Conservation news

PHOTOS: Panama begins “test-flooding” dam over indigenous protests

  • Panama’s Ngäbe and Buglé indigenous groups have long opposed the nearly complete Barro Blanco dam near their territory, alleging that the dam’s owner failed to consult them or conduct proper environmental and social impact assessments.
  • The dam has spurred countless demonstrations, prompted outcry from national and international NGOs, and caused violent clashes between protestors and national security forces, including one in late August.
  • The Panamanian government has allowed “test-flooding” of the nearly complete dam’s reservoir to proceed, despite the fact that an agreement between it and the indigenous authorities allowing the dam to go forward has yet to be finalized.

Manolo Miranda, frustrated and tired, sits quietly on a wooden bench at the school in Kiad, a small indigenous community on the shores of the Tabasará River in western Panama. From his vantage point in the open-air building, he looks down at some of the most fertile land in his community, land that will soon be flooded by the reservoir of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam.

The project, now nearly complete, is located approximately three miles downstream from Kiad in the province of Chiriqui, just outside the 2,690-square-mile Ngäbe-Buglé semi-autonomous region — known as a comarca. More than 150,000 members of the Ngäbe and Buglé indigenous groups currently live within the comarca, which was established in 1997. The dam has received focused opposition from members of both communities ever since the government gave it the go ahead in 2007.

Constructed by the Panamanian company Generadora del Istmo S.A. (GENISA), Barro Blanco is a 28-megawatt gravity dam partly funded by two European development banks, as well as the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. The dam has also been greenlighted to sell carbon credits through the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Manolo Miranda protests the latest accord on the Barro Blanco dam between the Panama government and Ngäbe-Buglé authorities in the town of Llano Tugri, on August 22. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

Barro Blanco is expected to create a 258-hectare (1 square mile) reservoir, including 6.7 hectares (0.03 square miles) within the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca. According to the UN, the dam will flood six homes and indirectly impact approximately 150 to 200 people within Kiad and two other communities. However, the communities and NGOS say many more people will ultimately be affected, in part because the land to be flooded is the area’s most fertile.

Over the past nine years, the dam has spurred countless demonstrations by local Ngäbe and Buglé, generated divisions within the comarca itself, prompted outcry from national and international NGOs, and caused violent clashes between protestors and national security forces that have led to several deaths.

The community school in Kiad. Fertile lands between it and the river will be flooded during the test of the Barro Blanco dam. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo
The Tabasará River near Kiad. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo
The nearly complete Barro Blanco dam. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

During this time, four different bilateral dialogues have taken place between the indigenous authorities of the comarca and two successive Panamanian governments trying to reach an agreement on the situation.

In the last year and a half alone, the Panamanian government has halted the dam’s construction and fined GENISA more than three quarters of a million dollars for irregularities in the company’s environmental assessment and community consultation processes.

On May 22, Panama’s National Authority for Public Services gave GENISA the go ahead to test-flood the reservoir, despite ongoing negotiations between the indigenous authorities and the government of Juan Carlos Varela. The company initiated the flooding shortly afterwards without informing local communities, an allegation that government officials dispute.

After continued protests by the Ngäbe, Buglé, and their leaders, however, the government ordered the company to halt the test in June — leaving the reservoir at 87.5 meters above sea level, short of its 103-meter maximum.

But it is the most recent agreement, signed on August 22 by the comarca’s indigenous authorities and the national government, that now rests heavy in Miranda’s mind. It allows the completion and operation of the dam to go ahead in exchange for the ousting of GENISA and the implementation of development projects within the comarca, among other key points.

“I can’t sleep. I haven’t been able to sleep all night knowing that the reservoir is still rising, and that all our crops, trees, everything that we’ve worked for is going to be under water,” Miranda told Mongabay two days after the agreement was signed. “We are not able to have a happy life; we can’t have a life of a normal human being.”

Rice and corn grown by Ngäbe communities near the Tabasará River. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

The accord’s signing ceremony, held in the comarca’s capital of Llano Tugri, was meant to showcase the “definitive” agreement reached after more than a year and a half of UN-backed negotiations. However, Miranda and other members of a group called the M10 (for “Movimiento 10 de Abril,” established in 1999 to commemorate a protest against an earlier dam proposal), which claims to represent the three affected communities, led a protest that eventually ended peacefully despite clashes with police.

The protesters accused the indigenous negotiating team — comprised of three comarca leaders, including its head, or General Cacica, Silvia Carrera — of acting without following indigenous law guidelines or properly consulting the affected communities. However, the signed document still requires ratification within 60 days by the Ngäbe-Buglé General Congress, the comarca’s most important political body. The congress is scheduled to begin a several-days-long meeting late this week at which it will discuss the document. According to Panamanian government officials, the negotiating parties will have to hash out a new deal if the majority of the congress rejects the agreement.

The M10 and other dam-opposition groups have called for the immediate nullification of the agreement and have vowed to take legal action to halt its implementation, including taking the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the near future.

