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Massive Protests against Barro Blanco Hydropower Project in Panama

Guest article by Oscar Sogandares, Asociacion Ambientalista de Chiriqui (ASAMCHI)

My t-shirt still smells from the firewood of the protest camp, where I spent several nights accompanying their cause.  The beginning of the day would start with group prayers in Ngobe and in Spanish requesting the help from the Almighty in this unequal struggle[1].  The M10 (April 10 Movement for the Defense of the Tabasará) which gathers all the affected communities on the banks of the Tabasará River (which is sacred to the Ngobe Bugle Indians) protest group have already 12 days camped outside of the entrance of the Barro Blanco Dam project site, thereby effectively blocking the entrance of additional machinery to the project site.  The two remaining machines have long run dry of fuel and are unable to continue with their tasks of devastation of the Tabasará riverbed.[2]

The protesters have nothing to lose, they are even willing to give up their lives if need be I was told.  Just as one of the leaders told me” I am losing 5 hectares of my best farming land to the project so I have nothing to lose”.  They even dared to close one of the lanes of the Pan-American hwy. (because according to Panamanian legislation closing up one lane is still considered “peaceful protest”) but also threatening to entirely block the entire highway[3].  The police immediately came to the scene to warn then, but after two hours they returned to their designated point. They were even advised against this by their fellow indigenous leaders, that it’s better to maintain their point at the entrance as a peaceful struggle than lose everything in the desperation.

The trucks and cars would honk and wave at us in support of our actions, where in a tiny province as Chiriquí  of less than 6000 square kilometers there are more than 120 projects in different stages of development, 160 in the entire country of Panama –more than the entire Central America isthmus put together. Most of them “run of the river” type plants which threaten to “desertify” the province. The fact is that Chiriquí is one of the places of the world in danger of desertification due to soil mismanagement attributed to agribusiness, but now due to this present surge of hydroelectric plants which dot their river basins[4].  On the other extreme are the full scale dams with reservoirs such as Fortuna, Bayano and now Barro Blanco which will effectively flood hundreds of hectares, and threaten to flood thousands of hectares more in the future.

Privatization of energy sector cashes in on energy surplus from hydro dams

There was a time when Panama had more than enough energy for its needs and we only had Bayano, Fortuna and Estrella los Valles, and we still had an energy surplus (and we didn’t have the energy saving light bulbs in our households in that time either).  That was in 1995, suddenly the government under the Balladares administration (presently under legal investigation) started to “privatize” all the government generators and “globalize” our economy.  The Bayano went to AES, so did Estrella Los Valles and Fortuna has gone through a string of different hands and is finally with Enel.

Then in 2001 Vicente Fox president of Mexico, a ranch owner and Coca Cola executive (where he sported his trademark Stetson hat, but perhaps all he needed then were to bring his six-shooters with him) comes to Panama and announces the Plan, Puebla Panama to enable Panama to “export” energy to Central America and Mexico, but actually to balance out his own energy deficit gap with the USA, due to his recently signed NAFTA Treaty with his northern partner and the Sistema Integrado SIEPAC transmission line[5] was built which crosses Central America into Mexico and “suddenly” Panama’s energy needs become insufficient.

Panama’s artificial “growing energy needs”

While the official picture is portrayed to the local citizens that all these projects are due to Panama’s “growing needs”, which the officials don’t even themselves believe.  Another added incentive in this mad rush for more hydroelectric projects is the added bonus of CERs or carbon credits, like the “icing” on the cake.  The margin of profit on these projects has been so great where 1 kw/hr of water generated electricity is sold slightly lower than fossil fuel generators ($0.18 fuel, $0.12 – $0.17 hydro and where 1 MW =$1million), with the additional feature that the “fuel” employed –water is free, and that the CERs themselves have been spent on simply “public relations” for their project.  Everyone is starting to learn how the CERs and the CDM projects have been mismanaged in the world, where highly questionable projects such as mono cultures where primary forests are chopped down to make way for oil palm farms, or these very hydroelectric projects which devastate thousands of hectares of natural gallery forests,  some with endemic species found nowhere else in the world, disrupt ecosystems and displace thousands of perfectly happy river dwellers in the face of a highly questionable “progress for a few” and are financed by these carbon indulging companies who get their sins cleansed by “investing” in these “carbon credits”.

