Panama People Resist Hydroelectric Projects

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Benjamin Shors, Special to the Miami Herald - CHARCO LA PAVA, Panama

For months now, the widow has clung to her tiny shack in this picturesque village above the Changuinola River - even when local officials and hydroelectric workers said she must leave, even when a bulldozer roared into her yard in the summer."I will not go," insists Isabel Becker, 59, a diminutive Ngobe Indian who lives in a dirt-floored home. "If the company wants to send police to kill me, go ahead."

In the northern mountains of Panama, two worlds are colliding as the region's fastest growing economy pushes to develop hydroelectric projects in rural river valleys where poor, indigenous farmers have lived for generations.

Nearly 90 hydroelectric projects are proposed in this country, part of a massive effort to wean the booming economy from its dependence on foreign energy - which accounts for more than two-thirds of the country's use.

While some of the projects will never be built, others are expected to go online in the coming months, and crews have begun work on a 1,100-mile transmission line that will allow the companies to sell electricity across Central America, from Panama to southern Mexico.

Conservation and human rights groups have seized on the issue, saying the dams will devastate aquatic life in the rivers and destroy the culture of some of Panama's surviving indigenous groups.

"Never in our country's history has the relocation of an indigenous population so flagrantly disregarded individual and collective human rights," the Alliance for Conservation and Development, a Panamanian nonprofit group, said in a news release last month.

Contrasting Views

Becker and other Ngobe villagers contend the Changuinola project will displace thousands of villagers and create a 3,500-acre lake in a wilderness area bordering Central America's largest tract of virgin rain forest. AES, the Virginia-based power company behind the project, says only 140 families will have to be relocated.

"We are an active member of the communities in which we work and are committed to improving the quality of life of the people in Panama as well as protecting the environment," an AES statement said.

Even among opponents of the dams, there is little doubt that Panama needs more electricity to keep pace with its economy, which grew more than 8 percent last year.

The question, critics say, is how much and on whose terms?

Darysbeth Martínez, director of climate change for Panama's National Environmental Agency, said the government recognizes the need to quickly and responsibly develop its power resources.

"The environment plays the most important role for sustainable development and tourism in Panama," Martínez said. "We have asked these companies to comply with the environmental laws, and we have provided them with the newest, cleanest technology to apply."

Four of the dams - including AES' three proposed dams on the Changuinola River - sit within a few miles of the border of La Amistad International Peace Park, a World Heritage site that stretches from northern Panama into southern Costa Rica.

The controversy has attracted the attention of U.S. conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the World Heritage Committee to list the park as "in danger" this spring. The center's attorneys argue the dams will create barriers to dozens of species of fish in the park's rivers, sending ripples up the food chain to birds, reptiles and mammals.

"The hydroelectric projects will be the beginning of the end for the park," said Ariel Rodriguez, an assistant biology professor at the University of Panama. "Beyond the environmental impacts to these species, we also need to consider the morality of occupying this pristine zone and how it will impact the indigenous people living there."

In the cloud forests of the Talamanca Mountains near the Costa Rican border, the controversy has driven a wedge into the tiny Naso indigenous group, which claims to be the last kingdom in the Americas.

King Forced to Flee

Almost three years ago, in a midnight coup, hundreds of Naso people deposed then-king Tito Santana for supporting a 30-megawatt dam on tribal lands, forcing him to flee down river.

"I must fight for the land so that our children, in the future, will have a place," said Valentin Santana, 61, who has claimed the title of king and rallied the Naso to protest the project proposed by a Colombian power company. "My people have grown here. We have lived here. And we will die here."

The power companies contend the projects can funnel money into education, healthcare and job opportunities for the Naso and Ngobe. Construction on the AES project alone will bring 3,000 temporary jobs, the majority for unskilled local laborers, the company said.

Others remain skeptical.

"The Naso, in particular, are an endangered people," said Hector Huertas, an attorney with the Center for Peoples' Legal Aid, a Panamanian law firm that specializes in indigenous rights. "If the dam is built, their land will disappear and, little by little, their traditional life will be lost."

For the Ngobe farmers living in villages above the Changuinola, the conflict came to a head earlier this year, when workers from an AES subsidiary arrived at the home of Isabel Becker. She and her family said they believed the company was going to compensate her for damage that workers had allegedly caused to a grove of fruit trees.

Instead, Becker and two family members allege that AES employees in Panama City badgered her to relinquish the rights to her land, holding her in a meeting room for more than 12 hours. Becker said that after midnight, she affixed her thumbprint to a document surrendering the rights to her property in return for $9,500, plus a $100 monthly payment that will continue until Becker has established a new farm to feed her family.

The document was written in Spanish, but Becker speaks only Ngobe and cannot read or write.

AES did not respond to questions about the meeting and declined to make Humberto A. Gonzales, the company's project director, available for an interview.

Becker said she did not understand the document and will not leave her home. "I was naive and put my thumb on this document," she said. "I did not know what it meant. I made the first mistake, but I will not sign any other documents."
Join the discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.