Panama’s hopes of relieving its electricity crisis hang on the construction of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam on the Tabasará River.
The village of Nuevo Palomar, just upstream of Barro Blanco, belongs to Panama’s largest indigenous group, the Ngäbe-Buglé. Hungry chickens and dogs roam the village, which has no access to electricity or cell phone reception. Most villagers generate little to no income as subsistence farmers.
Genisa, the company operating Barro Blanco, has promised to invest in development projects for the Ngäbe-Buglé semi-autonomous region, known as the Comarca, in exchange for the use of some of their land. But Ngäbe-Buglé resentment towards the project remains as bitter as the sign in Nuevo Palomar that says “Ñagare Barro Blanco”--No Barro Blanco.
Skeptics from the start
The site of the dam lies completely outside the Comarca, but according to the project’s environmental impact study, the dam will flood 6.7 hectares of Comarca territory, affecting the villages of Cogle, Quiabda, Quebrada Caña and Nuevo Palomar. Genisa claims that the flood’s effect on the villages will be minimal and nobody living in the Comarca will need to be displaced.
Many residents are skeptical about the credibility of the environmental impact study. They say that they rarely saw topographical survey teams in their villages.
“They passed through like a breeze, but without consulting the community,” said villager Jose Carpintero.
Genisa Regional Projects Director Julio Lasso insisted the team that conducted the study used the best surveying equipment.
“As a company, since day zero, we have been open to whatever type of negotiation, meeting and conversation,” said Lasso.
In 2008, Genisa signed an agreement with the Cacique General (General Chief of the Comarca) Maximo Saldaña for the use of the territory that will be flooded. According to Genisa, the two parties met more than 30 times. Genisa agreed to invest in various social projects and pay $2,000 per hectare in exchange for the territory. Many Ngäbe-Buglé, including elected leaders, say Saldaña never consulted the community before signing the agreement.
“For the Cacique to sign an agreement with a transnational or national company, the norm establishes that he should conduct a citizen consultation,” said Julian Caballeros, a member of the regional congress of Kadriri. “He signed an agreement without doing a citizens’ consultation, which is a part of the process.”
According to Lasso, members of the indigenous activist group El Movimiento 10 de Abril, locally known as M10, were dissatisfied with the arrangement. In 2011 Genisa renewed the agreement, but this time instead of settling matters with the new General Chief, Silvia Carrera, Genisa renewed the agreement with the respective regional congresses of the affected communities.
“It was a secret vote that was completely isolated from Genisa,” said Genisa Vice President Aldo Lopez. “The results were positive and they showed that a strong majority wanted to continue the project.”
On August 25, 2011, Genisa and the president of the regional congress of Kadriri, Reicilia Mendoza, signed a renewed agreement. The price of Comarca territory was increased to $3,000 per hectare. However, congress members Caballeros and Diogenes Aguierre say that they were excluded from the negotiations of that agreement.
“Indeed, there was a bribe offered to the president of the congress,” said Caballeros. He said he was not allowed to enter the 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,” he said.
The School in Nuevo Palomar
In 2013 Nuevo Palomar received a new three-classroom primary school building from the Ministry of Education. Still unable to win community acceptance of Barro Blanco, Genisa offered to assist the construction of the school. Nuevo Palomar rejected their offer.
“We have tried to do projects in Quiabda, Nuevo Palomar and Quebrada Caña, but there exists a movement (M10) who have not allowed Genisa to enter those communities and establish community development projects,” said Lopez, the Genisa vice president.
“They promised to build a school with classrooms, kitchen, dining area and bathrooms, but the community didn’t accept it because they say that if they accept their help they are accepting the project,” said teacher Gisella Baroza.
The Mama Tata Factor
Most Ngäbe-Buglé practice Christianity, but the presence of the indigenous religion Mama Tata is prevalent in the Comarca, especially among members of M10. Many villagers who will be affected by Barro Blanco share an affinity for preserving their natural habitat, an idea reinforced in Mama Tata.
“Mama Tata teaches us not to sell, because this nature is our private property and it has no price,” said M10 coordinator Luis Jimenez.
According to Lasso, Genisa offered to build a Mama Tata church in the village of Quiabda. He said that M10 was not interested in the offer. University of Panama anthropology professor Fransisco Herrera says that if the village accepted Genisa’s offer to build a church it would contradict the Mama Tata teachings of preserving their natural habitat.
“Mama Tata teaches us to love and protect nature,” said M10 coordinator Manolo Miranda. “The only one who can put a value on the land is the God who created it — man does not have that right.”
The Ngäbe-Buglé have fiercely opposed mining and hydroelectric projects for decades. They even opposed these projects before they secured their own semi-autonomous region in 1997. Promises of social projects do little to win the trust of the indigenous, many of whom are more concerned with the preservation of nature and their native customs.
“The most important thing for the Ngäbe-Buglé is the rescue of their culture and traditions,” says Comarca's parliamentary representative Crecencia Prado. “Only after that comes the development of roads, education and health.”