Agreements to stop hydroelectric projects with Ngobe Bugle Comarca breached

The humble Ngobe Indians are portrayed in the press as “savages”, “ignorant”, “radicals”, “backward” and all other kinds of derogatory labels, especially by the special interest owned press, whose owners happen to be partners of the many hydroelectric ventures, perhaps orchestrating eventually and unfortunately, unjust and criminal repression against these humble dwellers that have everything to lose and nothing to gain with these greedy business projects.  There the airwaves are taken over by the “technocrats” who worship hydroelectric energy as the panacea for all evils in the country, notwithstanding all the names which ring a bell when we refer to the 50 most wealthy families in Panama.  The Gonzalez- Revilla,  Eleta, Btesh,  Virzi,  among others.  The mining episode has been a similar case where names such as Pfeiffer, ex-governor of Coclé, who happened to “borrow” from the government funds to pay off his own partnership in the Petaquilla Gold Venture. Unfortunately this country is full of examples of corruption and “juega vivo” — or “play smart” attitude. But who’s general opposition and protests mainly by the Ngobe Bugle people once again to this highly unpopular mining code forced the government to backtrack and repeal its highly controversial law 8.  The agreements with the govt. included an immediate stop to the hydroelectric projects which would affect the Ngobe Bugle Comarca or indigenous Reserve, such as the highly controversial Barro Blanco Project.  But now the govt. wants to backtrack on its hydroelectric concessions part and is delaying the issue.  Nonetheless the Barro Blanco project has proceeded days after the massive mining code protests ended to swiftly commence its controversial project.

How could it feel if suddenly our protest groups were helped by the A-Team who could champion our cause, where we are faced with all the odds stacked up against us?   Actually today the government (which  in fact considers itself the government of the “entrepreneurs”) has enacted the first initial debate in their party controlled legislative assembly or parliament where now companies participating in projects of “social interests” (to include hydroelectric projects) will not even have to participate in bids and could be “directly contracted” by the government[6].  The consultation periods will be thereby shortened, the participation of the public will be further reduced.   All the odds are stacked against the communities. See La Prensa 6 April 2011 Economy Section[7].

The contested past of Barro Blanco

Now going into details of this controversial project which is none other than the Tabasará 1 and 2 projects (the first one would produce 220MW) originally presented in the end of the 1970’s and start of the 1980’s which was to provide energy for the ominous Cerro Colorado mining project to mine copper and gold, since there were not enough power plants to provide the huge energy demand for such gargantuan project.  But General Omar Torrijos after the continuous protests by the Panamanian people including  the Ngobe indigenous population known then as Guaymi, and consultation with his environmental advisors who warned against disastrous ecological consequences[8] (Torrijos used to say he who consults most, errs the least) in a solemn pledge before the indigenous Ngobe leaders cancelled the mining projects, as well as both the Tabasará hydroelectric projects — if this were the wish of the indigenous community.  It was not long after General Omar Torrijos perished in a mysterious airplane crash in 1981.

The front line of defense in the struggle against this excessive proliferation of the hydroelectric projects, which obey no common sense except the market economy –is the Barro Blanco project, long rejected by the community in all its editions.  It is the updated version of the Tabasará 1 of the 1980’s with 220MW output and Tabasará 1 of the 1990’s and 2000 with its toned down 46MW[9].  This time Barro Blanco had initially projected 19MW but revised it to 28.8 MW in order to compete for carbon credits or CERs.

But raising its dam level in the future from 103mts, (long after the CER’s are disbursed) to 160mts will enable it to produce the massive amount of 220MW; flooding 6000 hectares (raising it to 200mts will flood 10,000 hectares and enable it to produce even further amounts of energy).  That is why the community should not allow this sinister project to make their foothold.  Once Barro Blanco (or Tabasara 1 “revised” version) is in place Tabasará 2 whose owners are wealthy and dubious businessmen as Gabriel Btesh and Luis “Pipo” Virzi (the latter incidentally relative to  President Martinelli) will kick in.[10] [11]  There simply will be no stop to this.

Besides the harm done to the flooding of hundreds of hectares of indigenous and peasant land bordering the Tabasará River, the loss of an exuberant pocket of gallery forest of more than 50-100 hectares (contrary to what the EIA or the PDD indicate) with many centennial trees which perform a highly important CO2 function and which will inexorably be logged down (how could a project as destructive as this compete for carbon credits in the first place?), where  endemic species of wildlife which are in extreme danger of extinction such as the Tabasará Blue Rain frog “craugastor tabasarae”[12] which inhabit precisely these threatened gallery rain forests, and nowhere else in the world. The loss and extinction in these waters of diadromous migratory fish[13], from the word “dia” in latin or “between” which complete their life cycles in the two habitats the marine estuaries and the fresh water Tabasará River head waters, and which form an essential part of the Ngobe diet.  These will inevitably be blocked by the physical presence of the dam (not considering the future existence of the Tabasará 2 project) or will be sliced to pieces by the turbine blades[14].  Many other river species accustomed to free flowing waters will not survive the oxygen deprived lake conditions.


– The Barro Blanco project (3237) is a 28.84 MW hydroelectric power plant in the district of Tolé, within the province of Chiriquí, Panama. The project has faced wide resistance dating back to 2008[15] (but actually since the 1970’s in its different versions) and criticism related to serious concerns about the additionality of the project as well as lack of adequate public consultation and human rights abuses involving the company GENISA against the lands of the Ngobe indigenous peoples. The Ngobe peoples inhabit the areas next to the Tabasará River, where the project is planned to be implemented. The project is currently pending registration which means that the members of the CDM Executive Board will decide upon its fate at this upcoming meeting.

– To the shock of Ngobe indigenous peoples, the project has now commenced construction despite the ongoing local resistance which is increasing as construction machinery is moving in. Just recently, massive demonstrations by the Ngobe indigenous people have led to the suspension of a newly passed and heavily contested mining code. This mining code would have allowed even foreign states to invest directly in mines (contrary to the constitution) in Panama and would have spoiled the pristine jungle and forced Indian communities to relocate[16].

– Comments outlining these concerns were officially submitted by numerous indigenous communities and environmental groups in Panama during the public commenting period of the project and even prompted an investigation by the European Investment Bank (EIB). The results of the investigation are currently pending.

– Although confirmation was sent from the UNFCCC secretariat that comments were received, the auditor (AENOR) has never made them public nor taken them into account when validating the project.

– This has led to the first launch of a complaints procedure against a DOE pursuant to the new rules for complaints procedures against a DOE.

Major concerns about the Barro Blanco project raised by civil society groups include:

  • Validation Report Omissions: With regards to the CDM consultation, ACD submitted comments in the first consultation process conducted in 2008. These concerns were never addressed by the CDM validator. Instead, AENOR opened a second validation process, in which both ACD and ASAMCHI again submitted comments. The CDM website acknowledged receipt of the ASAMCHI comments through email, but the website failed to display the comments as received by AENOR.
  • Public Participation: The Bakama area is legally recognized by the Government of Panama as collective property of the Ngobe indigenous people. Yet, most of the consultation for CDM validation, including the site visit by AENOR, only considered the opinion of the non-indigenous population. In this regard, the validation process for Barro Blanco violated the international principle of free, prior and informed consent contained in ILO 169 and the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.
  • Compensation of affected communities: Following the principle that was also utilized in the Chan 75 hydroelectric project, GENISA has proposed the use of carbon credits to compensate the affected communities, including the Ngobe indigenous peoples. In the Chan 75 case, this question is currently being examined by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which raises serious questions about the appropriateness of using CERs for the compensation of affected communities when human rights violations have not been considered.
  • Additionality: Hydroelectric investment in Panama has an extremely favorable net present value, which derives from the sale of electricity generated by hydroelectric plants at prices comparable to thermoelectric plants with higher operations costs. This situation occurs when non-contracted electricity is sold in the spot market, which happens regularly in Panama. For this reason, there are currently about 87 hydroelectric project scheduled for construction in Panama at this moment. Recently, the Government of Panama has complained about the exaggerated levels of profit raised by hydroelectric companies and has even started investigations to avoid this type of speculation.
  • Barro Blanco might place in extinction the endangered Tabasará rain frog species: The construction of the Barro Blanco project is very likely to cause the extinction of the Tabasará Rain Frog, a highly endangered species.[17]

Against the evidence provided in this article, many organizations, including the April 10 Movement for the Defense of the Tabasara River (M-10), Alianza para la Conservacion y el Desarrollo (ACD), and the Asociacion Ambientalista de Chiriqui (ASAMCHI), International Rivers and CDM Watch are calling on the CDM Executive Board to extend the review of the project registration request to the issues raised above and to subsequently reject the project. Moreover, the results of the European Investment Bank´s investigation should be taken into account when deciding upon the fate of the project.

[2] P4060011(2) Vista de pala mecanica y retroexcavadora que devastaban el Rio Tabasara en dias pasados and


[6] Reformas apuntan a hidroeléctricas La Prensa 6 april 2011

[7] Reformas reducen plazo de impugnación La Prensa 6 april 2011

[9] Tabasara I EIA Extract

[14] Helical Turbine and Fish Safety By Alexander Gorlov, August, 2010 (see Kaplan Turbine Fish kill page 3)


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