According to indigenous leaders, the project would directly affect 270 persons living near the Tabasará River basin. Another 3,000 people who depend on the river for various activities would also be indirectly affected.
From 2010 to 2014, the construction of the project triggered a series of violent confrontations between the government and the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples. The GENISA company has also brought a criminal lawsuit against indigenous leaders after a violent protest ensued in February 2014.
The Barro Blanco hydroelectric project is being built by the Generadora del Istmo S.A. company (GENISA) on the Tabasará River, Tolé district, in the eastern part of Chiriquí province in Panama. The construction gave rise in June 2010 to a series of violent confrontations between the national Government and the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples. This was triggered by approval of Law 30 of 2010 which reduced requirements for environmental impact studies in projects of this nature and eliminated citizen consultation. This provoked enormous opposition and discontent in broad societal sectors, above all among indigenous peoples, leading to demonstrations and violent protests.
Lack of public consultation
The project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was challenged by the Environmental Advocacy Center (CIAM) in 2011 before the third division of the Supreme Court of Justice, for its lack of any appropriate public consultation with adjoining communities belonging to the Ngäbe Buglé territory. Indigenous leaders said the Barro Blanco reservoir would directly affect 270 persons living near the Tabasará River basin and another three thousand indirectly who depend on the river for various activities. From 2010 to 2014, the conflict’s mishandling has led to several violent crisis situations.
On 25 January 2012, when violence intensified, the government decided to set up a dialogue, and the indigenous party requested involvement of the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur, along with other parties, as observers and guarantors of this process. The main focus of the discussion, centered on use of water resources in and around their territory reached no agreement. On 1 March 2012, there were new confrontations outside the National Assembly building between Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous people and internal security staff of the legislature, due to a demonstration demanding justice for the death of two comrades and the release of dozens of community members arrested in the violent actions in January and rejecting the hydropower projects pursued by the government.
The United Nations as facilitator
To resume dialogue, Ngäbe-Buglé representatives proposed a move to San Félix, whereas the government suggested moving the dialogue to the Catholic Church headquarters in the capital city. On 2 March 2012, the parties accepted the invitation by the Office of the Resident Coordinator of the UN in Panama to resume discussions at UN headquarters in Panama City. Further, the parties requested for the UN to facilitate the process.
Despite the agreements and certain actions that were taken (see Conflict Resolution), in February 2014 the indigenous protested violently in “resistance” and disagreement with the negotiations over the Tabasará River basin. The GENISA S.A. building company brought a criminal-law suit against the leaders for jeopardizing the hydropower project’s construction machinery and trespassing on private property. Ngäbe leaders were summoned this November (2014) by the multi-discipline municipal judge of Mûna, and notified in a public ceremony held in the community of Alto Caballero. The public notification in their own community was perceived by the indigenous as “persecution” and they refused to appear to make statements.
UN facilitator team
In 2012, the role of the UN in Panama as a facilitator entailed quickly organizing a team comprising the Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Panama, the Representative for Central America of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and specialists from the Regional Democratic Dialogue Project of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Regional Center for Latin America and the Caribbean. This facilitator team also received support from the environmental team of the UNDP Regional Center and the country office, to advise them on technical issues and coordinate organization and logistics.
Several dialogue meetings were held, resulting in the formation of two sub-groups to better focus on discussion topics: one to jointly draft a new Article 5 for Law 415 about mining concessions in the Ngäbe-Buglé land; and the other to review the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project. On 15 March 2012, the first group reached an agreement among the parties regarding an article that was submitted to the Assembly and unanimously approved. The other group reached a procedural agreement to jointly investigate in order to viably address the conflict over the Barro Blanco project.
UN acknowledgement of the lack of consultation
The group reviewing the hydroelectric project had experts conduct a technical study of the zone up to the altitude of 103 meters (the reservoir’s water line) around the indigenous territory. These specialists were engaged by the United Nations to contribute impartial information to the dialogue. In their report, they stated that “the failure to adequately conduct the consultation about the Barro Blanco project has created a situation of fear and extreme anxiety among local people. The direct and indirect impacts have not been clearly explained and certainly may affect the community, so they must be mitigated” (UNDP, 2013).
Dam construction shelved
The report backed the indigenous position, and they resumed pressure, holding sit-ins outside the project, to which the security forces responded to protect the facilities. By late 2014, construction was 64% complete and the GENISA Company has stated that they will abide strictly by the Constitution and the Law in continuing. The situation suddenly changed on February 10, 2015 as the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) of Panama temporarily shelved the construction of the dam for non-compliance with environmental and human rights (IC Magazine, 2015).