Panama's Indigenous Ngäbes Protest Hydroelectric Green Energy Projects


“It was not nice work, but given the pattern of the country's development, it had to be done.” - John Steinbeck, East of Eden

After an early February victory against proposed mining projects, the indigenous Ngäbes (pronounced naw-bey) continue to struggle to prevent construction of hydroelectric dams that could negatively impact their environment. Negotiations continue, now with UN involvement, but it seems unlikely the Ngäbes will be able to stop hydroelectric construction much longer.

The struggle of one indigenous group in one small Central American country may seem irrelevant in the face of more publicized world issues, like Jeremy Lin, but their fight represents a consistent human choice to sacrifice the environment in favor of economic development.

Hydro in Panama

Panama's government has its sights on 31 hydro projects by 2013, including seven near the borders of indigenous territory. The government claims that the projects will reduce national energy costs and increase national income through export. However, these have proved inadequate motivators for the indigenous of whom only 1% have electricity and who already do not trust the government to compensate them for absorbing the potential environmental impacts. 

While it is difficult to say exactly what negative impacts will result, previous hydro projects on indigenous land in Panama resulted in displacement due to flooding, increased mosquito breeding grounds (in a country with a dengue problem) and submersion of trees, vegetation and farmland.

World Demand

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy (which includes hyrdo) is the fastest growing form of energy and will grow from 10% to 14% of total world consumption by the year 2035. In particular, it is the fastest growing source of electricity generation. 55% percent of this renewable energy growth will come from hydroelectric power, which means building hydroelectric dams.

Hydroelectric dams have many benefits, including: a long service life (from 50-100 years), relatively low power costs, and low CO2 emissions. Additionally, they are indeed a renewable source of energy, as they rely on the cycle of evaporation and rainfall.

Drawbacks of hydroelectric include: methane emissions, siltration, relocation and eco-system damage. The Ngäbes seem particularly concerned with relocation and eco damage associated with upstream submersion.

Opposing Views

In early March, after violent February protests turned deadly for the indigenous, the United Nations offered to moderate the discussions and the negotiations progressed slowly, as the Ngäbes want nothing less than NO hydroelectric projects and the Panamanian government is already basically committed to building them. On Friday, March 16th, the government agreed not to build one project, but talks continue.

Tempted by lower energy prices and annoyed at the constant threat of roadblocks, support from non-indigenous Panamanians has declined. With only 1% of the Comarca connected to powerlines and the people officially classified as “extremely poor,” vague promises of payment and electrification have created divisions among Ngäbe leaders as well.

All of this considered, the most likely outcome is that most of the proposed dams will be built.

Supporters of the hydro projects typically peg the Ngäbes as cavemen trying to impede progress. After all, we are talking about green energy projects to increase national revenues.

Supporters of the Ngäbes typically vilify the government for sacrificing the environment in the name of economic development.

However, to blame the Panamanian government is incomplete and irresponsible. Human history is a catalog of consistent decisions to sacrifice our environment in the name of development. If you doubt that, just pick up UCLA professor Jared Diamond's excellent book Collapse to see that civilizations have gone as far as killing themselves (albeit unintentionally) in order to continue developing.

Further, vilifying the Panamanian government ignores the fact that it is a democratically elected government, representing the people and replying to an international demand for energy. 


When the time comes to relocate someone and exploit their resources, the indigenous have historically been an easy target, but the truth is, the resource demand will eventually be met somewhere and a win for the Ngäbes in Panama in March would simply mean a “loss” for somebody else in April.

Really, we regular citizens are more responsible for these environmental sacrifices than any political leader with an environmental exploitation agenda; we demand and consume energy at unsustainable rates (at least, according to Professor Diamond) and then wag our fingers at those who propose new energy development projects. Unless we make sacrifices in our lifestyles and energy demands, we will have to continue sacrificing the environment to sustain ourselves.

The Ngäbes consume almost no energy and yet are literally dying for the cause. What kind of sacrifice are you willing to make for sustainability?