Panama’s Indigenous Peoples: Paying the price for hydro
Barro Blanco dam in focus ⬿

Panama’s Indigenous Peoples: Paying the price for hydro

The Chan 75 Dam (Photo: Richard Arghiris)
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January 16, 2014

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.

Carolina's House (Photo: Richard Arghiris)

Carolina’s House (Photo: Richard Arghiris)

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.

Fishing for shrimp in the Tabasara  (Photo: Jennifer Kennedy)

Fishing for shrimp in the Tabasara (Photo: Jennifer Kennedy)

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.

(Photo Richard Arghiris)

(Photo Richard Arghiris)

Box-out: Case study

Chan 75 hydroelectric project
and the dislocation of a community

The Ngäbe are Panama’s largest Indigenous group with a population of about 200,000 and over half of these people live in a semi-autonomous region, the Comarca Ngäbe-Bugle. Outside the Comarca, most Ngäbe communities are scattered throughout western Panama, and in the Bocas del Toro province there are dozens of riverside communities living on the banks of the Changuinola River. These communities have traditionally survived by working small farm plots, hunting in the forest, and fishing in the river.

In 2006, everything changed when the Panamanian government granted a concession to AES Corporation, a US-based energy global company, to build a 223 megawatt dam on the Changuinola River. In 2007, after repeated complaints against the company for allegedly employing coercive and manipulative techniques, the communities petitioned to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2008, local police were accused of committing human rights violations in order to protect the project and to ensure that construction continued without disruption.

In June 2009, James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, visited the affected communities, condemning the Panamanian government and AES for violating the Ngäbes’ rights. In October 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights requested that Panama halt all construction of Chan 75. The request was ignored. Some families began negotiating for compensation but not all people had secured an agreement with the company. Despite an urgent action request from Amnesty International, in June 2011, AES opened the dam and inundated the area.

It has been over two years since the completion of the dam and according to witnesses, not one of the four promised resettlement communities is 100% complete. Several Ngäbe are still without new homes. AES has backtracked on its earlier agreement to build one of the four communities, Guayabal. At least 27 families lived in Guayabal, and they are refuting AES’s claim that the families decided to live in other communities. Several Ngäbe who signed compensation agreements are still waiting for their payments and are living in substandard conditions. The Ngäbe communities have been struggling to survive since the inundation. Residents have lost land, are unable to access their farms due to lack of affordable transportation, or have been forced onto poor land, unsuitable for cultivation.

Box-out: Case study

Hydro project divides a nation

The Naso has one of the last remaining monarchies in the Americas and there are some 3,000 Naso living in 11 riverside communities which border the UNESCO World Heritage site, La Amistad. This rainforest dwelling nation has relied upon and protected the surrounding forest for generations. Their traditions include fishing, hunting, traditional medicine, and bush craft, and the river, called Tjer Di in the Naso language–which translates into English as Grandmother River–is held in great reverence. But for the last three decades the influence of Hispanic culture has slowly been eroding Naso traditions.

One of the biggest threats has come from the construction of the 30-megawatt Bonyic hydroelectric dam. The Bonyic project, due to be completed in early 2014, made international news in 2006. The former king, Tito Santana, cut a deal with the company, Públicas de Medellín (EPM) and agreed to the hydroelectric dam being built on the Bonyic River in Naso territory. Tito made a deal with EPM without first consulting his people. When the community found out, it divided them. The disgraced Tito was exiled to the nearby town of El Sliencio and replaced by his uncle, Valetin, during an election in 2006, but the Panamanian government refused to recognize the resolutely anti-dam Valetin. Another election took place in 2011 and Alexis Santana, who also opposed the hydroelectric project, was voted in.

The dam has been an ongoing source of friction within the community. For example, in September 2012, protests occurred at the site’s access road which was blocked by about 50 Naso. Some protestors were alarmed by the destructive way in which EPM was proceeding, while others were fed up of waiting for promised compensations. Faith in the new king began to wane and tensions began to mount.

