With massive infrastructure projects such as the Panama City Metro and the Panama Canal expansion underway, Panama is on the brink of exceeding its national electricity capacity.
There is little prospect of tapping natural gas or geothermal energy, and wind farms are in their infancy. Rather, Panama has invested in hydroelectric energy projects, including the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam, currently under construction in western Panama.
The Panamanian company Generadora del Istmo S.A., known as Genisa, operates Barro Blanco. Genisa Executive Vice President Aldo Lopez and Renewable Projects Director Julio Lasso are two of the faces behind the project. From their office in Panama City’s luxurious Costa del Este business district, they paint Barro Blanco as an opportunity to usher development into a rural sector of Panama.
Many local politicians, activists and peasants don’t share that vision. They have criticized nearly every aspect of the project – its socioeconomic benefits, environmental impact and local consultation process. The most vocal objection comes from Panama’s largest indigenous group, the Ngäbe-Buglé, who oppose the project even though the construction site lies outside their semi-autonomous region, known as the Comarca.
Justo Jimenez belongs to the Ngäbe activist group Movimiento 10 de Abril (M10) that is leading the charge to halt Barro Blanco. His village of Quebrada Caña is tucked away in the foggy hills of the Comarca. Villagers depend on subsistence agriculture and have no access to electricity or paved roads. Their humble lifestyles have remained unchanged for centuries – a lifestyle Jimenez says is threatened by Genisa’s ambitions to exploit their river.
“What we want is for the project to be canceled completely because our way of life depends on the benefits of that river,” said Jimenez.
The Consultation of Convenience
One of the most controversial aspects of Barro Blanco is that locals claim the Panamanian government didn’t consult local communities prior to the project’s approval. Ngäbe and non-indigenous residents near the dam reinforce this claim.
“Us peasants and indigenous people do not oppose these projects, but they must be projects that are consulted with the people, as established by the norms of the rights of indigenous people through the United Nations,” said teacher David Noriega.
Under Panamanian law a public forum is required to fulfill an environmental impact assessment. Genisa claims they advertised their February 2008 forum through newspaper, radio, fliers and posters.
“We were not invited to that forum,” said M10 member Weni Bagama. She says Genisa did not host a public forum inside the Comarca. “We do not accept that as an acceptable public consultation.”
In July 2013, United Nations Special Rapporteur James Anaya visited the Comarca and met community members to discuss alleged human rights violations. Based on his preliminary findings he wrote the following:
“The Ngäbe people should have been properly consulted before granting the concession of the hydroelectric project.”
Panama is one of the few Latin American nations that has not signed Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization establishing the principle of free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people for the use of their natural resources. Although Comarca law mentions the consultation and participation of indigenous people over the use of their natural resources, the principle of prior, free and informed consent is not explicitly stated.
“Another important step forward for the recognition of the rights of the indigenous people would be the ratification of the Convention No. 169 of the International Labor Organization,” wrote Anaya.
“We are a company who respects the Panamanian law, and we have obeyed them fully. Not only that, we have gone beyond our laws and have been one step ahead,” said Lasso.
Genisa’s history of signing cooperation agreements with Comarca elected authorities has also been criticized. In 2008, Lopez signed an agreement with the Cacique General (Comarca General Chief) Maximo Saldaña, for the use of territory they anticipate will be flooded by the dam construction. Many Ngäbe, including elected leaders, say Saldaña never consulted affected communities before signing.
“He signed an agreement without doing a citizens' consultation, which is a part of the process,” said Regional Congressman Julian Caballeros.
According to Lasso, M10 was not satisfied with the terms of the agreement, and Genisa renewed the agreement in 2011. This time instead of settling matters with the new Cacique General, Genisa renewed the agreement with the Regional Congress of the communities to be affected.
“It was a secret vote that was completely isolated from Genisa,” said Lopez. “The results were positive and they showed that a strong majority wanted to continue the project.” In August 2011, Genisa and Regional Congress of Kadriri President Reicilia Mendoza signed the renewed agreement. Caballeros said he was excluded from the negotiations of that renewed agreement.
“Indeed, there was a bribe offered to the President of the Congress,” said Caballeros. He identified former Vice Minister of Government Luis Ernesto Carles as somebody who did not allow him to enter a meeting where the Regional Congress agreed to the new terms. “On the day they did that maneuver they didn’t allow me to enter the meeting room, because they knew I wasn’t going to allow it.”
