Conservation news

PHOTOS: Panama revives stalled dam over strong indigenous opposition

  • The 28-megawatt Barro Blanco dam in western Panama is nearly complete, but construction has been stalled since February due to opposition by local indigenous communities.
  • A ceremony on Monday meant to mark a deal to complete the project between the Panamanian government and leaders of the indigenous Ngäbe community was disrupted by Ngäbe protesters, highlighting a strong division within the indigenous community.
  • In a demonstration that erupted into violence, Ngäbe protesters temporarily shut down the ceremony.
  • However, the dam will move forward under the signed agreement, which details new economic and oversight concessions for the communities and the ouster of the dam’s controversial owner.

On Monday, indigenous Ngäbe protestors opposing the controversial Barro Blanco dam in western Panama disrupted a ceremony marking the project’s completion deal, leading to violent clashes with police.

The deal had been struck between Panama’s president and the Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous authority, which protesters accused of acting without following indigenous law guidelines or properly consulting the community.

The ceremony was held at the school in the town of Llano Tugri within the Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous autonomous area. It was meant to showcase the definitive agreement allowing the 28-megawatt hydroelectric project to move forward, which the parties reached after more than a year and a half of UN-backed negotiations.

The nearly complete Barro Blanco dam on the Tabasara River in western Panama. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

The dam’s construction on the Tabasara River is backed by two European development banks and greenlighted to sell carbon credits through the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism.

The dam is nearly complete. However, construction has been halted since February 2015 due to opposition from nearby Ngäbe communities. Local groups have opposed dam proposals in the area since the 1980s; their current concerns include that the reservoir will directly impact their land, environment, sacred grounds, and some homes. The project fueled further controversy in May this year when test flooding of the reservoir began without the communities’ knowledge.

The community gathers at the school in the town of Llano Tugri before the arrival of the negotiators to sign an agreement to complete the Barro Blanco dam. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo
Protestors begin voicing their opposition before the ceremony begins. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo
Ricardo Miranda (left), a member of the M10 movement representing Ngäbe communities affected by the Barro Blanco dam, and Toribio Garcia, president of the Ngäbe Regional Congress, protest the agreement. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela and vice president Isabel Saint Malo both attended Monday’s ceremony. But despite the presence of approximately 80 police officers, a dozen protestors halted the event just moments before it began.

However, after the president and the indigenous negotiators were relocated to another part of the school grounds, the agreement was read out in its entirety and signed by the Ngäbe’s General Cacica, an elected leader, Silvia Carrera.

Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela, flanked by vice president Isabel Saint Malo, tries to calm the protests before eventually leaving the stage due to the unrest. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo
Ngäbe children watch as the ceremony to sign the agreement unfolds. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo
Police and community members watch the signing ceremony. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo
Ngäbe general Cacica Silvia Carrera and President Varela sign the agreement. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

Protesters, most from Ngäbe communities directly affected by the dam’s reservoir that have long demanded the project’s outright cancellation, disrupted the proceedings with shouts condemning the dam.

“We respect the president [Varela] but he needs to respect us! We demand to speak to the caciques directly […] the community knew nothing about this agreement,” shouted one protester, referring to three Ngäbe leaders who had hashed out the agreement with the government.

Claiming that the three negotiators had not followed indigenous law before reaching the agreement, the protestors blocked the school gates and prevented the negotiators from leaving.

“How is it possible that they came here to sign a pact without prior consultation? […] it is the community that needs to be consulted first, that’s the rules within the comarca [the indigenous autonomous area],” Toribio Garcia, one of the protest leaders, told members of the media at the school. Garcia is also the president of the Ngäbe Regional Congress, a governing body that was not involved in the negotiations.

Ricardo Miranda, one of the protest leaders and member of the M10 movement representing Ngäbe communities affected by the dam. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo
A policeman who was struck on the head with a rock thrown by a protester. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

The peaceful but heated demonstration quickly turned sour after a handful of protestors threw rocks toward government and indigenous officials — actions that the indigenous protest leaders themselves immediately condemned. Four police officers were injured in a spontaneous clash, according to President Varela, and at least three protestors were sprayed with pepper spray.

The standoff ended peacefully two hours later, after a meeting between president Varela and protest leaders resulted in the protesters allowing the caciques to leave the school grounds. No one was arrested. However, the protesters said they planned to continue efforts to nullify the signed agreement and prevent the dam from becoming operational.

The signed document will still need to be ratified by the Ngäbe-Bugle General Congress — the most important political body of the comarca — within 60 days before Barro Blanco is able to fully resume its operations. If the majority of the congress decides to reject the agreement, the negotiating parties will have to return to the dialogue table to hash out a new deal. 

Community members wait for the standoff between protesters and negotiators to be resolved. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo
Protesters unlock the school gates to allow the departure of negotiators. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

Under the signed agreement, a trust will be established to help develop “agricultural, livestock, forestry, eco-tourism, and artisanal activities,” as well as the human capital of the communities affected by the dam. Furthermore, the agreement guarantees that 50 percent of the dam’s employees will come from the Ngäbe-Buglé community and ensures the cancellation of any additional project that further impacts the Tabasara River. Any future projects within the comarca will need to be approved by a popular referendum and by the various indigenous authorities.

The parties also agreed to eject the dam’s owner and operator, Panamanian construction company Generadora del Istmo S.A. (GENISA), which has already been fined by the government for violating environmental norms and neglecting to obtain proper consent from the communities. A different independent Panamanian company will take its place.

“In the end, despite the isolated incidents that occurred, the agreement has been signed today,” said president Varela before leaving the school. He added that the agreement keeps the doors open for dialogue between the affected communities and the government.

The next day, Tuesday, GENISA, which was not part of the dialogues, rejected the agreement, saying in a statement that it “violated” the company’s rights. “We reserve the right to take action and use available legal mechanisms to protect our right to fair and equitable treatment of our investment,” the statement read.

A government statement released shortly afterwards argued that GENISA thoroughly understood the “status of the project and cooperated in reaching a solution.”


EDITOR’S NOTE 8/30/16: This story was updated to reflect the fact that the agreement signed by the Panamanian government and the Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous authority still needs to be ratified by a higher indigenous political body, the Ngäbe-Bugle General Congress, before Barro Blanco is able to fully resume its operations. We regret the omission from the original story.