In conversation with the Ngäbe-Bugle community in Panama, after five years of Barro Blanco-dam
In April 2021, the Dutch development bank FMO announced that it is no longer involved in the Barro Blanco project, a controversial dam in Panama. GENISA, the Panamanian company that built the dam, unexpectedly paid off the multi-million dollar loan early. The question is to what extent, now that the bank is no longer actively financing the project, FMO can still be held responsible for the damage and suffering that was caused when this was still the case.
M10, the local movement that defends the rights of the indigenous Ngäbe-Bugle people traditionally living in the area and who have suffered major damage from the dam, filed a complaint in 2014 with the independent complaints mechanism of the FMO and DEG, the European financiers of the project. A second complaint that the organisation was preparing, about the damage suffered, can no longer be considered. Nick Middeldorp of Both ENDS talks* to Manolo Miranda of M10 about these developments, and about all the misery that the dam has caused in the life of the Ngäbe-Bugle, which Manolo himself is a part of.
Can you tell us how your life has changed since the dam was commissioned in 2016 and the reservoir flooded much of your area? For example, I understood that the rock paintings of your ancestors are now under water.
"For us this is a very important river, because this is where our ancestors lived. Tabasará was the chief who ruled almost all of Panama and he lived in this area. And here is also the rock carving that tells the history of the existence of our ancestors, the thousands of years that we have lived here. People from all over the area used to come here and pay their respects once a year or more often, but the rock carving is now under water, in the reservoir, so none of us can go there anymore. It has hurt us deeply on a spiritual level. Our children, who are now teenagers, ask us when they can see the rock carving they have heard so much about. It is difficult to answer that question. It hurts a lot. And it hurts because it touches the history of our ancestors, our culture"
"The river was also rich in all kinds of fish. From 2018 onward, the fish started to die. Today it is mainly tilapia, a dominant species that is not native, but has been released into the reservoir by the company without any notice to anyone. The amount of tilapia is growing at the expense of other fish species, which means that our communities no longer have a diverse diet and no income from the sale of different fish species. And also outside the river we see a lot of changes: in the past you could see rabbits along the river, all kinds of animals, even deer."
"Another problem is the reservoir itself: the children can no longer bathe in this water. We already had three cases where the children were close to drowning. The parents cannot leave their child alone there. The water level rises and falls, which causes sediment: the villages of Kiad and Palomar, when the water has gone down, have to deal with mud that is full of all kinds of garbage, all kinds of dead animals and the smell of decomposition. And as it's stagnant water, it causes allergies that we have to treat with both botanical medicine and medicine we brought from the outside.
In 2016, a delegation from FMO, together with Both ENDS and SOMO, visited the area to see for themselves what was going on. What was that visit like and what was the result?
"We remember that Mr. ---- from the bank (FMO - ed.) told us in one of the visits he paid: 'Get used to living with the bad'. That is an insult to us. The community can't forget those words. There was land, you could grow crops, and the next generations could grow too. Where will the next generations live if economic life is more difficult every day? Now we have no more land: 6 hectares of flat, fertile ground has been flooded. The most fertile and productive pieces of land, precisely the pieces of land in the valley, have been lost. No banana grows like it does on that flat earth. That has also led to conflict, because the people who do not have land anymore, must now make use of land that was already in use by others in the community."
"We also feel the social impacts. The different communities (five villages – ed.) lived in solidarity, they visited each other. Now to get from one community to the other you have to take a lot of detours and over the hill, because the lake is in between. Or you have to take a rowboat, and take hours. Or make the crossing in a motorized boat, but you have to pay for that."
What actually happens to the electricity generated in the Barro Blanco power station?
"That energy is for sale and the company and the government don't even think about letting our communities benefit from the proceeds of using nature's land. The government has not offered any help to the victims, does not want to listen to the community. The government, the company, the banks - they have done absolutely nothing to solve this problem. What they have done: leave damage to the communities. Right now there are people in the community who have nothing to eat, and that's why we want them to take responsibility for the harm that has been done to the community, because we've given up our resources to generate this energy."
A new visit to the area by the independent complaints mechanism of FMO (and DEG, ed.) is planned for this fall, still in the context of the first complaint you submitted. What do you expect from that visit?