“An agreement with the Regional Congress is completely irrelevant to the process of approval of a large development project according to international standards, national legislation and Ngäbe customary law,” said Osvaldo Jordan, a specialist in ethnic politics . He said that only the Comarca General Congress has the authority to sign such an agreement. Genisa claims the Comarca General Congress ratified their agreement.
“On December 29, 2011, ratification of this approval was achieved. Both documents rest in the files of the signatories and have been presented, and will be presented upon request, to the relevant authorities,” wrote Genisa publicist Barbara Soto. When a copy of the ratification was requested from Genisa to confirm its existence, they did not comply.
A Green Project Under Fire
“The principal objective of the project is to satisfy the current national necessity for electric energy, and all that through renewable energy,” said Lasso. Hydroelectric dams offer countless environmental benefits: a reduction in greenhouse gases, less dependence on fossil fuels, water is a renewable resource and dams have a long lifespan.
On paper, Barro Blanco will have a minimal environmental impact on the Comarca. According to the project’s environmental impact assessment, only 6.7 hectares of Comarca territory will be flooded, accounting for only 2.27 percent of the project’s total land use. Genisa claims that nobody living in the Comarca will need to be displaced.
Many Ngäbe are skeptical of the environmental impact assessment and insist the dam’s reservoir will flood their homes and crops. They say that they barely saw topographical teams surveying their villages.
“They passed through like a breeze, but without consulting the community,” said villager Jose Carpintero.
National and international environmental organizations have also attacked the Barro Blanco environmental impact assessment. A pending 2011 lawsuit filed by the Panama Environmental Advocacy Center (CIAM) is challenging the approval of the assessment. A 2012 UN Development Project (UNDP) report states that Ngäbe villages will lose arable land to the dam’s reservoir.
Downstream from the project, non-indigenous residents have noticed that construction has caused sedimentation in the Tabasará River. Local fishermen say they no longer see the same variety of fish.
“I was at the Tabasará in the middle of the dry season, and it was like this layer of mud that closed the banks, where the stones are, and the water was dirty,” said Noriega.
Lasso claims that an independent laboratory tests the water quality at regular intervals.
“It is absolutely prohibited for any of our contractors or personnel to throw any sort of waste in the river,” said Lopez.
“In my opinion it is contaminated, because there is a lot of waste that goes directly into the river,” said an unnamed Barro Blanco worker.
Grand Development Project, Minimal Development Benefits
Genisa has allocated 20 percent of their revenue from carbon credits to local community development projects. Mayor of the district of Tolé, Humberto Marroni, says that while he welcomed the project with open arms, the impact of the company’s community development projects have so far been insignificant.
“The concession contract with the government did not include a long term social development plan,” said Marroni. He also says that only a few of the project’s taxes reach his district, where construction is taking place. “Here the only thing that remains is the construction municipal tax.”
The project’s environmental impact assessment recommended that 60 percent of Barro Blanco’s unskilled labor force be hired locally. According to Lasso, these numbers total over 83 percent.
The figures fail to represent the skilled workforce from nearby cities that are essential for projects such as Barro Blanco. Lasso asserts that 35 percent of the approximate 300 workers on site are local.
“They did not provide employment to all the people they promised. They brought the majority of the staff from outside, and they said the majority of the workers would be from the (local) area. Whether it was skilled or unskilled labor, even if it was available, it was not so,” said an employee.
History Repeats Itself
Under the Omar Torrijos military dictatorship of the 1970s plans to build a 200 MW dam, known as Tabasará I, were canceled due to massive opposition. Reignited interest in Tabasará I was halted in January 2003 after peasants and Ngäbe protesters blocked Panama’s main roadway.
When construction of Barro Blanco began in 2011 Ngäbe protesters blocked the entrance to the dam’s construction. At least two Ngäbe protesters died in the police crackdown on a 2012 anti-mining and anti-hydroelectric protest.
Genisa insists that Tabasará I and Barro Blanco are dissimilar. Barro Blanco is a 28.84 MW dam with a 258-hectare reservoir, while the Tabasará I was intended as a much larger, 200 MW dam with a 7,200-hectare reservoir.
Despite the project’s differences, the fight remains the same: A coalition of civically engaged indigenous people and peasants are unconvinced that hydroelectric dams will benefit their community.