Dams Threaten Biodiversity and Indigenous People in Panama

by Monti Aguirre
Saturday, December 15, 2007

This rainy season, a mushy mess is sliding down the Changuinola River Valley. Huge Volvo machines are tearing up old mountain roads, causing tons of chocolate-brown run-off to flow into nearby streams. The giant machines, operated by Panamanians and other Latinos, are opening new roads for the construction of the first of four large dams planned for this basin. About 100 new houses are being built for the dam's laborers, and a dozen finer homes for the project managers from Vattenfall, a Swedish construction company.

The explosion of dam construction in Latin America has not escaped Panama, which recently gave concessions to a subsidiary of US-based AES Corporation to build three dams on the mainstem of the Changuinola River. The concession for the Bonyic Dam on the Bonyic River was granted to a Colombian utility. The installed capacity for all projects would be 446 MW, or almost a third of the installed capacity in Panama. The project would feed the national electricity grid, which in turn feeds the regional grid.

All of these dams would be located downstream from the La Amistad International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Environmentalists fear the risks and impacts would be manifold and immeasurable for the biologically rich ecosystems found at the park. The park stretches across Panama and Costa Rica from the coral reefs of the Caribbean Sea to the peaks of the Talamanca mountain range. Cloud forests, coral reefs, mangroves and paramos (a high elevation neotropical ecosystem) are found in the park. The varied ecosystems support an abundance of animal life, including jaguars, peccaries, white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys, tapirs, anteaters, sloths, armadillos, pacas and agoutis. More than 300 species of birds and more than 110 fish species are found in the area.

Construction of the lowest Changuinola dam alone would biologically deplete over 500 miles of streams, and the Bonyic dam would permanently impact more than 100 miles of stream habitat. One of the greatest dangers posed by the walls of cement is that they will impede the natural migration of fish, and alter the level and quality of water vital to the reproduction of many species.

Bill McLarney, an ichthyologist and Director of the Stream Biomonitoring Program at Asociación ANAI in Costa Rica, has been studying North and Central American stream ecosystems for 45 years. He warns, “The effects upstream and downstream from the dams would be drastic, possibly involving the extirpation of eight to ten species of migratory fish and several species of shrimps. Remove them and the river system becomes something completely different and much less useful as a human food source."

These lands along the rivers are also home to close to 4,000 Ngobe and Naso indigenous communities. For years these communities have remained relatively isolated, semi-autonomous and largely self-sufficient. But these indigenous communities are vulnerable in that they lack communal land titles, and have for years been fighting to obtain them.

“Blocking the river will flood vast areas where we live; we would have to move our homes, families, crops, animals, and our lives. … Where would be go? The plans for resettlement are already creating divisions and conflicts among our families. Why is it that we are obliged to go? Why is it that we should lose our peace?” wrote the Ngobe in a recent letter to AES.

Although AES, which has its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia and operates in half a dozen countries, states in its company profile that it has made a commitment to be environmentally responsible, it has found growing opposition by local and international groups to its dam projects on the Changuinola, and in other countries.

Corporate responsibility?

Earlier this year, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in association with indigenous communities, Panamanian organizations, and other NGOs wrote to AES and its shareholders to stop their involvement in the three Changuinola dams.

“The dams would put at risk an internationally renowned World Heritage site and would negatively impact indigenous communities, future tourism in Panama, and many threatened and endangered species,” said Peter Galvin from the CBD.

In April 2007, CBD and more than 30 other groups also filed a Petition to the World Heritage Centre to list La Amistad Park as an endangered World Heritage site. As a result, the Centre and IUCN are planning a mission to investigate the threats to the park in early 2008. The Committee stated that it regrets that Panama did not report the existence of the proposed hydroelectric projects to the World Heritage Centre as required under the World Heritage Convention.

According to the local NGO Association for Conservation and Development, the dam projects' environmental impact studies were flawed. They lacked baseline data, a rigorous archaeological reconnaissance, and did not include a thorough resettlement plan for the displaced population. Furthermore, the public consultation was conducted far from affected communities for whom transportation is difficult and costly. Project works were not supposed to start until further required studies were presented to the national authorities. Yet in October, Isabel Becker, an affected person, was forcibly relocated by police from her property where the dam wall would sit.

“…(T)he projects … would cause environmental damage in an area of global conservation interest and impose serious hardships on indigenous communities living along these rivers”, concludes a financial and economic analysis of the projects conducted by the Conservation Strategy Fund. “This is a clear case of an investment that may well be economically efficient, but will be inequitable. This analysis shows that an energy company, lenders and the government will reap the benefits of the projects, while the costs will fall disproportionately on particular indigenous communities and on the natural ecosystems surrounding them.”

In addition to the four dams mentioned, four more are proposed in the basin. Panama's rivers, like so many of Latin America's rivers, face rampant, unplanned development that threatens rich ecosystem and the people who depend on them.