Protestors voice their opposition to the accord before the signing ceremony on August 22. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

Reservoir fills before agreement ratified

Despite the agreement’s pending ratification, the test flooding of the reservoir that was halted in June was officially restarted on August 23, one day after the signing ceremony at Llano Tugri.

But members of the affected communities told Mongabay that the reservoir actually began rising two days before the agreement was signed. The stagnant lake has started to impact upstream water quality, they said, killing fish and causing mosquito infestations.

Nevertheless, the government denies that the test flooding is being carried out improperly. “The dam’s test-flooding was restarted on the 23rd [of August]”, Yamil Sánchez, Director of Environmental Quality at the Panamanian Ministry of Environment, told Mongabay. When pressed as to whether the test flooding is proper considering that the agreement signed just a day earlier remains unratified, Sanchez responded that “yes, it can be said that it’s a pre-agreement.”

He reiterated that the government had visited the communities between April and May to inform them of the first, interrupted flooding attempt. For the current flooding, however, he said the ministry understood that the indigenous negotiating team was responsible for disseminating the information.

“One of the things that was discussed at the dialogue table was that the dam was not designed to remain closed, holding the water back in that way,” Sánchez explained. “Once this test is done, it [the reservoir] will be emptied.”

Sanchez said the test flooding is necessary because a sudden rise in the river’s water level could cause structural issues with the dam and result in “considerable consequences” for both the project and local communities. He said the test flooding will take approximately two months, if it goes smoothly. If it reveals faults in the dam, these will have to be corrected and the flooding time extended.

Part of the partially filled Barro Blanco reservoir, already a still lake, downstream of Kiad. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

However, a source close to the recent negotiations, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid potentially being fired, questioned the government’s strategy.

“Until the agreement’s approval by the [Ngäbe-Buglé] general congress, we cannot assume that it will be ratified and the deal closed, which means that the filling should not be restarted until then,” the source told Mongabay. Furthermore, the source added, the flooding’s immediate impact on the area may hinder any further chance the government has of reaching a seemingly improbable deal with the affected communities and opposition groups.

Even if it’s temporary, the test flooding will cause irrevocable damage, Osvaldo Jordan, executive director of the Panamanian NGO Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD), told Mongabay. “If they actually drain the dam after the test flooding, much of the damage to the environment would have been done. It will inevitably impact the biological corridor that the river forms between the coast and the comarca’s area,” Jordan said.

ACD has advocated for the Ngäbe for the past eight years by raising human rights concerns associated with the project with the local government, the European investment banks and the CDM. Jordan claimed the flooding violates the Ngäbe’s rights by impacting their livelihoods without any prior consultation. For him, the dam proponents’ narrative highlighting the loss of just six houses ignores the project’s wider impact on the Ngäbe and Buglé.

“The main issue is not that six houses will be flooded, it is the land. Their lands are the equivalent to the office, the income, what they need to live,” Jordan told Mongabay. He is also critical of both the government and the UN for allowing the process to continue despite the violations and what he said is a lack of accurate social and environmental impact studies.

Sánchez of the Ministry of Environment confirmed that the studies done so far by GENISA focused only on areas immediately surrounding the dam and not necessarily upstream or downstream. He added that the government is looking to fill an information deficit of “30 to 35 percent” regarding the effect on the gallery forest surrounding the Tabasará River. This forest provides an important supply of medicinal plants for the indigenous communities and is reportedly one of the areas inhabited by the critically endangered Tabasará rain frog (Craugastor tabasarae).

A Ngäbe family fishes and collects fruit near the rising reservoir at the community of Quebrada Caña. The roof of a flooded house is just visible as a bright spot across the water. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

Ongoing distrust

For the Ngäbe communities of Kiad, Nuevo Palomar, and Quebrada Caña, the dam will inundate essential fertile land and habitat, as well as several religious sites, forcing residents to alter their way of life. An important petroglyph closely linked to the indigenous Mamatata religion that many in the local communities follow has already been submerged.

But the resumption of flooding is but one issue fueling opposition by many Ngäbe. From the start, both the communities and human rights groups have condemned the project as illegal for failing to solicit the free, prior, and informed consent of the Ngäbe people. According to Kiad residents, this started with the initial environmental impact studies GENISIA carried out in 2008, which found that none of the communities within the comarca would be impacted by the dam and that the areas to be flooded were not being used for agriculture. Additionally, they have alleged that GENISA offered bribes to indigenous authorities to proceed with the project.

Goejet Miranda shows a petroglyph etched into the rock by the ancestors of the Ngäbe. Although this petroglyph will not be flooded, another larger one on the banks of the Tabasara River is already under water. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

In July 2013, UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya travelled to the area to assess alleged human rights violations and concluded that “the Ngäbe people should have been properly consulted before granting the concession of the hydroelectric project.”

A 2013 study commissioned by the UN’s Development Programme supported Anaya’s assessment and added that the company had not adequately conveyed the project’s impacts to the community. In February 2015, Panama’s National Environmental Authority suspended construction of the dam, citing noncompliance by GENISA on both environmental impact assessment standards and a “lack of definition of agreements with communities and those affected.”

