Indigenous land submerged by illegal closure of dam
On Tuesday 24th of May the locks of the Barro Blanco dam in the Tabasará river in Panama, which is partly financed by the Dutch development bank FMO, were closed. This is in complete discord with the previous agreements between the Panamanian government and the leadership of the indigenous communities. Last august these parties had agreed that the reservoir of the dam would not be filled until a new agreement had been reached which includes all affected parties. According to the Panamanian government and the company Genisa the present filling of the dam is only a test. But this ‘test’ means that the water will rise 26 meters above the predicted future level of water.
Filling the 103 meter high reservoir will mean the submergence of the lands of the Ngäbe-Buglé people without their consent and some of them will soon need to be evacuated.
For years the indigenous movement ‘Moviemiento 10 de Abril’ (M-10), who represent part of the affected communities, have resisted the building of the dam. The reservoir would submerge some of their houses, schools and religiously and archeologically significant places, as well as turning the Tabasará river into a placid lake. In early 2015 their long protest seemed to have finally bore fruit when the Panamanian environmental agency decided that the works on the dam should be halted after they had to conclude that the construction did not measure up against minimal environmental and social norms.
However, the Panamanian authorities lifted the suspension after the company was fined $775.000 and the construction was completed. The filling of the reservoir is now argued to be the final stage of the construction work under the disguise of a ‘test’. According to Both ENDS and a number of other international environmental organisation this is completely illegal. “Nobody has been properly informed let alone been consulted or even warned about the testing of the dam. Even the Panamanian Minister of Internal Affairs Milton Henriquez now admits as much,” says Eva Schmitz, who is working on the case at Both ENDS. “Via the M-10 we’re getting news of people who are locally protesting these decisions who are being intimidated and were even held for a while by local authorities”. Also the leader of the indigenous peoples who was representing the Ngäbe-Buglé at the dialog table with the government has announced that this goes against all the previous agreements.
Harm already done
The Dutch development bank FMO has invested 25 million dollars into the project and is as such partly responsible for the illegal activities which are taking place now. From a statement on the banks website it appears that the bank has full confidence that everything is being done according to the rules and that there is no reason to panic.
The bank affirms that the reservoir will indeed be tested between the 24th of May and the 3rdof August by fully filling it with water. But, as the bank assures, "the hydropower project will not start operations before an agreement is reached with the local communities, in the so-called 'dialogue table'." An incomprehensible reasoning given the fact that the land and some of the houses of the local people will most likely be submerged by now.
FMO needs to make demands
Cacica Silvia Carrera, who represents the Ngäbe-Buglé General Congress and was part of the original dialogue table, clearly distances herself from the recent developments and states that neither was she informed about what was happening nor does she agree to the filling of the reservoir. It’s not the first time that the FMO is involved in possible abuse of the human rights of indigenous people in Central America. Just last month the bank started to pull back from the highly controversial Augua Zarca project after the murder of the human rights defender Berta Caceres.
In order to prevent the situation in Panama escalating any further the FMO should take up their role as responsible investor by demanding the dam to be immediately opened again and that all the works around the dam to be halted until there is a new agreement between all the affected parties. The bank would also be well advised to, just like they did in Honduras after the murder on Berta Caceres, send a team of independent observers to the location to ascertain the situation in the around.