"We in the community have high hopes for the visit of the panel of the banks' complaints mechanism, to tell them what has happened since the dam was built. Because here in Panama people deny a lot of the impacts that the community is experiencing. We would like to say to the independent panel, and to the bank, that we are human beings too."
According to M10, what should FMO do?
"We have asked the bank to please take responsibility. If it really has policies that respect human rights, let's put things on the table. If a company gets legal security, where is the human security for the population? We are not looking for a short-term solution. If it weren't for this dam, we'd have enough species of fish to survive as a community for 50 years, 100 years, 200 years, 300 years after our generation. But we no longer get this service that nature gave us. We lived from nature, that was the livelihood of the community. So we don't see short-term compensation as a way to solve a social problem. We live in a different century now: they can no longer deceive the population."
"It is important to us that the bank says to the Panamanian nation, to the world, 'we recognize that M10 is not a terrorist organization' - as GENISA labeled us - 'but rightly fought against the violation of the rights of the community'. Because despite this, FMO financed this project, which is why it has not been easy for the community to say "we are going to negotiate." The bank must ask forgiveness from the community to whom it has harmed, and work to permanently repair the damage. For FMO to say this publicly, that would be an exemplary exit from the bank for us."
* For the sake of readability, the quotes in this article have been paraphrased while respecting the content. Here is the entire, original interview (translated from Spanish)
Following the news that FMO is no longer actively financing the Barro Blanco project due to an accelerated repayment of the loan, M10 wrote a statement on June 4 in which it calls on FMO to nevertheless take responsibility for the damage suffered.
In April 2011, FMO decided to finance the construction of the Barro Blanco dam on the Tabasará River in Panama. The project was very controversial from the start because the dam was built without the permission of the Ngäbe-Bugle people, while it - and especially the reservoir that would be created - would have enormous consequences for the local communities. In 2011, the Ngäbe-Bugle, led by M10, the local movement that stands up for the rights of the affected communities, started their peaceful protests. In 2012, the army was deployed against the protests. Two people were killed, 40 people were injured and more than 100 people were arrested.
In the Netherlands, Both ENDS and SOMO pointed out to the FMO at the time that the Barro Blanco project was accompanied by gross human rights violations. In 2014, M10, with the help of Both ENDS and SOMO, filed a complaint with the FMO and DEG complaints mechanism, which was declared admissible in June of that year. The Compliance Review report released in 2015 highlighted several instances of non-compliance with the banks' social and environmental standards. However, FMO did not withdraw the funding. The dam was built anyway and the concerns of the communities were not heard. In 2016, the dam's reservoir was filled, severely affecting local communities. Both ENDS and SOMO hope that the latest visit of the ICM complaints mechanism and the opening of a dialogue between M10 and FMO can contribute to finding a sustainable solution for the affected communities.
For more information
Read more about this subject
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.
News / 6 April 2017
The closing of the Barro Blanco dam last year caused not only material but also cultural damage in the affected Ngäbe-Buglé communities in Panama. So far, funder FMO is not taking responsibility for the human rights abuses caused by the project. So, what now?
Indigenous Hondurans are resisting the construction of the Agua Zarca hydrodam. Their fight has cost several lives, including that of Berta Cáceres. After considerable public pressure, Dutch development bank FMO withdrew from the project.
Large-scale infrastructural projects have detrimental effects on local people and the environment, while their benefits are felt elsewhere. Both ENDS is working to ensure that local people have a greater say in decision-making and is investigating the way these projects are funded.
Development banks should comply with strict environmental and human rights rules to ensure that their projects benefit and do not harm the poorest groups. Both ENDS monitors the banks to make sure they do.
News / 23 July 2021
The million-dollar loan that the Dutch development bank FMO provided to project developers of Honduran company DESA for the construction of the controversial Agua Zarca dam project in Honduras, may be related to gross corruption and malpractice. This is concluded in an article published today in the Dutch news paper Financieel Dagblad, based on information provided by COPINH, the indigenous organisation that has been opposing the construction of the dam for years. Several members of the organisation, including its leader Berta Cáceres, were murdered. DESA director David Castillo has recently been convicted of being involved in the assassination of Cáceres in 2016.