And, in August 2013, a coup d’etat was close to occurring in the Naso nation. A small group of Naso, predominately made up of those most impacted by the project, called for King Alexis Santana to stand down and for all compensation agreements made with EPM to be revoked. But, there are other Naso who support the project, arguing that the project has provided much needed employment for the community. The situation remains tense and uncertain with the possibility of government plans for a further three dams in Naso territory.

Box-out: Case study

Indigenous communities resist against
destructive hydro project

In western Panama, in the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca several riverside communities are fighting the construction of a 28.58 megawatt dam on the Tabasará River.

The company building the dam, GENISA, has received a total of $78.3 million in loans from three development banks: the Dutch FMO, the German DEG, and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CBIE). And, in 2011, the project was approved by the UN Carbon Setting Scheme.

According to GENSIA’s website, no communities will be displaced or impacted by the dam. But the resistance movement, Movimeinto Diez de Abril para la Defensa del Río Tabasará (Movement April 10 in English and known as M10), formed by Ngäbe community members, argue that this is completely false. They state that the project will directly impact four communities and indirectly harm many more.

A UN report, released in 2012, confirmed that the completion of the project and the subsequent creation of a 258 hectare reservoir will flood six homes, a school and cultural centre, farmland, and destroy several hectares of gallery forest. Communities will lose the use of the river for fishing, bathing, and swimming.

The report recommended that a further specialist study be conducted. But despite the UN report’s findings, GENISA continues to construct the project with the support of the Panamanian government which has itself publicly stated that the project will neither be cancelled nor suspended. The project is estimated to be completed in early 2014. M10 have vowed to continue fighting the project.

In early November, a group of Ngäbe traveled to Panama City to protest on the steps of the Supreme Court of Justice. They demanded to know why the project was approved based on an inaccurate Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The demonstrators also wanted to know why their lawsuit, launched on their behalf by the Environmental Advocacy Centre of Panama (CIAM), had stalled. In 2011, CIAM brought a case against the Panamanian government, challenging the EIA’s validity. But, despite its urgent nature, the case is still pending.

In December, an M10 spokesperson, Ricardo Miranda, sent the message that the Ngäbe remain committed to fighting for their rights and social welfare, and that any development must be sustainable and a benefit to all.

Panama’s dam development threatens world heritage site

La Amistad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and bi-national park shared between Panama and Costa Rica is one of nature’s ‘crown jewels’. Panama is land bridge between the North and South America and because of this it has a high number endemic species, many of which live in La Amistad. The park, which hosts one of the highest mountain ranges in Central America, the Talamanca, is a place of diverse landscapes.

But dam construction is putting the biodiversity of the UNESCO World Heritage site in serious jeopardy. At least three dams in the Panama portion of the park are in the advanced stages of planning and construction for the Changuinola River and the Bonyic River. None of the dams are actually inside the park but hydroelectric development is damaging the river systems that form the park’s watersheds.

Dr. William McLarney, an aquatic biologist and director of the Costa Rica Environmental non-profit organization, Asociación ANAI, says: “Even though you don’t set a foot in La Amistad, if you build a dam downstream you affect biodiversity within La Amistad because of the importance of diadromous [migratory fish] life forms.” This is because these fish species migrate between fresh and salt water, breeding in the mouth of the river and then travelling upstream as part of their life cycle. Dam construction threatens to interrupt this life cycle.

The loss of fish affects the biodiversity of the local ecosystem. For example, Osvaldo Jordan, director of the Panamanian environmental organization, Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD) says: “The removal of migratory fish from the food chain in the upper parts of La Amistad because of the high level of endemism in La Amistad for amphibians, reptiles, and even some birds and mammals is extremely concerning.”

The loss of aquatic life also negative impacts Indigenous communities who rely upon river to provide fish, which is sometimes their only source of protein.

In 2008, ANAI and Panamanian environmental organization, Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD) alerted UNESCO to the impact of dam development. At beginning of this year, January 2013, UNESCO sent a second fact-finding mission to La Amistad and in June, it decided that the park did not need to be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, stating that the current threats do not justify the property’s inclusion on the list. But it did note that if there any further development projects (including hydroelectric), then the property’s inscription on the list would most likely be warranted. And with the possibility of at least one more project being constructed in the watershed, the property’s inscription on the list could happen in the near future.

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