Indigenous Panamanians Protest Dams Which Could Displace Thousands


Last week, indigenous groups in western Panamá once again clashed with police while protesting the construction of the Barro Blanco dam. In 2012, similar protests resulted in the deaths of several protesters and alleged human rights abuses perpetrated by the police. As the Panamanian government aggressively expands its hydro capacities over the next few years, they will face more indigenous resistance. How can they pursue their economic interests without trampling the rights of their largest indigenous population?  

With around 200,000 people, the Ngäbe (pronounced “naw-bey”) are the largest indigenous group in Panamá. Like most indigenous groups around the world, they have a long history of being bullied, cheated, and displaced by the government.

In 1997, the Panamanian government signed Law 10, which gave the Ngäbe a semi-autonomous region in western Panamá, the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. Non-Ngäbes are not allowed to own or develop land within the Comarca. However, after discovering a gigantic copper deposit and sizable gold deposits, the government began claiming that the indigenous owned the land, but not what was beneath it. Mining efforts began and protests escalated until last year, when a multi-day protest and ensuing crackdown resulted in two dead protestors and multiple alleged human rights abuses, committed by police. The United Nations scolded the president for the abuses and he signed a promise not to continue mining efforts during his term (which ends next year). None of the police were tried for the alleged human rights abuses.

With the mining threat temporarily subdued, the Ngäbe have turned their attention to the Barro Blanco dam, which they claim will flood several towns and displace up to 36,000 people. They additionally claim that they were never properly consulted or given a choice in the matter. The Panamanian government and GENISA, the company responsible for the construction, claim that no displacement or destruction of native species will occur. The facts surrounding the true environmental impact are highly disputed and difficult to verify, but it seems clear that the true number of affected people probably lays somewhere between 0 and 36,000 – a fairly ridiculous range.  

Al Jazeera did a special “People and Power” report on the situation last year, which is clearly biased in favor of the indigenous; GENISA claims that it contains “inconsistencies” and that Al Jazeera never contacted them for comment.

However, the report does highlight a dubious validation process that barely included indigenous participation or consultation, a process which has since been questioned by the International Rivers Network, as well as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who claims that only 58 non-indigenous near the dam’s affected area were interviewed; these 58 were used as the basis for validation of the project.

As a Peace Corps volunteer who lived with the Ngäbe for two years and experienced the protests first-hand, I can tell you that the Ngäbe are certainly motivated by the potential environmental impacts of these projects, many of which threaten to ruin their way of life. But they are almost just as motivated by a simple desire to be treated with respect. As more projects are proposed, the Ngäbe continue to be treated not as adversely affected citizens, but as obstacles to development.

The Panamanian government plans to add 30 more hydro projects by 2016, several of which will affect indigenous territory. The mining issue may be dormant for now, but I guarantee that it will resurface after the next election.

Before the next development project on or affecting indigenous territory, the Panamanian government should define a protocol for including the indigenous in their validation processes, as well as compensate them for the inevitable environmental damage to their land. While this sounds earthy-crunchy, it would simply be more efficient for the government. They would not have to spend time and money quelling protests and addressing the United Nations, and they could use the ensuing stability to attract more foreign investors.

If not, we will be hearing about many more abuses in the next few years.