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PANAMA: Indigenous community divided on hydroelectric plant
Louisa Reynolds
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Ngäbe Bugle Congress rejects agreement on the future of controversial Barro Blanco project.

On Sept. 17, the Ngäbe Bugle General Congress, the highest authority of the Ngäbe Bugle comarca (semi-autonomous region), voted against an agreement between President Juan Carlos Varela and now ousted indigenous leader Silvia Carrera, allowing the Barro Blanco dam, located in the Tolé district, 400 kilometers west of Panama City, to begin operations.

The agreement, signed on Aug. 22, was rejected by a narrow margin after an extraordinary four-day session. Only 141 of the 300 indigenous delegates exercised their right to vote, with 65 voting in favor of it and 76 voting against it, under the argument that Carrera had exceeded her mandate as General Cacica, the elected representative of the Ngäbe Bugle indigenous community, and had struck a deal with the government on behalf of the community without adequately consulting its leaders.

Located on the Tabasaré River, the 28-megawatt Barro Blanco hydroelectric plant has caused controversy since the administration of former president Martín Torrijos (2004-2009) authorized its construction in 2007, as it will flood up to 189 hectares of Ngäbe land, endangering subsistence agriculture and potable water sources and threatening to leave sacred Ngäbe petroglyphs buried underwater.

More than 150,000 members of the Ngäbe Bugle indigenous group currently live within the comarca, which was established in 1997.

The dam, developed by Generadora del Istmo S.A. (GENISA), a Panamanian company created specifically for this project, is funded by two European development banks: the German Investment Corporation (DEG) and the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO), as well as the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).

It is 95 percent complete but construction was halted in February 2015 amid clashes between Ngäbe Bugle protestors and local security forces. The Varela administration began talks with indigenous authorities but tensions flared on May 22 when the government allowed GENISA to test-flood the reservoir while the negotiations were in progress.

After indigenous protests continued, the government ordered GENISA to halt the test in June, leaving the reservoir at 87.5 meters above sea level, just slightly below its 103 meter maximum.

Without consultation
Negotiations continued, backed by the United Nations, until an agreement was reached and signed between Carrera and the Varela administration in the comarca’s capital of Llano Tugri. However, the ceremony, which was attended by President Varela and Vice-President Isabel Saint Malo and held under heavy police presence, was marred by protests and a dozen indigenous activists almost succeeded in halting the event altogether, moments before it was scheduled to begin. Despite clashes with the police, the agreement was signed but minutes later, President Varela, Vice President Saint Malo and Carrera were forced to seek refuge in the local school after they were pelted with stones by angry protesters.

President Varela claimed it was “an isolated incident” and accused protesters of inciting children to throw stones at the authorities. “We saw how innocent children were used for this purpose”, he said.

Members of the Movimiento 10 de Abril (April 10 Movement), founded in 1999 by activists who protested against an earlier dam, insist that Carrera had signed the agreement without consulting indigenous communities and called for its annulment. They are also considering taking their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ruled, in 2014, that the Panamanian state should pay indigenous communities affected by the construction of the Bayano dam in the Darién province US$2.5 million in compensation.

Meanwhile, President Varela is sticking to his guns and insists that the agreement must be enforced. “This is the final agreement and it will be enforced,” he said. “We have to respect Panamanian law and the authorities; the caciques who were democratically elected must be respected”.

The vote has exposed deep divisions at the heart of the Ngäbe Bugle community. On one hand, supporters of the agreement signed by Carrera, argue that it is in the community’s best interests, as it allows the completion and operation of the dam to go ahead in exchange for the ousting of GENISA, which has been fined over three quarters of a million dollars for irregularities in its environmental impact assessment and community consultation process. The company now claims that the government has “violated” its rights.

Added to this, the agreement establishes a trust to develop alternatives to the subsistence farming practices that will be disrupted by the dam’s presence, such as forestry, ecotourism and artisanal activities, guarantees that 50 percent of the dam’s employees will come from the Ngäbe Bugle community, and establishes that 15 percent of the profits generated by the dam will be invested in the Ngäbe Bugle comarca. Any future projects within the Ngäbe Bugle territory will need to be approved by a plebiscite as well as by indigenous authorities. 

An archaeological study would also be carried out to determine whether it would be best to remove the petroglyphs from the site or enshrined in a protective concrete structure.

Political problem
“The state has recognized indigenous rights and indigenous people are allowed to participate instead of being stripped of their territory. We regard this agreement as a peaceful model that can set a precedent for other countries, such as Honduras, that have violated ILO Convention 169 but where Berta Cáceres and other leaders have been murdered”, Esteban Pinns, a technical advisor to the Ngäbe Bugle General Congress, told Latinamerica Press.

“This doesn’t mean we agree with the hydroelectric dam as our Ngäbe brothers have been killed; what we’re trying to do is minimize the damage caused by previous governments”, he clarified, alluding to the case of Ngäbe protestor Onésimo Rodríguez, who was killed by four masked assailants in March 2013 after attending a demonstration against the dam.

According to Pinns, the real point of contention is the fact that the agreement stipulates that local authorities, rather than the Ngäbe Bugle Congress will manage the resources. “It became a political problem”, he said.

On the other hand, Olmedo Carrasquilla, coordinator of the Voces Ecológicas (Ecological Voices) environmental group, argues that it would be wrong, in principle, to accept any compromise with the government and that the dam should never come into operation.

“We can’t override a people. The lands that were flooded have lost their spiritual dimension and that’s something that you can’t compensate with money or relocation, it’s a human rights violation”, Carrasquilla told Latinamerica Press.

“There’s no guarantee that indigenous people will obtain any real benefits. A new law on mining concessions that supposedly gave the Ngäbe Bugle community a series of benefits was passed in 2012 but the government has failed to deliver”, he added.

Following Congress’ rejection of the agreement, its supporters say they will negotiate a new agreement on more favorable terms for the Ngäbe Bugle community that will be re-submitted to the Ngäbe Bugle General Congress in two months’ time.

Pinns is confident that the yes vote will win the second time around. “There’s a very tense political situation within the comarca. There was not enough information [about the agreement] and [those who were against it] only summoned certain people to vote, which is why less than half of the delegates voted”, says Pinns. “I don’t think it will be rejected now because people are better informed”.

Carrasquilla, on the other hand, insists that “most of the community doesn’t support the government’s stance” and says that a fresh vote could result in a second defeat for the Varela administration. —Latinamerica Press.


Dam threatens to leave sacred Ngäbe petroglyphs buried underwater. / Colectivo Voces Ecológicas
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