Barro Blanco: communities flooded despite rejected agreement – NGOs ask for withdrawal of CDM’s registration

On September 17, Ngäbe people rejected an agreement between top representatives and the government, signed only a month before. In the meantime, the test filling of the reservoir resumed which has flooded affected communities. Carbon Market Watch along with 80 other local and international NGOs, have called on the Panamanian authorities to withdraw the Barro Blanco hydro dam registration currently in place under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

It has been almost 10 years since  concerns were first raised about the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project in Panama. Opposing groups in the CDM registered project include affected communities -who did not give their consent-,  the project developer GENISA, and the Panamanian authorities. On August 22 , the Panamanian government however thought it finally put an end to this conflict by signing an agreement with selected Ngäbe representatives. Just over a month later Barro Blanco is still nowhere close to being settled.

Contentious agreement

After months of negotiations behind closed doors, the highest representative of the Ngäbes (“cacica general”) along with a few other leaders (without representatives of the affected stakeholders), signed an agreement with the President of Panama, which still needed ratification by the Ngäbe Congress to enter into force. Text in the agreement grants permission to resume the heavily criticized test flooding, which was initiated at the end of May without prior notification to the Ngäbes. The flooding was stopped again two weeks later following national and international outcries.

Far from what the government had hoped, the agreement failed to resolve anything. Following a very tense and chaotic signing ceremony, dozens of Ngäbes took to the streets to protest the agreement and to question their leadership. They set up road blocks -the Ngäbe’s main way of protesting- in various parts of their territory. On August 17, three days prior to the signing of the still to be ratified agreement, Carbon Market Watch learned from local affected communities that the ‘test flooding’ had resumed, again without any prior notification.

Communities flooded

Flood waters begun to rise again reaching very quickly the community of Quebrada Caña, affecting the first houses. On September 9, the water reached the Kiad Community, forcing people to leave their lands and go uphill to homes of relatives. Similar to what they did at the end of May, international NGOs, including Carbon Market Watch, echoed calls from the Panamanian Human Rights network and the national Ombudsman to suspend the flooding to prevent any further harm to the communities and to clarify the situation.

The flooding, however, was not suspended and is still ongoing.  On September 17, Barro Blanco made national headline news again as the Ngäbe Congress definitively put an end to the government’s hopes, dismissing its cacica general and rejecting the agreement. The Congress set up a new working group, including a representative of the affected communities, to discuss Barro Blanco.

Withdrawal of CDM registration

In parallel, Carbon Market Watch, in collaboration with the Land Rights Now initiative, launched an international action, calling the Environment Minister to withdraw Panama’s letter of approval for Barro Blanco’s CDM registration. The letter was signed by 80 international, national and local organisations worldwide and was delivered by hand to the Panamanian Ambassador to the European Union on September 8.

Given the very low price of Certified Emission Reductions (CERs), such a move would have a minor financial impact but could be very symbolic, as it would be the first time a CDM registration is withdrawn over human rights violations.

In August 2015, the Minister of Environment fined GENISA $775,000 for failing to find an agreement with the Ngäbes. Withdrawal of Barro Blanco’s CDM registration would send a strong signal to companies and international banks that human rights violations will not be tolerated in climate action.

By Pierre-Jean Brasier