News / 10 July 2020
Dutch development bank FMO is considering investing in the controversial Ficohsa bank in Honduras. The bank has close ties with the elite in Honduras, which holds considerable power in politics, the (para)military and the business community. Last Wednesday, a number of Honduran organisations, including the indigenous organisation COPINH – whose leader Berta Cáceres was murdered in 2016 – sent a letter to the FMO management. The letter, signed by forty organisations including Both ENDS, calls on FMO not to do business with this bank.
Blog / 13 November 2018
Last weekend there was an article in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant about the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in Kenya. I was surprised and angry about how the story was presented. How can people be so blind to the perspectives of others? And how can a progressive paper like De Volkskrant devote so much space to such an unnuanced account? This is exactly why such projects lead to conflicts.
News / 1 December 2018
On Thursday, November 29, seven suspects of the murder of Berta Cáceres (in March 2016) were found guilty. Members of the indigenous human rights organisation COPINH, of which Cáceres was the leader, and close relatives of Cáceres herself see the ruling as the first step towards justice for her murder and the recognition that the company DESA is co-responsible for this. They also point out, however, that the process was permeated with corruption, intimidation and other abuses from the very beginning, and that the masterminds behind the murder are still walking around freely.
Press release / 10 February 2021
The Dutch development bank FMO is not sufficiently transparent about the projects it finances and is therefore acting contrary to its mandate. This is evident from a new report published by the International Accountability Project (IAP) and the Foundation for the Development of Sustainable Policies (FUNDEPS), endorsed by 28 organizations including Both ENDS, SOMO, and Oxfam Novib. The research assesses FMO's disclosure and access to information practices for investments proposed between January 1, 2019, and May 31, 2020. Only in 25% of the cases was it disclosed what potential negative consequences an investment by FMO would have for people and the environment.
News / 9 December 2016
As we celebrate both the 30th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development (December 4th) and Human Rights Day (December 10th), Both ENDS joins with communities and civil society groups around the world to call on development finance institutions, governments, and businesses to take 3 steps to stand up for Human Rights in development.
Letter / 9 November 2020
Both ENDS and partners gave their input on FMO's public consultation on Climate Action Commitments and Fossil Fuel Statement. Both ENDS and partners are pleased that FMO is finally taking a stand regarding fossil fuels, but in our opinion it could be more ambitious.
News / 4 June 2021
FMO's new position statement on fossil fuel investments commits to ending new direct finance in the downstream and midstream coal and oil sectors, whilst still allowing for investments in gas-fired electricity generation under exceptional circumstances only. Both ENDS welcomes this development as a step in the right direction.
News / 5 November 2019
After a complaint filed by women's groups from Ixquisis, Guatemala, the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) has started an investigation on several policy violations, amongst which the Gender Equality policy. This is a unique chance to create a precedent, because complaints on the IDB's gender policy are very rare. The women from Ixquisis are fighting for their rights with support of the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA).
News / 16 December 2019
Earlier this month, the seven men found guilty of the murder of Berta Cáceres were sentenced to jail for periods between 30 and 50 years. The court confirmed its opinion that Berta Cáceres was murdered for her role in defending the rights of the indigenous Lenca communities.
News / 2 March 2021
Today it is 5 years ago that Berta Cáceres was shot in haar home in La Esperanza, Honduras, for defending the rights of indigenous people. The leader of indigenous organisation COPINH resisted the Agua-Zarca hydropower dam that was planned to be build in indigenous territory. The actual murderers have been convicted, but not so the intellectual authors of the murders.
News / 10 November 2020
The Dutch development bank FMO has published a statement about fossil fuels to take steps in climate action. Both ENDS and partners are pleased that FMO is finally taking a stand regarding fossil fuels, but in our opinion it could be more ambitious. In order to really contribute to sustainability and equality, it is essential that development banks stop investing in harmful fossil projects.
News / 18 November 2019
Good news for the climate: last week, the European Investment Bank (EIB) decided to stop investing in fossil fuels by 2021. This is part of its new energy strategy.
In 2011 one of the world’s largest gas reserves was found in the coastal province of Cabo Delgado, in the north of Mozambique. A total of 35 billion dollars has been invested to extract the gas. Dozens of multinationals and financiers are involved in these rapid developments. It is very difficult for the people living in Cabo Delgado to exert influence on the plans and activities, while they experience the negative consequences. With the arrival of these companies, they are losing their land.
Publication / 29 May 2019