Violence has added to the tense atmosphere marring the project. In 2012, protests by the Ngäbe and Buglé against the development of mining and hydroelectric projects within the comarca forced the closure of the Pan-American Highway. Violent repression by the previous government of president Ricardo Martinelli resulted in the deaths of two people and the injury of 40. In 2013, Onesimo Rodriguez, a Ngäbe opposing Barro Blanco was killed by four masked men.

For Manolo Miranda, corruption within both the government and GENISA has allowed the project to reach near completion despite the shortcomings of its legally required assessments and continued human rights violations.

“What we see here is that there is no clear policy to protect the indigenous communities, which are most vulnerable to the positions of governments and companies,” Miranda said.

These kinds of allegations, however, are not focused solely on the government. While the M10 also accuses the indigenous authority of being in the government’s pocket, others close to the negotiations say that some of the M10 leaders use the issue to further their own political interests.

“Nobody is 100 percent good or bad on this issue, and there are specific political interests on all sides,” the anonymous source close to the negotiations told Mongabay. “But there are people who are going to be affected…who have legitimate complaints regarding this project.”

Manolo Miranda’s father (also named Manolo Miranda) with a young relative at the school in Kiad. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

International support

Barro Blanco’s opponents have questioned the dam’s support by the German Investment Corporation (DEG), the Dutch development bank FMO, and the UN’s CDM. Despite numerous reports on the inadequacies of the consultation at the beginning, including from other branches of the UN itself, the CDM has kept the project registered under its carbon credits mechanism.

According to Pierre-Jean Brasier of the Brussels-based NGO Carbon Market Watch (CMW), Barro Blanco has become emblematic of the CDM’s inadequacies.

“Barro Blanco shows how the CDM lacks the basic rules to ensure that these [development projects] don’t have a negative impact on the ground,” Brasier told Mongabay. Carbon Market Watch has repeatedly called on the CDM to deregister the dam. However, Brasier said, the mechanism does not have the mandate to do so independently and can only deregister the dam if the Panamanian government retracts its support for the project.

Goejet Miranda crosses the part of the Tabasará River still flowing near his community of Kiad. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

CDM spokesperson David Abbass confirmed in an email to Mongabay that the mechanism “has continually evolved and improved” in order to ensure that all requirements of a project are met before approval. “An important improvement in recent years has been a revision in the timing of the local stakeholder consultation and how the consultation is conducted,” he said.

When asked if the CDM acknowledges that a more arduous assessment of the Barro Blanco project was needed before registration, Abbass stated that the project’s registration in 2011 went ahead after “It was found that the proposed project activity had complied with the requirements of the CDM, including the local stakeholder consultation process.” He added no further comment.

In 2014, DEG and FMO set up their own complaint mechanism, which a number of Panamanian and foreign NGOs, including CMW, used in conjunction with Ngäbe communities to highlight the issues surrounding the dam. In May 2015, a report by independent experts hired by the two development banks as part of their complaint mechanism concluded that the banks had in fact violated their own policies by failing to adequately assess the risk to indigenous rights.

DEG and FMO acknowledged the report’s conclusion in a public statement and said that they would seek to improve the quality of their “appraisal and monitoring process of environmental and social risks and impacts related to our investments.” FMO spokesperson Paul Hartogsveld declined further comment on the Barro Blanco matter.

Tolé, a town near the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca, or semi-autonomous region, where many comarca residents come to shop, recharge mobile phone credit, and get transportation to other towns. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo

Ongoing violence

In recent days renewed protests against the dam have led to more violent clashes between police and indigenous demonstrators opposing the new agreement. The latest confirmed clash on August 25 at the Ngäbe community of Gualaquita, outside the comarca in the adjacent province of Bocas Del Toro, left 20 indigenous protestors injured. A doctor who visited the community reported that the National Police had used pepper spray and illegal rubber bullets against the protesters and gave a video testimony stating that the protestor’s human rights were being violated as state health centers had denied them medical care.

That same day, Panama’s Ombudsman, who had been visiting the affected communities near the dam, called on GENISA to halt the flooding. Government officials would not comment to Mongabay regarding the Ombudsman’s decision and the flooding has continued.

GENISA did not respond to repeated calls and emails by Mongabay.

Back in Kiad, despite a feeling of hopelessness after a long fight against Barro Blanco, Manolo Miranda turns to his smart phones and laptop to communicate the reality on the ground through social networks, and to his contacts working in national and international NGOs.

“We are here and here we will stay. Our community will be affected, our most productive land will be flooded, but that doesn’t mean that our fight is going to end,” he said.


CORRECTION 9/19/16: Due to an editorial error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a May 2015 report concluding that the European development banks that funded the Barro Blanco dam violated their own policies was produced by independent experts hired by the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism. In fact, the team was hired by the two banks as part of their complaints process. We regret the error.


Manolo Miranda sits at the school days after the August 22 accord in Llano Tugri. The community uses social networks accessed via mobile phones and laptops to communicate about the dam. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo