The Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam is a controversial project that Few for Change has been following since 2012. The project, approved by the UN's Clean Development Mechanism, aims to dam the Tabasara River to help meet the demands of Panama's increasing electricity needs. The dam is located very close to the reserved lands of the Ngöbe-Bugle Comarca, and its completion would flood lands within the Comarca, causing communities to relocate and destroying fishing grounds and other habitats. From the outset, indigenous communities were not adequately consulted on the project, and finally, now that the dam is well over half completed, the project has been temporarily suspended.
For over 15 years, opposition has been strong but protesters had been able to make little headway. In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples declared that the people impacted been inadequately consulted and that things must change for future projects. Last year, a complaint was filed with an independent grievance mechanism set up by one of the banks funding the project, Dutch development bank FMO. The complaint was under review as of summer 2014, but little has been heard since.
This time, Panama's own government has decided to put the project on hold. ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente), the country's National Environmental Authority, has suspended the project due to non-compliance with the environmental impact assessment (EIA). An investigation revealed lack of consultation and inadequacies in agreements made with indigenous communities, and no plan for dealing with archaeological resources. There were also several occasions of environmental mismanagement, including logging without permission, erosion and sedimentation issues, and improper handling of solid and hazardous waste.
Next steps remain uncertain, as the project is already mostly complete, but indigenous leaders maintain a staunch perspective:
"During 15 years of opposition to the Barro Blanco project, we have exposed violations of our human rights and irregularities in the environmental proceedings. Those claims were never heard," said Weni Bagama from the Movimiento 10 de Abril (M-10). "Today we are satisfied to see that the national authorities have recognized them and have suspended the project, as a first step towards dialogue. Nevertheless, we continue to uphold the communities’ position that the cancelation of this project is the only way to protect our human rights and our territory. We hope that this sets an example for the international community and for other hydroelectric projects, not only in Panama but worldwide."
Stay tuned for updates as we await additional information. Time will tell if this is a victory for indigenous rights, or just too little too late.
Press Release. AIDA Environmental Law for the Americas. February 10, 2015. http://www.aida-americas.org/en/release/un-registered-barro-blanco-hydroelectric-dam-temporarily-suspended