World Water Day Marked By Death of Indigenous Anti-Dam Protester

Katy Yan
M10 protest on the Pan-American Highway, 2011
M10 protest on the Pan-American Highway, 2011
Photo: Richard Arghiris

On March 22 – World Water Day – a Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous man named Onesimo Rodriguez was found murdered, his body left in a nearby stream, after attending a protest rally against the 28.84 MW Barro Blanco Hydroelectric Project in western Panama. According to Manolo Miranda, a leader of the Moviemiento 10 de Abril (or M10) – a resistance movement that has grown out of years of protest against the project and includes over 500 Ngäbe and campesinos defending the Tabasará River – the 20-year-old and a companion were viciously attacked by four masked men at a bus stop after participating in a protest rally in the nearby town of Cerro Punta. Onesimo's companion was badly beaten but was able to escape.

While the police say the death was due to drunkenness, the M10 leaders have openly accused the police of orchestrating the murder. Tensions have been mounting in recent years as the dam draws closer to completion, despite the unresolved issues around the dam's impacts and the poor stakeholder consultation processes led by the project's proponents.

As far back as the 1970s, the Ngäbe-Bugle indigenous people have been fighting to protect the Tabasará River and the lands belonging to them from destructive dams and mining projects. Among these threats, the Barro Blanco Dam has been accused of human rights abuses and a lack of consultation with the local Ngäbe-Bugle communities, whose territory is protected under Panama's Constitution and under international commitments on indigenous rights signed by Panama, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In 2011 and 2012, the M10 and their supporters managed to block the Pan-American Highway and occupy the dam site. The government has responded in a number of cases with violence and by militarizing the area around the Barro Blanco Dam.

Who's Involved?

The company building the dam is the Generating of Istmo SA (GENISA), and the funders of the project are the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the German Investment and Development Corporation, and the Netherlands Development Finance CompanyIn late 2010, groups from across Panama and Europe were successful in prompting an investigation by the European Investment Bank (EIB) into human rights abuses, since the EIB was considering funding the project as well. In light of a possible EIB visit, GENISA quickly pulled their EIB loan request. In the meantime, they have also secured approval for carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), though no credits buyers have been found for this controversial project.

The Ngäbe community of Kiad.
The Ngäbe community of Kiad.
Photo: Rick Gerharter

All of the funders involved continue to stand behind the claims by GENISA that the Barro Blanco Dam would have a negligible impact on local indigenous communities, despite a United Nations report that found against the dam company and confirmed that the projected reservoir would drown the land and villages of the Ngäbe people.

What Would Be Lost?

The Barro Blanco Dam is projected to flood 258 hectares of fertile land, as well as homes, schools, and churches belonging to the Ngäbe-Bugle people and the local campesino population. The reservoir would also drown boulders covered with petroglyphs important to the Ngäbe culture, and force the local people to move onto steep slopes along the river valley away from the rich fluvial riverbanks from which they produce the majority of their food. The project would devastate large swaths of primary and secondary forests along the banks of the Tabasará River, which harbor highly endangered amphibians such as the Tabasará rain frog.

As the project nears completion, tensions on the ground are rising, and the local communities need the attention and support of the international community more than ever. I urge you to stand with the Ngäbe-Bugle people of Panama and their allies from around the world by signing this community petition to those involved in financing and building the Barro Blanco Dam. 

Watch a documentary of the Ngäbe communities that depend on the Tabasará River:

Slideshow of the May 2011 protest on the Pan-American Highway, courtesy of Richard Arghiris:


More information: 
Thursday, April 4, 2013