, independent report on large dams to date, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making. The WCD concluded that whilst dams have indeed contributed to human development and the benefits are substantial, all too often “an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment”.
Last year, IC visited three large hydroelectric projects in Panama; one of which was a 223-megawatt dam on the Changuinola River in the humid low lands of Bocas del Toro, a province which borders neighboring Costa Rica. The dam, completed in 2011, created a 14-kilometre reservoir, displacing 1,000 Indigenous Ngäbe and inundating acres of fertile land. After interviewing over a dozen Ngäbe affected by the project, a picture of poverty, marginalization, food insecurity, and community dislocation emerged.
One woman, Carolina Santos, a Ngäbe Elder from Guayabal, one of inundated communities, said she was forced to flee from her home when the company flooded the land in 2011. Her former house, a small wooden hut with a thatched roof, now sits half submerged in the water surrounded by rotting debris. Carolina is just one of millions who has been displaced by dam development; the WCD estimates that between 40 and 80 million people worldwide have been forcibly relocated by dams. And between 400 and 800 million people, approximately 10% of humanity, have lost land and homes to the canals, irrigation schemes, roads, power lines and industrial developments that accompany these projects.
In Panama's Chiriqui province, another group of Ngäbe is struggling to put a stop to dam construction on the Tabasará River. At 28.84 megawatts, the Barro Blanco dam is comparatively small, but its impact will be no less disastrous for the communities living on the banks of the river. GENISA, the company responsible for the project, has failed to recognize the project's impact, publicly stating that no communities will be affected; a fact vehemently disputed by the communities themselves.
GENISA's failure to acknowledge the impacts of the dam is not unique. The WCD report, which analyzed eight case studies, found that project assessments “failed to account for all the people, resulting in 2,000-4,000 people being undercounted”. Another report by the World Bank revealed: “The actual number of people to be resettled was 47% higher than the estimate made at the time of the appraisal.”
The Naso, another Indigenous population in Panama, has also felt the impact of a project on their land, which has caused intense social conflict within the community as well as desecrating an area of cultural importance. As for the Ngäbe on the Changuinola River, another project is planned, which will impact more communities upstream as well as causing further environmental damage.
The WCD report looked at how dam development impacts upon the local environment, such as the effects on fisheries, and the failure of dam developers to put into place appropriate mitigation measures. The report states: “Substantial losses in downstream fishery production as a result of dam construction are reported from around the world.” But in Panama a decrease in fish stocks is felt both upstream and downstream because several of the fish and shrimp species are migratory. The fish need to travel to the sea from the upper reaches of the rivers in order to breed--and the construction of dams creates an insurmountable barrier. None of the large dam developers in Panama have put in place promised mitigation measures, such as fish steps. But, according to the WCD report, the use of fish passages has in fact been met with “little success”. The loss of aquatic species from Panamanian rivers harms the local environment and compromises the livelihoods of riverside communities.
Environmental damage is also caused by communities who have lost land and find themselves forced to find other areas to practice agriculture, putting pressure on natural resources. In the case of the Chan 75 dam, some Ngäbe families, desperate for farmland, have begun moving into protected areas. Pristine forest has been destroyed as a direct result of the Ngäbe losing their land to dam development.
Another important issue brought to light by the WCD, was the global environmental impact of large dams. The WCD stated that “Reservoirs [created by large dam projects] are a significant contributor to climate change, and that hydropower schemes in some cases may have a greater impact on global warming than fossil fuel power stations.” Research suggests that organic matter, decomposing vegetation and soil, in shallow reservoirs in warm tropical areas emits large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and that even after the vegetation is fully decomposed, gases continue to be released. And yet hydro development is promoted as a 'green' alternative to fossil fuel.
Both the human and environmental cost of large dam development is undeniable. And communities will continue to defend their livelihoods, environments and resources, staunchly resisting destructive dam development projects. Although dam developers and governments insist that local communities benefit from these projects, the reality on the ground in Panama suggests the opposite: communities are plunged further into poverty, environments are destroyed and irreparable harm is caused. As one witness who is living in the wake of the Chan 75 project said: “The government and the company [AES] promised development but instead they have created a disaster.” These communities are living sustainably, using the least amount of energy and contributing the least to climate change and yet, they are the ones who are paying the highest price.