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Italo Jimenez, President of the m-10. Image courtesy of the author.

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Disputed hydro-dam sees another death in Panama

April 5th, 2013

by Robin Llewellyn

Robin Llewellyn reports on the ongoing violence surrounding the protests against the construction of the UN-condemned Barro Blanco Dam.....

the world will eventually find out about us when we are beaten or massacred

Two members of Panama’s indigenous Ngäbe people were attacked by four masked men on 22nd March after attending a demonstration in Cerro Punta against the continuing construction of the Barro Blanco hydro-dam. While one managed to escape with injuries and is now in hiding, 20 year old Onesimo Rodriguez was killed; his beaten and strangled body was found floating in a nearby stream the next day. 

The dam is being built by Honduran-owned energy company GENISA and is opposed by the indigenous people who will be affected, as well as by the leader of the indigenous Ngäbe Buglé Comarca (autonomous territory) Cacique General Silvia Carrera.  The wave of dam construction on indigenous lands was behind the spring 2012 protests that closed the Inter-American Highway before the police intervened with the death of three protestors. 

Indigenous protests restarted in February this year, spurred on by the fact that the foundations of the Barro Blanco dam will start flooding lands with the arrival of spring rains in the coming weeks. If completed, the project will raise the Tabasara River to submerge or threaten several indigenous communities, as confirmed in December 2012 by a United Nations report

Indigenous land is protected from unsolicited developments under Panama’s Law 10 of 1997 and Article 127 of the country’s Constitution, as well as by international indigenous rights conventions signed by the country.  The expropriation of land outside of a court of law is further outlawed by Constitutional Article 48.

The establishment of the UNDP fact-finding mission was a key element of the Peace Accords which ended the 2012 protests, and while it has dismantled the claims of dam company GENISA that no territory of the Comarca will be affected, and that no farming lands and cultural sites will be impacted, it has not succeeded in halting construction.

A lawsuit by environmental NGO CIAM Panama against the National Environmental Authority ANAM's approval of Barro Blanco’s Environmental Impact Statement was filed on 31st May 2011, and although the country’s Supreme Court of Justice agreed to hear the case on 16th June, the Administration´s attorney appealed.  The appeal has been awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court since 10th February 2012. The filing of the lawsuit was accompanied with an application for a preliminary injunction against further construction of the dam, which was denied on 17th October 2011.

On 2nd April, Manolo Miranda, coordinator of the indigenous M-10 (Movimento 10 de Abril) protest movement, told the Ecologist:

“The affected population is maintaining a permanent vigil against the advancement of works on Barro Blanco, that affect five communities of the Comarca and 8000 people in the hydrographic basin.”  

Like other inhabitants of the Tabasara Valley he fishes and tends food crops and medicinal plants grown under the shade of the forests on land that would be drowned by Barro Blanco. But like the Cacique, Miranda has been criticised for earlier favouring an engagement with a UN process that has seen construction continue.

Their critics recall earlier episodes in the struggle over hydro-dams on indigenous lands: In 2008, Panamanian environmental NGO the Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD) mounted an appeal to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission against the construction of the Chan-75 dam in neighbouring Bocas del Toro province, pointing out that it violated national and international law by not meeting the minimum requirement for developments on indigenous land – that of obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous people who would be displaced. 

Although the appeal persuaded the Commission to order the suspension of the dam’s construction, Panama ignored the ruling and when the case proceeded to the Inter-American Court, the Government successfully argued that Chan-75’s construction could no longer negatively impact any communities as it had already been completed.  

ACD Director Osvaldo Jordan sees this precedent adding to the dilemmas facing the M-10, leaving its leaders facing the choice of:

 “whether to go into dialogue and wait for technical opinion, or to act directly even though that can carry a heavy price... [In Panama,] you get lawsuits and the problem is not resolved, you get mediation and the project continues, so that starts taking away options and only leaving the direct action option, which many people don’t want.  But by not having a rule of law it’s pushing people into the corner.”

