Panama’s Indigenous resist hydroelectric projects

Panama’s Indigenous resist hydroelectric projects

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October 4, 2007

As part of a massive effort to wean Panama off it’s dependence on foreign energy, there are currently over 90 hydroelectric projects slated for development throughout the country.

Of course, not all of them will be pursued, but then several will–including some that seriously threaten Panama’s indigenous People; for starters, the Ngobe and Naso.

The Changuinola project
“I will not go” says Isabel. “If the company wants to send police to kill me, go ahead.”

The Changuinola project, according Isabel Becker and other Ngobe living in Charco la Pava, Panama, “will displace thousands of villagers and create a 3,500-acre lake in a wilderness area bordering Central America’s largest tract of virgin rain forest.” In slight contrast, AES, the Virginia-based power company behind the project, comfortably asserts that only 140 families would be relocated, and that there is really no cause for concern because they would be well compensated.

Whatever the case, there is another concern which cannot be passed off so lightly. Isabel Becker and two family members tell a story about how “AES employees in Panama City badgered [Isabel] to relinquish the rights to her land, holding her in a meeting room for more than 12 hours.” Then, after midnight, “she affixed her thumbprint to a document surrendering the rights to her property in return for $9,500, plus a $100 monthly payment that will continue until Becker has established a new farm to feed her family.” The document was written in Spanish, but Isabel only speaks Ngobe and cannot read or write.

With that in mind, I should point out that AES likes to think of itself as an active member of the communities in which they work… Is this the kind of member you want in your community?

The Ngobe don’t, that much is clear. In a letter to AES (pdf), the Ngobe implore the corporation and its shareholders to cancel the dam projects; asking them, “Will you facilitate the elimination of our lifestyles … Will you allow the flooding of our homes and families?” The letter was signed by 144 people, representing many from the villages which would be flooded.

The Bonyic hydroelectric project
“My people have grown here. We have lived here. And we will die here.”

The Bonyic hydroelectric project is another which threatens Indigenous people–specifically the Naso (Teribe). Three years ago the Naso staged a coup against their Leader, then-king Tito Santana, for supporting the 30-megawatt dam that would drastically alter their lives and territory–causing deforestation, decreasing the water and air quality as well as in animal populations, and most definitely bring an influx of settlers and future development.

Tito Santana is no longer in power, despite the attempt by Riot Police to force him back in, but the project is still slated to go ahead.

The Leader of the Naso today, King Valentin Santana, is clearly more in line with the People. He says “I must fight for the land so that our children, in the future, will have a place,” vowing to protest against the project. “My people have grown here. We have lived here. And we will die here.”

Both of these hydroelectric projects are widely opposed by the people, as well as by several public-interest groups around the world. In fact, there are currently more than 50 indigenous and environmental groups representing over a million people demanding AES withdraw from these projects, because the threats they will impose are serious and immediate.

If you would like to express your opposition to these development projects, please head over to and fill out the petition.

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