A new round of negotiations will begin on March 27 over Panama’s $225 million Barro Blanco hydroelectric project—now 95 percent complete, but the source of a long-standing feud between the Generadora del Istmo S.A. (GENISA) company, the contractor for the dam, and the Ngäbe Buglé Indigenous group, which is vehemently opposed to the project due to environmental concerns.
After a wave of local protests stalled construction work on February 9, the Panamanian government launched negotiations with GENISA and Indigenous communities on February 21. The government has since agreed to investigate alleged environmental violations committed by GENISA, including the mismanagement of solid and hazardous waste and failure to coordinate the use of explosives and flammable substances with the fire department.
GENISA is a Panamanian company created specifically for the construction of the Barro Blanco dam. The project has been financed through equity capital, as well as loans provided by the German Investment Corporation (DEG), the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).
The talks are being led by a high-level committee headed by Panamanian Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado, and facilitated by the UN in the district of Tolé, 400 kilometers west of Panama City. Other committee members include Security Minister Rodolfo Aguilera, Interior Minister Milton Henriquez, Labor Minister Luis Ernesto Carles, and Minister for the Environment Mirei Endara.However, the president of the Regional Congress of the Ngäbe Buglé Indigenous group, Toribio García, announced in late February that he will not join the talks, and said that the community’s opposition to the dam was “not negotiable.”
“Some comrades who are being manipulated and who agree with the negotiations [will participate], but they do not represent the majority of the Ngäbe Buglé people,” said García.
Panamanian newspaper La Estrella has reported that the Ngäbe Buglé community is divided between those willing to reach a compromise with the government and GENISA and a faction led by García that is unwilling to negotiate unless the construction of the dam is suspended once and for all—on the grounds that there was no prior consultation with Indigenous communities in compliance with International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Panama ratified the convention in 2011.
The convention states, among other things, that governments should establish or maintain procedures to consult affected Indigenous communities “before undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation of […] resources pertaining to their lands.”
Failure to comply with the convention has caused recurring friction between the government and Indigenous communities in Panama and throughout the entire region.
While the dam itself is not located on Indigenous land, it could flood 5.6 acres of the Ngäbe Buglé autonomous territory or comarca during the rainy season, endangering the livelihoods of some 5,000 farmers who rely on the river for potable water, agriculture and fishing, critics say. Environmentalists are also concerned that primary forest will be cut down, destroying the habitat of the endangered Tabasará rain frog.
The Ngäbe Buglé people also object to the fact that a pre-Columbian petroglyph located on the Tabasará riverbed will be flooded. The petroglyph is listed as a protected archaeological site and is sacred to the syncretic Mama Tadta church that many members of the community belong to.
Five rounds of talks regarding the dam have already taken place, despite the Ngäbe Buglé leaders’ absence from the negotiations. On March 13, the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) recommended that an inspection should be carried out and that GENISA should take appropriate measures to prevent flooding and pollution of the Tabasará River.
All parties taking part in the negotiations also agreed that experts from the National Institute of Culture (INAC) and the Indigenous and Campesino Commission would carry out a study to assess the impact of the project on pre-Columbian archaeological sites. They also agreed that local communities’ ancestral forms of government, religious organization and language should be respected, that all written agreements would be disseminated in Spanish and Ngäbere, and that the communities affected by the dam would be consulted.
However, the high-level committee leading the talks has not provided details as to what kind of consultation would be carried out and whether the project—which is already 95 percent complete—would be scrapped if the community rejects it.