Indigenous communities threatened by Barro Blanco dam in Panama

The Barro Blanco dam project in Panama, which has Dutch financial support, is causing indigenous lands to disappear under water. Both ENDS is working to protect the rights of indigenous communities living near the dam.

Since 2011, a large dam has been under construction in the Tabasará river in Panama. The Dutch development bank FMO is one of the financiers of the project, which is being implemented for the Panamanian government. Together with the German development bank DEG and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), FMO is investing 77 million US dollars in the project. The dam is being built by the Panamanian company GENISA.

No consultation with local communities

Around the basin of the river live Ngäbe families, who are part of the Ngäbe-Buglé, an indigenous tribe of around 200,000 people. They are resisting the building of the dam because the lake it will create will inundate their houses, religious and historical sites, and part of their fields and food forests.

Local environmental and human rights movement M-10, whose members mainly live in the area affected by the dam, says that local Ngäbe communities have not been involved at all in the decision-making on the Barro Blanco dam. For a project of this nature, however, the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the indigenous population is required. This right is laid down in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, with which FMO also has to comply.

In recent years, the Ngäbe have conducted peaceful protests against the building of the Barro Blanco. In 2012, the army intervened, leaving two dead and 40 wounded, and more than 100 protesters were arrested. At later demonstrations, too, the atmosphere was tense.

Difficult dialogue with the Panamanian government

In the case of Barro Blanco, the Panamanian government displays it most unreliable side. It is trying to reach agreement with the indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé Congress, the tribe's legal representative body. The government is negotiating with the executive board of the Congress. The Congress has, however, disbanded the board, and there is little chance that it will, therefore, accept any agreement between the government and the board.

In the meantime, the building of the dam continues, despite a decision by the Panamanian environmental authorities calling for work to be suspended. In 2016 and 2017, again despite earlier promises by the government, the dam's sluice gates were closed, officially to test them. Test or not, the damage has already been done to the land and homes of the Ngäbe. And worse still, on both occasions those immediately affected were not warned and were given no information about what would happen to their land. The dam now seems to be in full operation.

As a final legal resort, the communities have taken their complaints to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). With support from Both ENDS, representatives of M10 and partner organisation ACD travelled to Washington for a hearing and submitted an official petition to the IACHR. The Court ordered the Panamanian government to consult more closely with the local communities.

FMO fails to comply with its own policy

Both ENDS has been following the project since the current financiers were considering investing in it, because we saw that the correct procedures had not always been followed in the decision-making process. With such a large-scale intervention, FMO must assure itself that local inhabitants have consented to the project on the basis of free and prior information. The events described above show clearly that this did not happen in the case of the Barro Blanco project.

Both ENDS and M-10 have therefore been involved in dialogue with FMO for many years about the project. As long ago as 2011, we submitted objections to Barro Blanco, but FMO dismissed them, claiming that all the requirements had been met. In 2014, M-10 submitted a complaint to the newly set-up complaints mechanism of the FMO and DEG. The subsequent report stated that the banks had not taken sufficient account of the rights of the local population and the impact on the environment, and that FMO had acted in violation of its own guidelines.

As a result of the tests and of the reservoir ultimately filling up, people have been forced to leave their homes and land. This has taken place without them being informed or compensated, and without them giving their consent. That is not only against FMO's own policy, but in violation of international human rights.

Both ENDS continues to support the local people

What now? The dam has almost been completed and the land of the Ngäbe is under water. FMO is hiding behind the dialogue between the Panamanian government and the dismissed indigenous Congress board.

Both ENDS continues to fight to stop the violations of the rights of the Ngäbe people in Panama. We continue to support our partners in their legal actions against the national government, at every level up to the IACHR.

In addition, FMO must show that it does not accept the violation of human rights by its client GENISA and demand that they suspend the project until the local communities have been correctly consulted and compensated.


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