By Oscar Sogandares, Spokesperson Asociación Ambientalista de Chiriquí
A lot of water has passed under the Tabasará Bridge, site of historical protests in Panama. Barro Blanco is the latest dam envisaged for this historic river named for its Ngäbe indigenous chief in their struggle against the Spaniards. The Ngäbes and their Movement 10th of April have resisted until now and demand protection of their rights and resources. All concessions that were granted without their approval should be cancelled, including for the contentious Barro Blanco hydro-electric project.
The Ngäbe Bugle, the largest indigenous peoples group of Panama, took to the streets earlier this year to demand that all concessions granted without their approval be cancelled, including those for the controversial Barro Blanco dam project. These protests, which blocked the Pan-American Highway for over a week, stemmed from the refusal of legislators to include article 5 of the proposed law 415 – as agreed upon, which would prohibit all mining and hydroelectric concessions within the Comarca Ngäbe Bugle.
Violent repression by President Martinelli against peaceful Ngäbe protestors left three of them dead and more than a hundred wounded. Communications were cut and human rights were violated. Minors were beaten and pepper-sprayed while handcuffed. Police raided the hospitals to abduct the wounded. There were even reports of detained Ngäbe women raped by police agents, including a 13 year old minor. See: Final Report of Human Rights Fact Finding Mission.
Peace negotiations between the government and the Ngäbe Bugle ended in a compromise agreement between the two parties which resulted in the passing of Special Law 11, in force since April. This new law cancels mining concessions and prohibits future mining. It also states that any future hydroelectric projects the government plans in the territory will be subject to approval by indigenous authorities and referendum of the area’s residents. The Ngäbe Bugle are to receive 5% of the annual billing from the projects. However, the contentious Barro Blanco dam will go ahead – the already granted hydrodam concessions will not be suspended. A review of the projects’ EIA was agreed to break the deadlock.
I assisted a grassroots meeting with Cacique (Chief) Silvia Carrera, explaining the agreement. I was among the few ‘sulia’ or non-Ngäbe allowed. The reactions were not that favorable. Major dissent existed within the Ngäbe. The audience claimed their sacrifice did not justify a meagre 5% royalty, but a complete ban. The Cacica’s team countered that all future projects will have to be consulted and approved by referendum. The speakers took turns voicing their opposition, but finally gave a vote of confidence. Carrera explained that the negotiating process was stuck with Barro Blanco and needed the law to advance. The company so far has completed 20% of the project. The project will be temporarily stopped on 28 April 2012 under agreements to allow independent experts to assess the project with its numerous inconsistencies. However, we know Government intends to proceed with the project.
The 259 square hectares reservoir of the Barro Blanco dam will fill up the shores of the Tabasará River with stagnant water, submerging magical signs of a pre-columbine civilisation such as these ancient inscriptions forever. Impacts will also be made by the deforestation of 50 hectares of pristine riverbank forest and the so-called “reforestation” plots set up by the company to compensate for the logging. The company will plant non-native species that are used commercially, such as teak and pine. Unfortunately deforestation of this tropical forest will also destroy the habitat of amphibious endemic species that are in extreme danger of extinction such as the Tabasará Rain frog. No mention was made of this in the EIA. In my last visit to the shores of the Tabasará River, the musical chorus of cicadas filled the air, and the soothing melody of living water poured through its gigantic rocks. This glorious symphony of life will now become silent, once this project is built it will drown out the last sounds of life.
Barro Blanco in Facts and Figures
Barro Blanco is a 28.84MW hydroelectric CDM project on the river Tabasara. Its owner is Luis Kafie the electrical tycoon from Honduras, where he produces 30% of its energy and faces several environmental complaints. It is being financed by European Banks from Germany (DEG) and the Netherlands (FMO). The project was approved under the UN’s offsetting scheme in June 2011 despite inaccuracies in its Environmental Impact Assessment and lack of stakeholder consultations. The dam will flood land belonging to the Comarca Ngäbe Bugle – a collectively owned reservation administered by Panama’s indigenous Ngäbe Bugle people. More than half a dozen townships along the riverbanks in the Comarca will be flooded and the livelihoods of some 5,000 Ngäbe farmers who rely on the river for potable water, agriculture and fishing will be irrevocably lost. See recent Al Jazeera People and Power Documentary ‘Panama: Village of the Damned’.
Lack of a true consultation process
The local stakeholder consultation of the Barro Blanco project is full of inconsistencies. The purported stakeholder consultations were carried out as anonymous surveys resulting in a split 50-50% approval to rejection result, which is curious, since it is well known that opposition to the project in the area is close to unanimous. It also purposely excluded Ngäbe villages from the survey. In February 8, 2008 a public forum was held in Veladero de Tole. The affected communities were not invited, but arrived unexpectedly en masse to protest against the project. They were refused entry by police until Genisa officials finally decided to declare that the event was not a ‘stakeholder meeting’, but simply a ‘private meeting’.
Social economic and environmental costs
Manolo Miranda one of the affected Ngäbe residents who will have to relocate if the project proceeds, told us that all the seven villages of Nancito, Tabasará Abajo, Quebrada Plata, Cogle, Quebrada Caña, Quebrada Kia, Nuevo Palomar will have to be relocated due the flooding of their villages. Its people will be uprooted and lose their most productive plots next to the river’s alluvial soil.