Panama Dam Construction Steps Up the Pace

As we reported in the last issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, the Ngöbe people of Panama are facing imminent destruction of their homeland as a result of a hydroelectric dam. Since then, things in Panama have become significantly more desperate. AES, the American company that is building the dam, began dynamiting Isabel Becker’s land after pressuring her to sign it over to them on a document she couldn’t read. Just before Christmas, the people of Charco la Pava, alarmed by the action and encouraged by international support of their rights, staged a peaceful protest with a banner across the road to the dam. That protest seemed to work for a time, and over the Christmas holiday, construction on the dam site stopped. But on January 3, the company and the government brought in a squadron of police in riot gear who attacked the protestors with clubs. They broke the nose of a nine-year-old boy and injured his sister’s arm. They knocked down and sexually humiliated a woman carrying a three-year-old child on her back, and knocked down a sixty-year-old man, grinding his face into the dirt with a boot. They arrested 54 people, including 13 children and 2 infants, taking them to a jail in the city of Changuinola.

The police who remained in the area conducted a house-to-house search for the communities’ leaders they held responsible for the protest. They used a helicopter to chase three of the leaders into the forest, where they hid for three days. After this incident, the police set up a cordon around the area, blocking the entry of any outsider who sought to meet with the Ngöbe.

Within the cordon, the construction moved to a much higher level of activity. AES-Changuinola has extended the road further into Ngöbe territory, onto lands where they had convinced landowners to sign an agreement for studies on their land. When the company didn’t pay the agreed-upon fees for the studies and the people retracted their permission, the company simply bulldozed the road across their lands.

Meanwhile, instead of protecting the Ngöbe, the police have established a permanent base camp to support their 24-hour-a-day security cordon. Lucía Lasso, who works for the Alliance for Conservation and Development, Cultural Survival’s Panamanian partner organization, says that the government has offered no justification for sealing off the Ngöbe lands. “We don’t know why police have been there 24 hours a day for two months,” she said. “We have asked the government for the order that put them there, but they have not produced it. Police on the site say that they are there to protect AES contracts.” Behind that cordon, construction crews have begun clearing four farms that no one has signed over to AES, leaving 50 people without a source of food. They have also installed two large light towers, so that construction can continue around the clock.

The Center for Biological Diversity has challenged the two Danish companies that are doing the actual construction work under contract with AES for their participation in the illegal destruction of Ngöbe lands, hoping to convince them to stop. But the one firm that responded said they had a “contractual obligation to complete the project,” which releases them from any legal liabilities. They also claim that they are under no obligation to understand Panamanian law, which requires development projects to consult with indigenous communities before beginning the project.

Cultural Survival has also stepped up its efforts to block the dam. We are sponsoring former Peace Corps volunteers to sneak into the Ngöbe communities they once worked in to monitor human rights violations. We also sponsored a visit by anthropologist Dr. Philip Young of the University of Oregon, who documented local Ngöbe cultural and land tenure practices. An appeal sent to Cultural Survival members generated more than $5,000, which was sent to our partners in Panama to enable them to visit the affected villages and offer support. Lucia Lasso traveled to both Ngöbe and Naso communities and conducted workshops for indigenous people on their legal rights under Panamanian law and how to file a complaint with the government. “People from all the affected communities were there,” she says. Lasso also met with the Inter-American Development Bank, which cut off funding for the AES dam several years ago but is involved with several of the other 47 dams Panama is planning. She hoped to use the uproar over the AES dam as a warning to the bank about the need to consult with indigenous peoples before starting a project.

As this issue went to press, UNESCO was conducting a one-week visit to Panama to investigate the dam’s impact. Their concern is primarily focused on the environmental impacts, particularly in regard to La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, which UNESCO oversees, but Cultural Survival and ACD are assisting the Ngöbe and Naso peoples to represent their concerns to the UNESCO mission. Surely the government will try to avoid negative publicity while international organizations are visiting. “When they go to Bocas del Toro,” Lasso says, “I’m quite sure there will not be a policeman in sight. We’re hoping to have the World Bank visit right after that, and then the Water Tribunal of Latin America, and if we can keep people coming, maybe we can keep the police away for a long time.”

In addition to the work on the ground in Panama, Cultural Survival and our Panamanian partners have been pursuing a larger legal effort to stop the dam. Executive Director Ellen Lutz and Dinah Shelton, an international law expert at George Washington University and a Cultural Survival board member, are working with a troupe of law student assistants to prepare a petition that will be submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The commission has the authority to ask Panama to immediately stop the dam. If we are successful with the petition, it will serve as a strong incentive for the government and construction companies to consult in good faith with indigenous peoples before granting concessions to build the other dams being planned for Panama.

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