Barro Blanco: Panama urged to suspend hydro dam flooding amid growing concerns over human rights violations

In a move to bring the contentious Barro Blanco hydro dam project towards its completion, the Panamanian authorities have given the green light to begin flooding the reservoir. Affected indigenous communities still oppose the project, refusing to leave their endangered lands. Carbon Market Watch and other international NGOs have sent a letter to Panama’s President urging him to immediately suspend the test flooding, which is in violation of the local communities’ rights.

On May 22, Panama’s National Authority for Public Services (ASEP) announced that the filling of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric power plant reservoir would begin in the coming days. While ASEP indicates that the measure is “temporary and will allow for the necessary testing,” the flooding will not only flood the Ngäbe’s homes, territorial lands and religious sites, but threaten their only means of subsistence.

In the days following the public statements, authorities proceeded to forcefully remove protesters from their camp next to the dam, before the flooding began. ASEP’s press release indicates that the water will rise to up to 103 meters above sea level by June 21, 2016. Already now, weeks before this estimated peak level date, floodwaters of the Barro Blanco reservoir have reached the limits of the Ngäbe-Bugle territory. In the coming days, the so-called test flooding could seriously harm the affected Ngäbe communities and their ceremonial sites.

The last stand

The affected indigenous communities are determined to stay and defend their lands. Together with the Ngäbe authorities, they have denounced the ongoing flooding arguing that it violates their rights. They have not given their consent to the project, nor have they been notified prior to the ongoing test flooding. Minister of the Interior Affairs of Panama, Milton Henriquez, also recognized the lack of notification, apologizing for any “situation that might have led to confusion”.

In a move to support the Ngäbe, 10 international NGOs sent a letter on June 1 to the Panamanian President and the banks financing the project. The letter indicates that the dam project violates the Ngäbe’s rights to free, prior and informed consent, to adequate housing, to possess, use, and “freely enjoy” their traditional lands and territories, and to “not be forcibly removed” from them. The letter also urges President Varela to immediately suspend the test flooding.

International response

Alarmed by the situation, international NGOs launched a petition already in April, calling on President Juan Carlos Varela to ensure that the affected Ngäbe people are free from intimidation and repression. The petition has been signed by 86,000 people to date.

Barro Blanco is registered under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and financed, among others, by German and Dutch development banks. NGOs call for the banks to take up their role as responsible investors and demand that all works around the dam be halted until an agreement is found between all parties involved.

By Pierre-Jean Brasier