Preceding the attack on Onesimo Rodriguez, violence had been mounting against protestors; on 8 March tear gas was fired at a blockade of the dam’s worksite, the following day three demonstrators were arrested and allegedly beaten in custody, and on 19th March 150 armed police dispersed a 30 strong vigil with shotguns and rubber bullets. Doubts were written in the face of M-10 President Italo Jimenez’s when he announced the return of demonstrations: 

“Our community sends a message to the world: the Dutch and German banks have been sent letters by us, but the world will eventually find out about us when we are beaten or massacred.”

Those banks are the Dutch national investment bank FMO and the German private investment bank DEG.  FMO has been reluctant to reveal how they assured themselves that Barro Blanco had gained the free, prior and informed consent of Ngäbe inhabitants of the Tabasara Valley, only saying that unnamed independent experts had been employed. 

Mauricio Inostroza of the Hatch consultancy is the independent expert for both FMO and DEG. When questioned over the level of consent in the Tabasara Valley he refused to answer media enquiries on behalf of either client. Executive Director of the Environmental Defender Law Centre (EDLC) Lewis Gordon is critical of the European banks, saying:

“The involvement of FMO and DEG in Barro Blanco calls into question their commitment to respect the rights of indigenous peoples affected by their projects.”

The attempt to secure an injunction against further construction of Barro Blanco is being led by lawyer Felix Wing. Before recent attacks by police on demonstrators, and before Onesimo’s unexplained death he had warned that the police and military were using degrees of force on indigenous protestors that would not be faced by other Panamanians. The Ecologist asked him for his thoughts on what the case revealed about environmental protection in the country:

“As I stated before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission at a general hearing on the right to environmental justice in Panama on 2nd November 2012, both the resistance of courts to adopt precautionary measures protecting the environment, and the absence of unjustified delays in judicial decisions reflect the ineffectiveness of judicial redress and the lack of judicial independence that exists in our country - especially when cases involve local communities.  This situation continues to violate international human rights standards.”

Ngäbe activist Weni Bagama is originally from the community of Kiad in the Tabasara Valley and attended the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in March 2012 to speak of the state’s use of violence following that year’s demonstrations.  Mauricio Méndez, Jerónimo Rodríguez Tugrí, and Franklin Javilla all died as a result of the spring protests, and Bagama says:

“The policeman who killed Jeronimo is not in prison. Everything is quiet like nothing happened. There were women who were arrested and raped, even men as well; physically all their rights were violated”.

The Tabasara River currently flows past boulders covered with petroglyphs and the valley has others in which an ancient script is written. A little above the river, but not far enough to be safe from the projected reservoir, by the village of Kiad, stands a zapoté tree.  It’s been revered among believers of the Ngäbe Mamatata religion since a villager prayed beneath it and received the meaning of three of the letters of this alphabet of the stones. Adherents of Mamatata then decoded the remaining symbols and Kiad now hosts a school in which children are taught the Ngäbere language through the reborn alphabet.

The strength of Ngäbe culture and religion is tangible in the Tabasara Valley, explaining the strength of opposition that successfully repelled earlier dam projects and supporting an idea of wealth at odds with that advanced by the finance banks and Panama´s investment focused Martinelli administration. At a meeting held in the school one parent spoke out: 

“The lifecycle of development is not for the people as the government claim, it’s for the capitalists. We’re rich here; the poor are those who can’t breathe, who have no water to drink, who can’t provide for themselves.”  

Beyond the school the trees stretch away downriver, sheltering cacao, vegetables, herbs. It is easy to see why the population is prepared to risk so much to ensure they remain in their lands for further generations, and Lewis Gordon of the EDLC urges immediate action:

“The Panamanian government should immediately order a halt to construction of the dam pending a thorough review of the numerous serious human rights violations that appear to have occurred and that continue to occur.”

Abandoned by the law and with rains due and construction continuing, the words of Italo Jimenez urging international attention of environmental protest in the country deserve a wide audience.

Robin Llewllyn is a freelance journalist/feature writer from Wales. His main interests are human rights and transparency, the environment, political participation, and health policy. 

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